Italy’s foreign policy will stay the course, but the economy remains its Achilles heel – CEPS
Giorgia Meloni, the far-right leader who was just elected Italian Prime Minister, has a the story of pro-Russian sentiment. As her Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy – FdI) party prepares to form a government, some fear she is orchestrating a radical change in the country’s foreign policy.
While Meloni recently reiterated that Italy must “support loyally‘ Ukraine and remains united with the EU against Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, the inconsistencies with his previous positions make it difficult to take his comments at face value. Does Meloni’s election mean that Italy is about to regain its reputation as a friend of Russia and China within the EU?
In reality, Meloni is unlikely to stray too far from common EU and transatlantic policies in the short term. vis à vis Russia and China as it consolidates its power. Italy, after all, has always aligned itself with decisions from Brussels.
However, with Italy’s economy facing a cost-of-living crisis and Meloni’s coalition partners Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi well known for their closeness to Russia, the country’s stance could indeed change significantly. more subtle.
Italy as an EU Trojan Horse
Historically, Italy has been considered a “Trojan horse” for Chinese and, in particular, Russian influence. The country has always been considered one of the main defenders in the EU for dialogue and cooperation with Russia, a position which has sometimes earned it criticism from other EU Member States. That the entire election campaign was marred by accusations of Russian interference – through espionage, disinformation and illegal party funds – supports this view.
What has made Rome so friendly over the years is not so much its cultural and historical ties with Moscow, based on myth of Moscow as “the Third Rome”, the historic center of the Italian Communist Party proximity to the Soviet Union, and past and recent musical and artistic exchanges but rather Italy’s desire to play a strong “mediator” role and to do business with a powerful and friendly energy company. This has been the real engine of Italy-Russia relations.
While Meloni has distanced himself from Russia since the start of the invasion by asserting his solidarity with Ukraine, this has not always been his position.
Echoing conservative narratives from the Kremlin, in its 2021 autobiography ‘Io Georgiashe defines Russia as “part of our European system of values” and a “defender of Christian identity” fighting against Islamic fundamentalism. She has sentenced EU economic sanctions against Russia numerous times from 2014 to shortly before February 2022, arguing that Italy should defend its companies of the damaging policy of Brussels.
Meloni’s “new Atlanticism” can be part of a real evolution towards more moderate positions in a cynical effort to reinforce his “traditional references” and present his party as composed of moderates capable of governing. This raises questions about what foreign policies she might adopt in the future.
Meloni in bad company
Meloni may also be influenced by internal factors and, in particular, the pro-Russian positions of her coalition partners.
Berlusconi has a strong friendship with Putin and, in an interview published a few days before the Italian elections, claims that the Russian president “just wanted to replace the government of Volodymyr Zelensky with ‘honest people’”, causing a national and international outcry. Salvini, like Meloni, was accused to receive illegal Russian funds, and continued to criticize sanctions, arguing that they are ineffective and that they harm Italian companies.
Underlining this, on October 14, Lorenzo Fontana, the ultra-conservative and traditionalist politician of the League known for his pro-Putin sympathies, was duly elected Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.
On the contrary, the coalition is more likely to take a harder line towards China than Russia. Berlusconi has often voiced fears about Beijing’s rapid political and economic rise recently. arguing that European countries must protect themselves from China. He also claimed that communism brought countries “only poverty, terror and death”.
Salvini also expressed concerns about China’s possible economic and military expansionism. High-level League politicians such as Gian Marco Centinaio and marco Dreosto have supported and traveled to Taiwan many times.
When the League-Five Star Movement coalition signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in March 2019 – the only G7 country to do so – Salvini, then Italian Deputy Prime Minister , warned against risk of China “colonizing” Italian markets and allegedly refused to meet President Xi during his visit to Rome in 2019.
In the aftermath, Meloni’s firm position vis-à-vis China already seems to be taking shape. In September she suggested that it would tackle the “unfair” Chinese trade practices that the FdI insists harms Italian manufacturers.
Italy’s economic vulnerability
More than the sympathies of his partners, however, economic interests may be the key factor in shaping Meloni’s foreign policy. She presented herself as the so-called defender of Italian “interests”, interests which are undermined by a growing sense of “war fatigue” and high energy prices. Confindustria, Italy’s main industrial association, has estimateed that Gas price hikes could cost Italy 3.2% GDP growth and 582,000 jobs in 2022-23.
If utility prices – and, therefore, voter discontent – rise too much, Meloni might be tempted to offer Russia concessions, such as active opposition to any new rounds of EU sanctions, in return. cheaper gas through bilateral negotiations. It could also potentially form an alliance with Hungary, the EU member state most favorable to Russia. Meloni’s coalition partners would likely favor such an approach.
But fears of a sea change in Rome’s foreign policy are probably overblown. Italy’s choices are unlikely to completely contradict its most powerful partners because the transatlantic alliance remains a corner stone of the country’s strategic thinking.
However, a nascent cost-of-living crisis and tensions within the coalition may offer small cracks that the Kremlin might be tempted to exploit. Given the current political climate and economic uncertainty, Meloni’s victory is the best results the Kremlin might have hoped.
Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti is a research fellow at ISPI’s Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Center and a CEPS participant Mega-regions and European security project.