The conflict in Ukraine has brought the world, and Europe in particular, to a turning point. In the coming months the destinies of both the EU and NATO will be determined. The outcome could depend on the position Italy takes. Should the Italian government continue with its current foreign policies, both the EU and NATO are likely to survive. If Italy leaves either, or even distances itself from them in favour of closer alignment to the BRICS countries, this decision could lead to their collapse, hastening the birth of a multipolar world order. By switching its allegiances, Italy played a decisive role in the outcomes of both the First and Second World Wars. It could change world history again. But first, a little history.
In 1902 German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow famously described Italy’s foreign policy as being one of ‘waltz turns’, by which he meant that its government could flirt with other countries but never really change partners. Italy had been part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1882. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Italy sought to bargain its non-participation against its allies in exchange for territorial concessions of areas containing majority Italian-speaking populations, in particular Trieste, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dissatisfied with the response, Italy switched sides in 1915 and joined the Triple Entente with France and Great Britain. Its participation contributed to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919.
In 1939 Italy was faced with a similar dilemma. Benito Mussolini, its leader, had the choice of joining the war with its Axis ally Germany or remaining neutral in exchange for concessions from the Allies. He dallied for nine months before entering the war on Germany’s side in June 1940. By July 1943 Italy had been invaded from the south. Mussolini was dismissed, and once again Italy’s government switched sides to become a co-belligerent with the Allies. Its participation in the war arguably diluted the German war effort by dragging the Mediterranean and the Balkans into the conflict, and hastened Germany’s defeat.
Although some patronisingly attributed Italy’s apparent inconstancy to the national character and others to its economic weakness relative to the Great Powers of the time, in particular Great Britain, France and Germany, the primary reason for it was geostrategic. Italy is a peninsula with its north attached to the European continent at the Alps and its south almost acting as an island in the strategic centre of the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the modern era the north was progressively absorbed into northern European economic and political systems while the south, having to contend with the Ottoman monopoly over the sea, atrophied.
This divergence accelerated after unification in 1861, partly because of economic policy and partly because the colonial land grab by the other European powers at the expense of African and Middle Eastern countries deprived the south of its historical hinterland. Initially, Italian governments sought to correct this imbalance by becoming part of the Triple Alliance. By securing the country’s northern borders, this alliance allowed Italy to embark on colonial adventures, notably the failed first invasion of Ethiopia in 1895–96 and the conquest of Libya in 1911. In the First World War, Italy’s switch to the Triple Entente then enabled it to annex Trieste. When Mussolini came to power in 1922, his foreign policy was torn between the two options: expanding Italy’s continental ambitions, particularly in the Balkans, or its colonial empire in Africa. One could argue that his inability to prioritise one over the other contributed to Italy’s defeat in the Second World War. However, Italy’s capitulation in 1943 also represented a move away from a Mediterranean-focused policy to a continental one to preserve the country’s heartland.
The post-Second World War order has been more durable than the previous one, largely due to the tutelage of the United States and the Soviet Union, which guaranteed the viability of the newly founded United Nations. Within Europe this global process had its parallel in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, followed by the European Economic Community in 1958 and the EU in 1993. Italy has been a member of and has played a leading role in the establishment of all three, with old nationalist rivalries largely set aside in this process.
The consolidation of the EU came about under the defence umbrella provided by the North Atlantic Treaty signed by a number of European powers, including Italy, in 1949, with the purpose of defending Western Europe from the Soviet Union. This later became NATO. The EU and NATO have represented the pillars of Italy’s continental strategy. However, these mainstays have recently begun to show cracks under the strain of the Ukraine–Russia conflict. The EU has been imposing increasingly stringent sanctions against Russian imports since 2014. These increased following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in February 2022. The NATO alliance, of which Italy has been a key member since its inception, has also provided Ukraine with military assistance.
These measures have forced Italy into a familiar strategic dilemma: should it continue with an EU and NATO oriented foreign policy focused on the European land mass in the face of possible ruin, or seek its energy sources and economic future via the Mediterranean Sea?
Mussolini’s heir, Giorgia Meloni, is the leader of the Brothers of Italy Party, which gained the most votes in Italy’s national elections held on 25 September 2022; she became Italy’s first female prime minister in October. Her party has neofascist roots, is Eurosceptic and pro-Russian. To forestall criticism that it is anti-EU and anti-NATO, Meloni has affirmed her fealty to both; in contrast, her coalition partners, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the Forza Italia Party, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League Party, have both made pro-Russian statements.
What has largely been ignored is how Meloni rode to power on the strength of one slogan repeated above all others: ‘The Free Ride is Over’ [my translation]. What does this mean? It is addressed to external audiences as well as a domestic one. Meloni, who has questioned the EU’s legal sovereignty over Italy and is warning Italy’s EU partners that they will no longer be able to secure a ‘free ride’ at the expense of Italy’s sovereign interests.
Since the Second World War, Italy has mainly followed a continental foreign policy, focused on integrating politically and economically with other European countries. This led to an industrial boom, particularly in the north of the country, while the Mediterranean part of Italy languished. Among its member nations, Italians became the most favourable to integration with the EU. Possibly this reflected a lack of confidence in their own state’s ability to govern the country well.
How then has Meloni come to her anti-EU stance? The reason is the Euro. Since it began circulating in 2002, Italian living standards and wages have dropped while the cost of living has increased substantially. Entire sectors of Italy’s industrial base have delocalised to other countries. Mass layoffs, the abolition of the lifetime employment guarantee and low birth-rates have weakened the family unit. Foreign buyers now own 40 per cent of Italy’s large public debt, which has grown to become larger than the country’s yearly GDP. Keeping within the stringent fiscal parameters laid down in the EU’s 1998 Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) has become a political obsession, justifying a string of technocratic governments’ monetarist policies that have further compressed living standards. Today, almost one fifth of the population is on or below the poverty line.
There are a few bright spots in Italy’s economy, but these mostly lie in the BRICS camp. Italy’s trade with Russia was one of them. Until 2021, Russia supplied 40 per cent of Italy’s gas—its principal source of electricity generation. Another positive development has been trade with China. As of 2019 Italy was China’s third largest buyer and fourth largest supplier of goods. It was also the third largest destination for Chinese foreign investment. The final bright spot is Italy’s trade with the Mediterranean countries, accounting for over 22 per cent of its energy imports. As of 2016, Italy was the fourth largest exporter to the region, after China, the United States and Germany. In 2021, Italy relied on Libya and Algeria for over 30 per cent of its gas imports. Italy’s reliance on energy imports from this region will grow as imports from Russia decrease.
After Germany and France, Italy is the third largest economy in the Eurozone. Due to COVID, the EU suspended the SGP in May 2020 for an indefinite period. In March 2022, the Italian government called for the suspension to be continued because of the situation in Ukraine. Italy’s government debt to GDP ratio is currently over 155 per cent, well beyond the 60 per cent stipulated in the SGP. The country would default if the EU stopped funding its public debt. But under current circumstances, for how long would this support be forthcoming? Should Italy withdraw permanently from the SGP, the Euro would cease to be a viable currency. Some analysts believe that if Italy defaulted, the future of the EU itself would be at stake.
Enrico Colombatto, a professor of economics, has suggested that Italy would be better off seeking financial rescue from China in exchange for some strategic assets, in particular, access to the port of Trieste. A move towards stronger links with China would imply a shift in Italy’s foreign policy from a continental focus to a Mediterranean one.
EU sanctions against Russia have increased the cost of gas and pulverised Euro exchange rates, both further depressing living standards in Italy and increasing manufacturing costs. Italy’s gas prices have thus increased by a factor of five since 2021, prices of food and other essential goods have increased between 10 and 25 per cent, and its economy could be facing approximately a 5 per cent drop in GDP next year.
Public opinion in Italy is split over the sanctions, with the Brothers of Italy’s constituency the most opposed to them. In response, the Brothers of Italy platform states that the party intends to renegotiate Italy’s over €250 billion EU COVID recovery plan to mitigate energy costs. It also promises to cut taxes, increase support for ‘traditional’ families and introduce employment incentives.
Similar centrifugal economic pressures are already being visited on other European countries . Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has warned that as winter approaches, if energy prices are not reduced:
we are risking a massive deindustrialization of the European continent and the long-term consequences of that might actually be very deep … Our populations are getting invoices which are completely insane. At some point, it will snap. I understand that people are angry . . . people don’t have the means to pay it.
According to Indian ex-diplomat and commentator M. K. Bhadrakumar, ‘The plain truth is that the European integration project is over and done with’.
These economic woes have inevitably impacted Italy’s defence and foreign policy. Historically, its membership in NATO was strongly opposed by the Italian socialist and communist parties. Today, public opinion is still against the deployment of NATO forces except for strictly defensive purposes: in May, only 10 per cent agreed to NATO forces directly intervening in Ukraine. A poll in June revealed that 58 per cent of Italians are opposed to sending weapons to Ukraine, one of the highest percentages in Europe. This is not surprising; after all, Article 11 of Italy’s postwar Constitution states:
Italy repudiates war as an instrument of offence to the freedom of other peoples and as a means of resolving international disputes; it allows, on conditions of parity with other states, to the limitations of sovereignty necessary for an order that ensures peace and justice among nations. [my translation]
This opposition to war belies Italy’s pivotal role in NATO: the country hosts at least eight important NATO bases. Naples is the linchpin of the NATO Allied Joint Force Command, which includes the US Sixth Fleet. While NATO has provided Italy with a security blanket in continental Western Europe, it has been detrimental to Italy’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean.
The Italian government believes it shares common ground with countries in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa, and since the Second World War has espoused friendly policy towards them. One major reason for this has been its objective to ensure continuity of energy supply; another is to guarantee the viability of substantial Italian investment in those countries.
This policy has brought Italy into potential conflict with the United States on a number of occasions. During the Cold War there were three salient examples. In 1962, Enrico Mattei, CEO of the Italian state-run petroleum company AGIP and ‘neutralist’, or anti-NATO in his foreign policy stance, was killed in obscure circumstances after he challenged the Anglo-American ‘Seven Sisters’ oil cartel by buying oil from the Soviet Union and because he offered Middle Eastern producers, in particular Iran and Libya, a better deal to secure cheaper oil for Italy’s industrial boom. In 1985, in a stand-off at Sigonella in Sicily, Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi stopped US forces from arresting a Palestinian commando who had previously hijacked the Italian Achille Lauro liner. Ostensibly the Italian government wanted to protect its sovereignty. In reality, it wanted to continue its policy of support for Arab nations. In 1986 Craxi’s government warned Omar Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, that a US attack on the city of Tripoli was imminent, thereby saving his life.
With the end of the Cold War, the US alliance has become harder for Italy to factor into its foreign policy. Qaddafi’s rule in Libya collapsed in 2011, only three years after he and Italy’s then prime minister Berlusconi had signed a twenty-five-year ‘Friendship Treaty’ for reparations and infrastructure development worth 5 billion dollars, which made Italian energy giant ENI Libya’s preferred partner for energy extraction. Libya’s collapse was facilitated by Italy’s NATO allies, in particular France, whose interests in Libya conflicted with Italy’s. Meloni criticised France’s intervention at the time, claiming it was motivated by neocolonialism. The civil war that has ensued in Libya has seen Turkey and Italy pitted against France and Egypt. Currently the situation in Libya is in a state of flux, with alliances being broken and remade. ENI controls about 80 per cent of Libyan gas, which covers about 8 per cent of Italy’s total demand. In April 2022 Algeria replaced Russia as Italy’s leading source of gas through a pipeline named after Mattei.
Italy occupies a particularly strategic position, as pointed out by energy geopolitics and geoeconomics expert Pier Paolo Raimondi, who argues that Italy’s ‘geographical position makes the country a potential transit hub and bridge between Mediterranean energy imports and European energy demand’, which ‘would position Italy at the top of the supply chain compared to the previous order’. Recent developments have made Italy’s position even more strategic. It has a new opportunity to source gas directly from Russia, and even to supply Europe. Russia has proposed that Turkey expand the TurkStream pipeline, which currently supplies Russian gas to Turkey under the Black Sea. This pipeline does not pass through Ukraine. If expanded, it could be connected to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline that is currently transporting gas to Italy from Azerbaijan, thereby offering an alternative to the pipelines passing through northern Europe.
With the European energy crisis now undermining prospects for economic development, and with a Brothers of Italy-dominated government, Italy’s interest in a Eurocentrist or continental foreign policy is therefore likely to weaken. In the foreign policy section of the Brothers of Italy platform, it reaffirms its commitment to NATO and the EU. However, it ends with a new assertiveness by advocating a Mediterranean-centred strategy:
Italy has a geographical location that allows it to channel the huge raw energy supply sources coming from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, becoming a truly strategic hub: it is in the interest of the entire Union to diversify its supply lines as much as possible to free itself from Russian dependence …
Italy must once again become a protagonist in Europe, in the Mediterranean and on the international chessboard …
Italy is a natural platform in the Mediterranean … [Our policy is to] bring the Mediterranean back to the centre of Italian and European policy. ‘A Mattei formula for Africa …’ [my translation and italics]
The reference to Mattei is not coincidental. Nor is the concept of Italy being a ‘natural platform’ in the Mediterranean. The latter was a pillar of Mussolini’s foreign policy, as he himself announced in 1936 in Milan: ‘Italy is an island immersed in the Mediterranean … If the Mediterranean for others is a route, for Italy it represents life itself’ [my translation].
In recent developments Meloni’s foreign policy has been pointing away from the EU and NATO. She and her political allies have publicly supported Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbàn, who has attacked the sanctions against Russia, following the EU’s condemnation of his authoritarian policies; Hungary is a NATO member but has signed a separate deal with Gazprom to secure supplies of Russian gas. Meloni’s party is also allied to the governing nationalist Right in Poland, the Czech Republic’s governing Civic Democratic Party, and the far right Sweden Democrats Party that triumphed in elections in September 2022. The German far right Alternative für Deutschland Party was ‘jubilant’ over Meloni’s success; it too has opposed sanctions against Russia and its vote is also on the rise. As in the 1930s, one should not discount ideological and political affinities across national borders, particularly when national interests also align. As Bhadrakumar warns: ‘Do not underestimate the “Meloni effect”. The heart of the matter is that far-right forces invariably have more to offer to the electorate in times of insecurity and economic hardship’. In the current era, these affinities can be gathered under the broad ideological umbrella of ‘sovereigntism’, putting EU unity at risk.
Should Italy distance itself from NATO or leave it altogether, particularly in the light of Turkey’s ambivalent stance and the possibility of a Russian victory in Ukraine, it is doubtful that the alliance would be able to survive. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. According to retired Italian General Fabio Mini, former commander of the NATO-led KFOR mission in Kosovo (2002–03), NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe over recent decades, promoted by the United States, has further undermined the alliance’s cohesion and unity of purpose. The Ukraine–Russia crisis, as pointed out by Thomas Hughes, a scholar of international and defence policy, ‘marks an existential crisis for NATO’. Under these circumstances the United States would find it increasingly difficult to maintain a military presence in Italy.
On 1 October 2022, following news that Germany’s Social Democrat-led government had rejected Italy’s proposed Europe-wide price cap on gas and that Italy would no longer receive gas from Russia through Austria, Meloni addressed a crowd of angry farmers in Milan: ‘Italy’s posture must return to the defence of its national interests … It doesn’t mean having a negative stance toward others, it means having a positive one for ourselves … because everyone else is doing it’. In response to the explosions in the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic, the Italian navy is now patrolling Italy’s Mediterranean gas supply pipelines. All of these developments bear the hallmark of an Italian Mediterranean policy in the ascendant over a continental one.
Meloni’s slogan ‘The free ride is over’ is eerily reminiscent of Mussolini’s ‘mutilated victory’, which referenced Italy’s ostensible ‘betrayal’ by the Allied powers after their victory in the First World War. Although the post-Versailles outcome was not entirely negative for Italy, Mussolini leveraged widespread resentment at the withdrawal of territorial concessions to pave his way to power in October 1922. By 1925 he had turned his government into a dictatorship. Fascist foreign policy, which began with the intent of working with the Allied powers, changed dramatically after Italy’s successful second invasion of Ethiopia in 1935–36, whereby Italy began to carve out its own ‘place in the sun’, to borrow another fascist slogan. Chagrined by British and French opposition to this war, Mussolini joined Hitler’s Germany in an alliance to overturn the post-First World War order, having decided that this was the best option for Italy to secure access to the raw materials its economy so desperately needed and to fashion the Mediterranean empire Italian nationalists had so long desired.
In her inaugural speech to the Italian parliament on 25 October 2022, Meloni highlighted the shortcomings of the EU in the current energy and economic crisis:
[H]ow was it possible that an integration that began in 1950, 70 years ago, as the Economic Community of Coal and Steel … later finds itself, after having disproportionately expanded its spheres of competence, more exposed precisely in regard to energy supply and raw materials …
The war has aggravated the already very difficult situation caused by increases in the cost of energy and fuel, unsustainable costs for many companies that may be forced to close down and lay off their workers, and for millions of families who are already unable to cope with rising bills. …
The absence of a common [EU] response leaves room only for measures by individual national governments that risk undermining our internal market and the competitiveness of our companies. …
Nearing the end of her speech, Meloni directs her audience’s attention to her party’s foreign policy platform:
Next 27 October will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Enrico Mattei, a great Italian who was among the architects of post-war reconstruction, capable of forging mutually beneficial agreements with nations all over the world, a virtuous model of collaboration and growth between the European Union and African nations, not least to counter the worrying spread of Islamist radicalism, especially in the sub-Saharan area. And so we would like to finally recover, after years in which we preferred to backtrack, the strategic role that Italy has in the Mediterranean. [my translation]
Should Italy’s economy and its energy security deteriorate further due to the embargo on Russian energy supplies, or should NATO troops intervene directly in the conflict, it is increasingly likely that its government will consider realigning its international orientation away from a continental strategy centred on the EU and NATO and towards a Mediterranean-focused one closer to the BRICS. It could become the third ‘I’ in the BRICS after India and Iran, as one analyst has advocated, creating a tipping point in the global economy. At the very least, the Italian government could decide to oscillate between these two opposing geopolitical options to increase its margins for diplomatic manoeuvre, a traditional aspect of its foreign policy. Should either scenario come to pass, Italy will have made a substantial contribution to the breakdown of the current US-centred world and accelerated the passage to a multipolar world order.