What kind of Italy does the rest of the world want?
Interest is limited, except in Argentina where the ex-pat vote is real (but a diﬀerent election altogether). Beijing fears protectionists. And Washington, somewhat guiltily, awaits the return of Italy’s Trump.
- Thursday, 01 March 2018
NEW YORK James Fontanella-Khan
The bitter truth is that America has little interest in who wins the next Italian elections. The Trump administration is too focused on ﬁxing an array of problems at home (in particular, ﬁghting the ongoing Russia investigation) to be able to worry about who runs a major European economy. But on a more personal level, Donald Trump will be delighted if a man that resembles him in all but name wrests back control of the bel paese. Silvio Berlusconi’s comeback on the political scene would galvanise
the US president, given that pundits the world over have repeatedly rebuked both men for their penchant for political incorrectness, showmanship and sex scandals. But the potential return of a billionaire that many had believed to be a long-gone ﬁgure in Italian politics is dismaying to the broader American public. After all, the Italian media and property mogul is a laughing stock in the US. The average person knows the octogenarian leader more for his so-called bunga bunga sex parties than his statesmanship.
Some consider the rise of Trump to have opened up space for Berlusconi’s return to the political stage. Many pundits in Washington and New York believe that Trump’s nepotistic and lie-infused brand of politics makes Berlusconi look like a respectable politician. What is certain is that Trump and his inner circle won’t be shedding a single tear for the downfall of Italy’s Democratic Party and its chief, Matteo Renzi, who was one of the few world leaders to publicly endorse Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump is also known to be fond of Berlusconi’s coalition partners, who include Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, and Giorgia Meloni, leader of Italy’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia party. Although Trump and Berlusconi share a similar personal history, the political messages that emanate from Salvini and Meloni more closely echo Trump’s nationalist and anti-immigrant vision.
Salvini was an outspoken supporter of Trump during the 2016 election, and in a clear sign of his adulation for the New York tycoon has borrowed many of the campaign slogans of the US president in recent months, including “Italy ﬁrst”. Even his political placards are styled after Trump’s. Berlusconi’s return is also likely to be welcomed (albeit in a more low-key manner) by some in the Republican establishment who remember him as a reliable US ally during the Iraq war at a time when other major European nations opposed the invasion led by the then US president, George W. Bush.
Pragmatic transatlantic experts in Washington argue that with Renzi’s weakness in the polls, a government led by Berlusconi’s coalition would be the least worst outcome given that the alternative could be an executive run by Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). Launched by Genovese comedian Beppe Grillo more than a decade ago, MS5 is currently the biggest political party in Italy, with nearly 30% of the electorate’s popular support. Many political observers in Washington believe it would be a nightmare if M5S rose to power. In that scenario, US ties with Italy would be thrown into a tailspin.
However, given the fragmentation of Italy’s political system and an expectation that the 4 March election will not hand the country to any party or coalition, there is hope that Rome will prove capable (as it has many times before) of ﬁguring out a compromise solution that will guarantee the country’s stability. Recent polls show that nearly the majority of Italians have warmed to a grand coalition, which would include part of Berlusconi’s right-wing brigade and the more moderate representatives of the left-wing Democratic Party. Overall, Washington’s foreign policy elite have been very impressed with Paolo Gentiloni, who was elevated from foreign minister to prime minister in December 2016 after Renzi tendered his resignation following a defeat in a crucial electoral reform referendum.
Gentiloni was little-known by the Washington establishment but has emerged, along with President Sergio Mattarella, as a solid steward of Italy, which lest we forget is a member of the Group of Seven richest nations along with the US, Germany, France, the UK, Japan and Canada. For many, the best case scenario would still be Gentiloni 2.0.
BEIJING Romeo Orlandi
What does China expect from the Italian elections on 4 March? At the risk of oversimplifying, the answer is obvious: Beijing would prefer a China-friendly government. This observation, however, should be accompanied by another, namely the importance that China places on its relationship with Italy.
Through a paradoxical inversion of history, the Asian giant is now the standard-bearer of globalization, while the United States, the symbol of capitalism, is calling for protectionism and building walls. China has been key to developing the economic side of globalization, undeniably stimulating international trade. Thus, as a general principle, disputes with the European Union and Italy are unlikely. All parties are in favour of the free movement of goods. But conferring market economy status (MES) on China is still an unresolved matter of contention. Beijing claims that acknowledgement of this status is automatic, but 15 years on from China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Brussels sees things diﬀerently. The EU’s recent decision to impose restrictions on Chinese steel (which China has been accused of dumping) demonstrates that a ﬁnal decision is some way oﬀ and certainly not clear-cut. As has been noted, Italy is still not yet ready to consider China a market economy and thereby relinquish the option of taking action if Beijing violates international trade regulations.
China would certainly welcome a change in the Italian position that would bring Rome more in line with Northern Europe, which is generally in favour of conceding MES. But whatever comes, radical change is unlikely. The current Italian government bases its position on the defence of national industries and questions about whether China will really comply with the philosophy and the procedures of the WTO concerning the absence of state subsidies and access to domestic markets. A possible change of tack for the new leader in Rome would be to prioritise Italianmade goods. This would result in a more closed approach to Chinese goods, focussing on their poor quality, and diﬃdence towards investments. The Chinese dragon has been targeting the best Italian technology for years precisely because Italy can deliver the quality that China needs. On that front, China would also prefer an Italian government that was inclined to follow (and make others respect) the rules of free competition, given the barriers currently being erected in the name of patriotism. A Chinese wish list would also include the lifting of the European embargo on arms sales that was imposed following the repression in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Although the ban has few practical consequences (China now buys its arms elsewhere), such a move would have signiﬁcant political value. Pressure to cancel the ban, which could gather momentum following the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, could potentially be a pivotal moment for Italian foreign policy.
Nevertheless, Beijing does not expect the new Italian government to be spasmodic. The Chinese leadership knows well that there are two cornerstones that provide some room for manoeuvre: multilateral limitations and disenchantment with the failure to seize opportunities. Within the G20, and above all in the EU, it is diﬃcult to take an independent position. Furthermore, Europe appears to be less of a central issue for China because Xi Jin Ping is focusing his policies on other strategic priorities, including the search for new assets in the Paciﬁc Ocean and launching the new Silk Road. Amidst the uncertainty of whom to talk to in Brussels about economic and political matters, dialogue between Beijing and Berlin and Paris has been increasing. On the commercial front, improvements seem both possible and desirable: 2017 saw increases in the trade in both directions, but absolute value and the market share are still modest compared to their full potential. Germany boasts a trade surplus with China, in which its exports are ﬁve times greater than those of Italy. Beijing has been observing this incongruity for many years without enthusiasm. For years it has been hoped that there would be a reduction, but they well know that it will be diﬃcult for any government to bring the values back to more appropriate levels in keeping with the dimensions and history of the two countries.
BUENOS AIRES Dante Ruscica
In Buenos Aires, the Italian electoral campaign is rather low key. The local press certainly takes no notice. There is some debate and mobilisation, mainly involving the long-standing and more recent associations.
Posters are on display with faces, proposals and slogans inviting Italians to vote. The party names don’t always match the ones in Italy. There are local factions, and when they are discussed in a huddle near the Italian Consulate, references to Italian politics are vague. It’s clear that this electorate has other issues and other faces in mind. They also have diﬀerent expectations. Argentina is a very politicised country, and everyone has their own opinion.
When the foreign Italian vote was ﬁrst established, it was already historically superﬂuous for Argentina’s Italians. Instead of true émigrés, those involved today are seasoned descendants, children and grandchildren. And that makes a big diﬀerence. According to the most reliable ﬁgures, there are over 700,000 votes at stake that will be channelled into the Italian ballot boxes. And the manoeuvring around the consulate, the toing and froing, the delegations, the meetings and the often-heated discussions don’t go unnoticed.
This is the fourth time that Italians abroad have gotten a chance to vote, and Argentina boasts one of the largest Italian communities in the world. The consulate in Buenos Aires alone represents as many Italians as there are in the city of Bologna. Managing the whole process at election time is diﬃcult. It involves preparing and sending out more than 700,000 documents in sealed envelopes, which contain an electoral certiﬁcate and speciﬁc instructions designed to ensure voter secrecy in order to guarantee the validity of this risky form of remote ballot casting. The envelope containing the sealed vote must then be returned.
This is the very sensitive traﬃc handled by the Italian Embassy and its consulates. There is also the merely political debate which, it’s worth reiterating, does not reﬂect that of the political parties operating in Italy. Even at the level of Italian Argentinians, there are local groups with speciﬁc requests and positions, but ones that are often not shared by neighbouring areas.
The stand-out feature of Argentina is that the Italian presence tends to be elderly, and expectations (particularly among new generations) are focused on the local situation rather than the old country. This electorate is thus unavoidably particular; its requirements and procedures rarely match the motives, issues and procedures of Italian politics. The distance and cultural diﬀerences carry weight. They highlight the diﬀerent tone of the campaign, which nevertheless retains its signiﬁcance as a moment of civil participation, certifying the commendable cultural link to our country’s democratic institutions.