In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Maurizio Molinari, the Editor in Chief of the daily la Repubblica, a prominent expert on international affairs, the author of more than 20 books, the latest being “The Return of Empires”. They talk about how much the history of fascism weighs on current Italian politics, why Italy will not engage constructively in talks about European sovereignty, what is the future of democracy in Israel in connection with the reform of the rule of law system by Benjamin Netanyahu, and how the Middle East is changing due to the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia under Chinese auspices.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Given the anniversary of the liberation of Italy, how do you feel as a citizen of Italy with various figures playing a major role in Italian politics?
Maurizio Molinari (MM): The liberation happened over 70 years ago, when people basically were fed up with the occupation and fascism, and so the new republic was born from that collective choice. With one exception – after the war, a kind some nostalgia for Mussolini and his people emerged. This group was, at the beginning, very small and isolated, but it did create a new political party (Movimento Sociale Italiano). The leader of the party, Giorgio Almirante, had always defined himself as the leader of the West, he was strongly anti-communist, and always confirmed his origin and the link to the said nostalgia. Today, Fratelli d’Italia, a party that was born a few years ago, the leader of which – Giorgia Meloni – is now the prime minister of Italy, has in its emblem the same flame that was a symbol of Movimento Sociale Italiano. Basically, it is a continuation of that political party. The difference is that in the last election they received the biggest number of votes. The history is coming back to us. In a way, Prime Minister Meloni is also strongly pro-Western, pro-NATO, and pro-United States. However, inside her party, the narrative lacks the topic of anti-fascism – and for a simple reason: they do not recognize the choice that was made 78 years ago by the majority of the Italians rejecting Mussolini. This is a contradiction, but we are living inside this historical contradiction.
LJ: Does the past have implications on the current politics in Italy?
MM: The answer may seem to be ‘no’ because the main topic in foreign policy this year has been Ukraine. When it comes to this topic, PM Meloni is strongly in favor of sanctions against Russia, sending weapons to Ukraine, supporting the U.S. administration and most of the EU countries that support Ukraine as well. In this area, Italy still is in the right position. However, in reality, there are some differences that are extremely important. There are differences in the idea about the role the national state should have within the framework of the European Union. A couple of years ago, French historian and journalist Bernard Guetta wrote a great book about Poland, Hungary, and Italy, describing why the three countries that were formerly a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire are facing sovereigntism today. The idea is that the ethnical roots of a given country are more important than the European identity. This is exactly what the Northern League and Fratelli d’Italia are all about. For them, the idea of national identity and being an Italian patriot is more important than being a European citizen. Here lies the main difference from the previous government of Mario Draghi. Moreover, with the political tradition that we have had since the WWII, we have had governments led by various leaders from the center-right or center-left, which shared this European horizon – they wanted Italy to be a part of the EU and to build a stronger Europe. Now, with PM Meloni, the post-fascist heritage is bringing her to re-evaluate the Italian national identity. This is the main difference that explains why Italy is having more and more problems with Brussels, which creates more problems also inside the European Union.
LJ: If the emphasis moves away from the war in Ukraine to more internal European affairs (for example, getting rid of veto in the EU), what will be the position of Italy on these issues?
MM: This is one of the topics in which Italy is distancing itself from the biggest debate that we are having at the moment in Europe. It is about in which direction should the European Union grow and what does it have to do to become larger and more efficient. At the moment, the debate features two main positions – there is France on the one hand, and Germany on the other. The latter envisions a greater Europe with the same institutions but with more countries (especially in the east and the Balkans), whereas France has a vision that comes from former President François Mitterrand, based on different circles, with every circle having a different gate in terms of respecting the basic rules of the European Union. It is clearly an institutional debate. What both of these ideas have in common is the point of arrival – the European Union will have greater sovereignty than it does now. If we listen to what PM Meloni and her ministers say, they either never speak of European sovereignty or speak against it. This explains why, under Meloni’s government, Italy has taken a different stance. It now more adherent to the ideology of the conservative bloc inside the EU parliament. This ideology assumes that member states would get back some of their national sovereignty powers – and thus take them away from the European Union. The intention of the leaders of the conservative bloc (including Fratelli d’Italia) is to have a weaker EU, not a stronger one. Therefore, if we look beyond the war in Ukraine, the clash between the conservative parties and the other traditional parties (including socialists and the Greens) is going to be very tough.
LJ: Is Israel bound to follow the Polish and Hungarian illiberal ways?
MM: It is going to be very difficult for Benjamin Netanyahu to move the judicial reform forward. It is not clear if he really wants to do it. If we look at the electoral campaign and the statements he gave immediately after the victory, the judicial reform was not there. It is something he put on the table after the creation of the government. I believe that the reason is that he wanted to give something to the extreme right, thanks to which he won the election. The new extreme right in Israel is very extreme – more than it usually is. Once they secured 14 seats in the parliament, they became a key ally for Netanyahu. Therefore, he had to give them something big because they had become, surprisingly, the main partner for his coalition. The problem was that Netanyahu made a huge mistake because the details of the reform outraged the vast majority of the people in Israel, who took to the streets. Why? Because some of these details of the judicial reform (especially the possibility of the parliament to overturn a sentence by the Supreme Court) went against the rules of Montesquieu in a liberal democracy. Netanyahu is a cynical leader. The experience he has as a long-time prime minister of his country indicates that if he could, he would throw away not only the judicial reform, but also two very uncomfortable allies. The problem is that he cannot do this because if he does, the government will follow. The only reasonable outcome will come either from a strong pressure from the United States that would force him onto the right track to keep the government but with a different ally, or it will be Netanyahu’s personal decision to freeze the reform and not say anything more about it. Either way, there will be a new election in Israel.
LJ: Would it be possible to stop Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners if not for the pressure from the United States?
MM: Israeli politics has a lot of similarities with Italian politics. There are many characters that play different roles in various topics, on which they may agree or disagree. The topic of national guard will never be created – the Israeli deep state will never allow for a civilian to have their own militia because it is against the basic rule of the security establishment. So why did Netanyahu throw this argument in the middle of the Israeli agora? Because he wanted to bargain with the extreme right, which confirms that the real strategic problem that Netanyahu has is that the extreme right is too strong for him, hence he must find a solution. Otherwise, his government is doomed to collapse.
LJ: Given the far right in the government, a crisis within the state, and violence on the streets, will Netanyahu be able to solve all these crises simultaneously? Can he stop the conflict with Palestine with the government that he has?
MM: If we look at the origins of this violence, we see that the main actors at the root of it all is the Hamas (in Gaza and the West Bank) and new Palestinian armed organizations in southern Lebanon and in Syria. What these organizations have in common are their links with Teheran and Iran. The reality is that we are facing a new kind of strategy created by the new leader of the Pasdaran – the successor of Soleimani. Soleimani was the first one to suggest the idea of a regional war that would use the tools that Iran may have. His successor, who has worked with him closely, is also following this path – using all the tools (as a proxy military organization among Palestinians as well as in Lebanon and Syria) to open a new front for different actions against state officers. This approach poses a new security challenge that the government of Israel will have to face. And it is not going to be easy. The history of the Middle East shows that all the military challenges that Israel has been facing generation after generation are very much different. These push the country to keep changing its defense strategy.
LJ: What will be the strategic future of the Middle East?
MM: There are two main factors that influence the strategic map of the Middle East. The first one is China’s decision to change its involvement in the region from just economic to also political and strategic. This is what the negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran mean for China – they made them re-establish their diplomatic ties. The meaning of this agreement is much more significant that we could have imagined because President Xi Jinping decided to bring representatives of both these countries to Beijing to conduct the negotiations there. In reality, this was meant as a means to impose the agreement on them. The Chinese did this by using only real power, which every Middle Eastern actor has always recognized throughout centuries – the power of money. Xi put on the table so much money (first, with the Saudis, and then with the Iranians) that neither of them could say no. It is a completely different method from what the United States – or even before them, the French and the British – were doing. It is fascinating that China succeeded so fast. We know that Saudi Arabia is facing a very challenging task of undergoing an economic transformation, and China put on the table a full support of the Chinese economy to that country. At that point, the negotiations were finished – the Saudis said yes, whereas the Iranians are in a difficult situations so they could not say no, and it was done. Therefore, the economic power of China that was exercised in the name of Chinese interests that brought Saudi Arabia and Iran together. What Beijing did a couple of weeks after the agreement was reached was to state that they might want to also help Netanyahu and Abu Mazen reach a compromise to the long-standing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We have to take this offer very seriously. This is an important factor for the Middle East. China wants to be part of the region (in a positive way), but with new rules – their rules. They are not trying to bring them together by finding a middle ground, they are focusing on their own interests and bringing both actors along. Will China succeed in the long run? Who knows?! But they are trying, and they already are the new actor in town – everyone is looking at them. The second factor constitute exactly the new relations between the Sunni and the Israelis. In Turkey, President Erdogan is also opening up to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We see the two sides inside the Sunni world (those in favor and those against the Muslim Brotherhood) coming together. This development is helping Israel in finding common ground with both of them. Does this mean that Saudi Arabia will also be a part of the Abraham Accords? It is not clear. We know that the Saudis may want to join if Israelis do a deal with the Palestinians – and this is a topic that the Israelis and the Saudis are still discussing.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.