The Future of Italy and the European Union with Nathalie Tocci [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

How is Italy positioning itself in the struggle for leadership in Europe? Will the surge of far-right movements determine the EU agenda? And will the European Union finally become a global player in its own right? Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!) talks with Nathalie Tocci, Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Honorary Professor at the University of Tübingen, and an independent non-executive director of Acea and Europe’s Futures fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, IWM). She has been Special Advisor to EU High Representatives Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell. In that capacity, she wrote the European Global Strategy and worked on its implementation.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): How is Italy positioning itself in the struggle for leadership in Europe?

Nathalie Tocci (NT): As far as the general context is concerned, Georgia Meloni came to power needing to prove her international and, in particular, Western credentials. The way to do it was by supporting Ukraine. Now, I do not necessarily mean that she did it. It was pure opportunism, and she actually harbors a pro-Russian sentiment.

However, the reason why she did it had to do with legitimizing herself. Does this mean that she will change her position on Ukraine? Not necessarily – maybe if we were to see Donald Trump return to the White House and make a deal with his friend Vladimir Putin, then in that kind of scenario, Georgia Meloni could start talking very insistently about the need for peace. This is a possible future. She may try to play that game, but Donald Trump may tell her, “Well, Georgia, I’m sorry, but I’m very unhappy with you because you were cozying up to Biden a little bit too much”.

Meanwhile, Italian defense spending is at the level of 1.4% of GDP. In this context, we might see Meloni continuing to be somewhat pro-Ukraine. Therefore, the future could change, and we should keep a healthy dose of skepticism about it.

How do we make sense of this? How can we, on the one hand, see Meloni persuading her old friend, Viktor Orban, to sign off on assistance to Ukraine and, on the other hand, have Donald Tusk, Emmanuel Macron, and Chancellor Scholz try to reconstitute a fairly impulsive piece of Europe (the Weimar Triangle), which is essential also in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Well, it makes sense. Let us not forget that what Giorgia Meloni was pushing for was not only assistance to Ukraine but also a top up to the EU budget. And what did that top up to the EU budget include? Money for migration.

As you may recall, over the last few weeks, there has been another rather unseemly show in Egypt, in which Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, together with Giorgia Meloni, after having trotted to Tunis and offered some money to one dictator, went to Cairo to do exactly the same with El-Sisi. And 6 billion is a fair amount of money, so there was an interest in it. Therefore, it is not that Meloni does not care about Ukraine, but there was an interest which was just as important, if not more important.

Had she not persuaded Orban to sign off on it, she would not have sealed that agreement. Because let us not forget that actually the EU did have a second best. And the second best was no agreement on the budget, which obviously would have required unanimity, and only an off-budget agreement on Ukraine. That was not a desirable scenario for Giorgia Meloni.

Traditionally, Italy has had one major paranoia: not being at the top table in the EU. It has been paranoid about the triangle between France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, while it was still a part of the EU. When the UK left the European project, the European Union thought it could reconstitute this triangle, but Poland messed it up. This attitude runs deep and across the political spectrum in Italy – it is a country that is simply very skeptical of a grouping of which it is not a part of.

LJ: Is there a need for a constitutional reform in Italy at the moment?

NT: The question to ask for any constitutional reform is what problem is it trying to solve? And whether the problem that it is trying to solve is political instability. It is true that Italy changes governments very often. However, there are two mitigating factors, which have actually provided a great deal of continuity in Italy. Therefore, it is true that governments do change often, but actually Italians do not go to vote in the elections very often.

We normally vote at the end of the legislature’s term. This is why parliaments are actually very stable in Italy. One of the reasons why we do not vote very often is because the president of the republic, which is a key feature in the system of checks and balances in Italy, wants to avoid elections like the plague and wants to ensure that a legislature gets to the end of its mandate. Therefore, if there is a parliamentary majority that emerges from the same parliament with a different prime minister or a different government, then the president will try and push for that solution. However, if that is not possible, then we organize early elections.

This approach has provided a great deal of stability in Italy especially in times when the country went through its most difficult moments – during the eurozone crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic. In these two key moments, it was precisely thanks to the role of the president and the fact that Italy can actually have different governments emerging from the same parliamentary set up, the same legislature. This was the case with the governments led by Mario Monti or Mario Draghi. If it were not for this approach, the country could have reached a breaking point.

In that respect, whereas the constitutional reform proposed by Giorgia Meloni would increase the stability of the prime minister and their particular government, it would actually increase instability in those two other ways, because it would probably lead to elections more often. As a consequence, with legislatures not reaching the end of their term, it would significantly diminish the powers of the president – an office that serves as an essential feature of the Italian system of checks and balances.

Personally, I think that the constitutional reform in this form is a very bad idea because it either does not solve the problem, or by solving one problem, it makes two other problems even worse. At the same time, we need to be aware that there is a lot of skepticism in the opposition of the particular motives that the current prime minister has. It is clear that Giorgia Meloni comes from a particular political tradition, which views authoritarianism and the concept of the ‘strongman’, (or rather the ‘strongwoman’ in this case) as a good thing. The way in which she has been governing the public media raises a great cause for concern.

Obviously, Italy is an established democracy with strong institutions. It is not something you can unravel overnight. I am saying that because I do not wish to give the impression that even if this constitutional reform were to pass, then we would be on the slippery slope to authoritarianism. No, I do not think that would be the case. However, it is always healthy to keep your guard up. And in this particular issue, lowering the guard – because it might give the impression of solving one problem – would probably conceal the fact that other, much bigger problems would still be out there.

LJ: Will the surge of the far-right be significant for the EU agenda – both internally and externally?

NT: Obviously, there is the fear of a surge of the right wing, which will probably play out to some extent. However, there is a number of factors that can mitigate its potential policy implications.

Firstly, it has to do with the politics itself. European elections are a set of national elections, which means that there are different dynamics. In 2023, a number of various important elections took place across Europe, and many feared their outcome. In the European context, Poland and Spain were probably two crucial ones and many feared both a consolidation of the right wing in Poland (with a government consisting of the PiS and Konfederacja parties) and a Vox government in Spain. However, neither of these two scenarios played out. If we combine it all together, there is a mixture of 27 different stories at the European level. Some of them will go in that direction, others maybe not as much.

In the case of Italy, Giorgia Meloni is going to do well. However, if we look at the previous European elections from 2019, it was an election in which the Lega party scored almost 40%. Meloni would be lucky to get 30%. Therefore, Italy is not going to contribute to the surge of the right wing in relative terms. Of course, other countries, in particular France and maybe Germany or the Netherlands, the net effect will probably go in the direction of the right wing, but it will not necessarily be something revolutionary.

Secondly, there is a set of mitigating factors that have to do with the overall context. It appears that the policy priorities of the next cycle are going to include at least three aspects: defense, enlargement, and geo-economy. This will happen regardless of the election results. However, how will they be interpreted depends on what the political makeup is going to be.

Having said all this, there is a certain expectation of a right-wing surge – and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Because maybe the minute things do not play out that way, even if the right wing actually does quite well, it will not be perceived as such. We may recall here the midterm elections in the United States – in truth, even though the Republicans actually won, the overall perception was that they lost, because a wave that never happened was expected. Therefore, if people want to talk about a surge of the right wing, maybe it is good that they are talking about it now.

LJ: Speaking of managing expectations, what are your expectations of the impact on Europe providing Donald Trump wins the presidential election? Do you think that there will be unification around strategic issues or rather a division, especially along the east-southwest axis?

NT: It could really go in two very different directions. What we do know is that last time around it did have a unifying effect, and this is important because at the end of the day it is the president we have to work with. At the same time, we know well that Trump 2.0 may look very differently, which might have various implications – for instance, doubling down on that unity.

In light of this potential scenario, although as an Italian I should feel very excluded, I am actually a big supporter of Poland trying to mend fences with France and Germany. It is incredibly important at this point in time, and it is exactly what should be happening. Therefore, all efforts that strive to increase the centripetal dynamic are important.

Having said this, I do think that there is a big risk out there. I fear that we are going to face, on the one hand, not necessarily a geographic split but a race to Washington to be the first one’s to ‘kiss the ring’. This might be a rather unseemly show, which also happened the last time around. However, when dealing with someone with the ego of Donald Trump, this is the stupidest thing that could be possibly done. Giorgia Meloni might want to be the one to talk to Donald Trump – even if he does not want to talk to her, but that would be a different story. However, she could try, which would sow divisions with France, Germany, and Poland.

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk has held a rather firm position on Donald Trump’s actions. Therefore, I doubt that there is going to be a lot of sympathy between them. So, if the split comes about within the EU, it will not necessarily be geographic in nature. It may be more political.

LJ: Will the EU finally become a strategic global player?

NT: In terms of security and defense, it would be fair to say that already over the last years, we have done important, unprecedented things. Here again, we go back to the notion of the  ‘inside out’ versus ‘outside in’. Looking at it ‘inside out’ over time, we now have a European peace facility and spending on defense. However, when looking at it from the ‘outside in’, compared to what we need to do, we are not in a very good place. Therefore, the external context could force us to do something unthinkable on the defense front, simply because one has to start thinking about the unthinkable when there is no alternative.

Does that, therefore, translate into the EU becoming a more capable global actor in strategic terms? Here, we are moving further away in many respects as we need to look at the whole Middle East and the Global South, including the powers in the Global South that do not want to choose alliances – the India’s, Indonesia’s, and the Saudi Arabia’s of this world. It is absolutely catastrophic what we have done in the Middle East.

It is clear that there is only one power. In fact, I would argue that there is only one man that can do something about it – his name is Joe Biden. And he’s not a European. Therefore, we are not going to be able to put an end to the war in Gaza. Only Biden can do that. And so far, tragically, he has not wanted to do it. A fundamental, myopic, and immoral mistake was made right at the very beginning, because it was crystal clear which way things were going to go. If after October 7 you still unconditionally embrace someone like Netanyahu, then from an ethical and value-based perspective, no matter what we do, it is not going to reverse the damage.

Now, President Macron, El-Sisi, and King Abdullah of Jordan are jointly calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. There will likely be an increasing number of member states calling for it too. Maybe we are even going to get to a point in which we all unilaterally call for a permanent ceasefire tomorrow morning. However, the message that this sends is that 33,000 deaths were fine, and it is only 34,000 that started to be a problem. Therefore, from an ethical perspective, we blew it by committing an original sin that was very predictable and we must have known what it would lead to.

When it comes to the matter of a broader Global South. If we take a look at the two ongoing wars – in Ukraine and Gaza – then, in many respects, the Russian war in Ukraine is far more global than the one in Gaza. It impacts energy markets, food security, and has had a massive impact on the Global South. However, the beating heart of the Global South is with Gaza, even though it has no similar impact – with the exception of the Red Sea, which actually impacts Western trade, it does not really impact these regions. For example, trade to China goes ahead unimpeded.

However, the way in which the question of Palestine resonates in people’s hearts, not just in the Arab world, but also in the Global South, stems from the fact that it somehow speaks to the story of injustice, double standards, hypocrisy, and colonialism. This is the reason why it resonates far more. And so, globally speaking, we are in a much greater predicament when it comes to these countries, including trying to make the case for Ukraine. And this is why even if we end up doing well in terms of defense, it will not necessarily translate into being taken more seriously as a global player for all of these other reasons.

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.

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