Italy’s Role in an Age of European Transition

Italy will have a new government from October. The result of the elections should place in a position of dominant power, for the first time in the history of the Italian Republic, a party of the post-fascist right. And in the same period, the country will have to choose what role to play in the profound restructuring of the new political and economic balances underway in Europe.

This is a crucial step, set in a very dense time frame that presents obvious risks. 

In the short term, autumn will be marked by a potentially catastrophic energy crisis for Europe’s second largest industrial power, in an economy which is already worryingly slowing down, with the intensification of war in Ukraine and the technological and geoeconomic rivalry between China and the United States.

In the medium and longer term, the risk is that, yet again, the Italian political system will get lost in its labyrinthine internal logics and so fail to grasp the lines that concretely define the geopolitical context in which it needs to act. Without adequately reflecting on the real forces and obvious weaknesses of the Italian system, the next government will not be able to become a proactive and constructive force in the great reorganisation of the European framework in progress.

In another context, Gianfranco Miglio argued – with a strong Machiavellian inspiration – that “the period we are now entering shows many signs of being an era devoted to respect for ‘effectual reality’. The inability to reject the decadent charm of utopia and accept the harsh truth of ‘things as they are’, could mean excluding oneself from power and history.”

This is a very precise way to define the coordinates of the equation that Italy will have to solve today, for the sake of its future.

The European geopolitical transition

In the great transformations under way, in the interregnum caused by the dislocation of the order that emerged in 1989 at the end of the First Cold War, the European Union and its member countries are struggling to find a new collocation. Converging trends are emerging that define a “geopolitical transition”.

It is a change that has a clearly discursive dimension, even more than a strategic one. Since 2019, Europe has been demanding a change of pace. In her first speech, President von der Leyen defined her Commission as “geopolitical”.  The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, has made the core of his doctrine the need for Europe “to learn to speak the language of power”. The EU’s institutions now define their strategic relationship with the rest of the world through the notion of “open strategic autonomy”. This articulated response to the harshness of the contemporary world is partly inspired by the diagnosis of the French president. Since 2017 he has insisted on European sovereignty and its ability to implement independent policies in the new rhythm of an increasingly fragmented globalisation of the continental territories, amid the as yet not structuring divergence of the “new cold war” between China and the United States.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated this process. According to Borrell, it has triggered a “geopolitical awakening of Europe”. Without the need to change the treaties – proof again of their flexibility when the political will exists – the Union has sent substantial aid and, above all, lethal weapons to Ukraine, enabling it to withstand the brunt of the Russian attack and organise a counter-attack.

This is a radical change. A system that placed itself in a relationship of cooperation or peaceful competition with the rest of the world is now adopting a relationship of force and the logic of conflict. In this respect, a notable factor has been the rapidity of the European reaction to Putin’s war. Amid the euro crisis it took years to find a solution to Draghi’s policy of “whatever it takes”. From the start of the pandemic it took a few months to frame the Recovery Plan. When Ukraine was invaded, the Union was able to react within a few days.

This transformation is also visible in another area, central to the construction of the European geopolitical project: the climate transition. In dealing with a foreign power that uses energy as an imperial weapon, ecology becomes a strategic matrix. To strengthen its home front, European governments are learning to pose the question of war in energy terms, referring to the imagery and economic policies of “ecological war”. In this way energy is again being understood as one of the most fragile points of sovereignty and ceasing to be a neutral object of horizontal exchanges. 

Even on the level of representations, war has helped to territorialise a construction that was rather inclined to think of its action in geographically abstract terms: the market, consumers and businesses.

Italy in the new Europe

This geopolitical transition, which is taking place in reaction to the shocks of an increasingly harsh and hostile world, opens a new sequence at a time when a storm is brewing on the social, economic and political levels. One need only look at Germany. The first European economy based the architecture of its success on four pillars, now all substantially tottering: opening up its markets on a worldwide scale, a strong Chinese demand, cheap Russian energy and labour at competitive prices.

It is precisely this new German frailty that is acting as a catalyst for the renegotiation of the European framework. The political-economic structure on which Europe was built in the long period of glaciation coinciding with Merkel’s management of power – following the rejection of the European Constitution – has now collapsed. With the climate transition, the pandemic and the intensity of geopolitical rivalry, we are entering a new era of public investments, strategic planning, and the rediscovery of “political capitalism”. The approach towards expenditure and debt have been transformed. The parameters of trade are upended and territorialised. 

Beyond ideological views, this is a point that must be understood: we are no longer in the Europe of 2011. 

This does not mean that the change of pace will be easy for the new government. Mario Draghi’s extraordinary reputation will be a burden that it will have to deal with. But the new Italian government will be able to contribute to the definition of a new framework, perhaps strategically forming a triangle with the Franco-German axis. 

What are the conditions? Political differences aside, in Paris two pivots are being quietly defined that could define a strategic convergence with Rome. 

The first point consists of rejecting illiberal demands, often evoked by Giorgia Meloni in her expression of  neo-nationalism with an Orbanian matrix. This conservative and liberal tendency would have an immediate impact on the credibility of a government based on the Fratelli d’Italia party.

The second sees Italy’s resolute participation in the European geopolitical transition, in particular by anchoring the country in support for the Ukrainian front and perhaps by supporting the strategic project for France of a European Political Community. 

We can see that these two points do not require particular deviations from the line defined by the leader of Fratelli d’Italia in recent months. However, they open up fundamental possibilities for transforming Italy: the restructuring of its debt and a redefinition of its role in the Mediterranean are just two factors that could make it possible to reopen a long-term political cycle. 

One thing is clear. Failing to understand and therefore counting for nothing in the definition of the new European geopolitical order will almost certainly mean sacrificing another generation to the “decadent charm of illusions” that Miglio described. If we fail to change the coordinates of a European construction that has not always favoured Italy at this propitious moment, the country’s far from inexorable decline will continue.