The new Italian government: Which direction for Italian foreign policy?
Italy’s election of a conservative centre-right government on 25 September 2022 altered the country’s political framework and upset its balance of power. Although voter turnout was 63.9%, the lowest in the country’s history, a clear majority of voters opted for a coalition led by Giorgia Meloni. Her party, Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), received 26% of votes, while junior coalition partners, League (Liga) and Forza Italia, earned 8.9% and 8.3% of the total vote share. The centre-right coalition now holds 115 out of 200 seats in the Senate and 237 out of 400 seats in the Lower House. In the 2018 elections, before the number of seats was reduced after parliamentary reform, the centre-right won 135 out of 315 seats in the Senate and 260 out of 630 in the Lower House.
Leading up to the election, governments across Europe worried about the political heritage of the Brothers of Italy as well as Meloni’s conservative, nationalist views and how different they were from former prime minister Mario Draghi. In particular, France and Germany tried to evaluate what the change would mean in terms of political priorities and how it might affect collaboration across the continent. Looking at Italian foreign policy today, however, it appears these fears were overblown. Rome has maintained a strong relationship with Washington, while its ties with Moscow are frozen because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022. Regarding China, Italy is moving towards a German-style pragmatism with an emphasis on shared economic interests. The only real change in foreign relations has been the deterioration of Italy’s dealings with France. They are not alone in this, as French President Emmanuel Macron does not have as strong ties with current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as he did with former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Russia and the potential split of the coalition
The Brothers of Italy may be the main partner in the new governing coalition, but its junior partners — the 5 Star Movement, the League, and Forza Italia —represent 33% of the Italian Parliament. This has created an interesting dynamic when it comes to the dominant foreign policy issue in Europe for the past year — the Russia-Ukraine war.
While the leaders of all parties condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine, some of the coalition was ambiguous towards supporting economic sanctions on Moscow and giving military aid to Kyiv. The leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, and the leader of Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, wanted to use diplomacy to end the war and viewed Russia not as the aggressor but as one of the two sides of the war. The 5 Star Movement’s leader, Giuseppe Conte, has a strong pacifist view of the war and believes Europe should stop sending weapons to Ukraine immediately.
This difference of opinion has the potential to be a serious problem for Prime Minister Meloni, who was resolute in her condemnation of Putin and support of European Union measures against Russia. The League and Forza Italia lost 50% of their vote totals from 2018, partly because of their stances on Russia; however, the Brothers of Italy still needs the backing of its junior partners. So far, Meloni’s constant reassurance that Italy will do whatever it can to support the EU to help Ukraine has been successful, but at any time, Salvini or Berlusconi could challenge Meloni’s leadership on Russia, especially on how the war is affecting Italian citizens economically and socially.
An important factor in the economic impact of the war is the energy dossier. Italy was the EU’s second-biggest importer of Russian gas after Germany, but the Draghi government signed 12 energy agreements with Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Angola, and Nigeria. This strategy has allowed Italy to reduce its energy dependence from Moscow, and overturning this policy would mean political isolation in Europe. Prime Minister Meloni, backed by her coalition partners, decided to continue the energy strategy launched by Draghi, especially in relation to Algeria.
Italy’s EU dossiers: Economic stability, relations with European partners and migration
Meloni is still figuring out what kind of European protagonist she wants to be, and whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will be a primary pillar for her. She will probably prioritize Europe in her foreign policy, however she knows negotiations with the EU will probably be a battlefield.
Italy, the second-largest industrial economy among the 27-member states of the EU, badly needs economic stability. The country has run up the world’s fifth highest public debt (as of October 2022, it is EUR2.771 billion), and its collapse would destabilize the entire EU. To avoid such a scenario Brussels doled out EUR191.5 billion to Rome in EU Recovery funds, the largest amount given to any member. The Recovery funds, granted to EU member states to recover from the pandemic, totalled EUR750 billion. Should Prime Minister Meloni manage to build efficient and constructive coalitions with other EU member states, she has an opportunity to reverse the course of Italy’s economy. Negotiations are currently underway, for example, on the Stability and Growth Pact, an agreement among all EU members to work together to guarantee the solidarity and stability of the economic union.
Another important topic of analysis is this government’s relationship with other Eurosceptics and populist governments in Europe, namely the Fidesz in Hungary led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the PiS (Law and Justice party) in Poland. Meloni is keeping a friendly but distanced approach towards Orbán, who used to be her primary point of reference in Europe before she was elected Prime Minister, but she is very close to Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who is the father of the PiS. Kaczyński and Meloni worked together in the European Parliament in the Conservatives and Reformist group and share the same opinion about Russia.
Meloni might soon have to make a choice between working with Orbán and Kaczyński to promote a new model of nationalist conservatism in Europe or sticking with the old guard of European governments who want to challenge Europe from the inside, especially on economic rules, the rule of law, and democracy. Should she side with the Eurosceptics, she might get lost in the balance-of-power games inside Europe and waste her political leverage. Or she could devote herself to the bigger European picture, try to move closer to Paris and Berlin, and continue to fully support Europe on Russia and energy sovereignty.
The issue of migration has already proved to be a hot dossier for the new Prime Minister and leader of the coalition. In November 2022, Italy blocked for weeks the disembarkation of North African and African migrants of the Ocean Viking ship causing a clash with the EU and France, who ended up hosting the migrants. The diplomatic incident highlighted different visions on how to handle migration as a European phenomenon, especially for Italy, who is the first country of arrival for migrants from North Africa. The issue is very important not only for Meloni and her party but also for Salvini and the League, and might become a political battleground between Italy and other EU member states.
Italy and the Enlarged Mediterranean
Facing an economic downturn, a potential fallout with the EU, and higher energy and food prices due to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Italy sees the so-called “Enlarged Mediterranean,” as a potential commercial and energy partner, especially given recent developments in the region, such as the Abraham Accords, détente between Qatar and the other Arabian Gulf countries and between Turkey and other regional rivals. The Enlarged Mediterranean is defined as the “vast area between Gibraltar and the Gulf of Aden and which also includes the Middle East and Central Africa.”
The Meloni government’s foreign-policy approach to the region has been cautious so far. Italy does not want to cause further regional fragmentation, and are wary, for example, of the escalation of tensions and the risk of conflict between Algeria and Morocco. At the same time, Italy wants to avoid further divisions with Europe. Meloni and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani have indicated their aim is to promote multilateral cooperation with the EU for the Mediterranean and the Middle East that is compatible with its national interests. The political clash over migrants with France in November, however, has cooled relations with France.
One of the strategic objectives declared by the new government is to project Italy as a strategic supply hub for Europe. This is certainly not new in Italy; Rome has always had the ambition to become a key hub for gas supplies from the Mediterranean to Europe. In some respects, this policy has been successful, mostly because the EU is desperate to make up for the lack of Russian gas. Meloni has said that Europe must come up with its own strategy for the production, supply and diversification of energy, and that Italy must play a strategic role.
Meloni pointed out that both the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipelines “all arrive in Italy.” She also pledged EUR 300 million to connect Italy with Tunisia, to be carried out by Italy’s state-owned energy company, Terna. The Italian government’s strategy is to act as an interface between producer countries in the Enlarged Mediterranean and Europe, and to this end they have started a dialogue with all the countries of North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Meloni approaches Libya with caution
Italy remains the closest European country to Libya in geographical and political terms, and the instability that followed the death of former leader Muammar Gaddafi continues to have important consequences for Italy. Since the 1970s, Libya has been an important supplier of energy to Italy, and the two countries are even connected by the Greenstream, a pipeline that carries gas directly from the coast near Tripoli to Sicily. Before the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya supplied almost a third of Italy’s hydrocarbon needs, but this share has gradually decreased due to the instability in the country. This might have been tolerable to Rome before the conflict in Ukraine, but now the failure to develop Libya’s energy potential could have very high costs.
The migration that has flowed through Libya since the mid-2010s has had a direct influence on the Italian political scene and helped fuel the rise of right-wing parties such as the League. During this time, Rome has often acted reactively as the crisis escalated. The wavering position between Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh has not been productive. This ambiguity has ended up compromising Italy’s role in the crisis. The arrival of military actors such as Russia and Turkey, for example, has eroded the influence Italy had recently built up in partnership with the EU and the United States.
Meloni seems to have chosen a low profile compared to past governments. She is the first prime minister in modern times not to travel to Tripoli for her first overseas visit, and has made no proclamations or mediation plans. The Meloni government does not seem to want to invest much political capital in the Libyan crisis, perhaps resigned to the impossibility of having any impact on a crisis now considered chronic. In February 2023, the Meloni government signed an $8 billion gas deal with Libya’s national oil corporation to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields. By forging a new deal in Libya with the Dbeibeh government, whose international legitimacy is very fragile, the Meloni government has given more weight to a player who had previously opposed the elections, while at the same time Italy is helping the UN push for a new roadmap for the country. This seems a bit contradictory, but the current need for energy has prevailed over politics.
In addition the Italian government has chosen to work in partnership with allies in Libya, taking advantage of the renewed attention that the U.S. is paying to the North African dossier, exemplified by CIA director William Burns’ recent visit to the country.
Meloni’s new government seems to want to invest in their own version of the “Mattei plan.” Enrico Mattei founded the oil company ENI in the 1950s and was known for his anti-colonialist policy, which ran contrary to the aggressive, predatory policies of Western oil companies of the time. Meloni explained that she cannot imagine that “Italy alone should implement an ‘Enrico Mattei plan’ for Africa and the Middle East and that perhaps it should even do so against Europe.” Meloni seems very conscious that the plan is destined for the same pitfalls as past plans if it is not part of a broader European strategy on energy security linked to an European industrial plan. Though the government has not provided specifics of its plan, its goal is to re-establish Europe’s presence in the Mediterranean and Africa with the intent of curbing the influence of other players in the area such as China and Russia.
In its search for new energy resources, Meloni’s government could be more attentive to cultivating and relaunching relations with Algeria, Egypt, and countries in the Arabian Gulf. Relations with the Gulf countries are generally good, but due to some misunderstandings in the past, they can certainly be improved. Meloni has also announced that she wants to go to Israel as soon as possible. The political closeness of the Meloni and Netanyahu governments, both right wing, could favour a new balance towards the axis of the Abraham Accords.