“Italy’s three priorities: economy, demography and the Mediterranean”: Francesco Maselli, Italian geopolitics expert

"Governing the Italians is not impossible. It is useless" (aphorism attributed to Giovanni Giolitti)

05.05.2021 – 16.00 – Italy is a country condemned to deal with geopolitics by geography. A peninsula thrown into the heart of the Mediterranean but anchored to the vital core of Europe via the Alps, with eastern branches that also link it to Central Europe and the Balkans, our country is forced to connect. In the same way, this exposure makes it vulnerable to the upheavals of the former Mare Nostrum, where today Rome seems incapable of claiming its own centrality, which it would have by geography. With new players, such as Turkey and Russia drunk with Mediterranean hybris and the southern shores in almost perpetual turmoil, crossed by increasingly globalized trade routes and ferries carrying masses defeated by globalization, the Mediterranean is both the primary resource and the worst nightmare of our country.
Caught in the middle, Italy lives on, between centrifugal drives that dream of the restoration of an ancient sovereign regime that never existed and centripetal ambitions that are lulled into the idea of being able to delegate to Europe the burden of governing us. After having analyzed Germany, Serbia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, we now come to Italy, a geopolitical subject that remains, paradoxically, often obscure. In order to unravel, at least partially, the puzzle, we met Francesco Maselli, journalist and expert in international politics. Editor-in-chief of Linkiesta and contributor to various publications, including Limes, Maselli has created and leads the podcast Cavour, focused on the analysis of Italian foreign policy.

What are the geopolitical priorities of our country?

I will focus on three. The first is to get our economy back on track and start growing again. Italy is based on exports; we do not have raw materials. To become relevant again in the world, we must become competitive again. The Recovery Plan is the last chance to close the gaps in our economy and learn to stay in the markets. We must invest to increase our productivity. In my opinion, to achieve this we must attract foreign talent and strengthen infrastructure. In primis Internet: still many families do not have a sufficiently fast Internet connection. We are a rich country.  We have seen it during the pandemic: Italians have saved, bank accounts have exploded. Now it must be understood how to orient this wealth. The second is to intervene on demographics. We are an old country, plagued by depopulation and emigration, especially in the South. Italians have few children. Since 1993, apart from a couple of exceptions, the birth-death ratio has always been negative.  And for some years now, so has the demographic balance: not even with immigrants does the Italian population increase. We must act to slow down and potentially reverse this trend, also because the fall in population leads to a reduction in consumption and a contraction of the domestic market. There are positive signs in this sense, such as the Family Act, which provides mortgage aid for young couples. But a long-term policy is needed. The third: rediscovering the Mediterranean. Recovering the ability to influence what happens on the southern shores, to avoid first the definitive collapse of Libya and, much less discussed, that of Tunisia.

Matteo Renzi’s first trip abroad as prime minister was to Tunis in 2014. Even then, it was beginning to become clear that it was in our national interest to prevent the country from sinking into chaos. We must work to prevent crises from breaking out in our neighborhood. This also requires rethinking our presence in the Balkans: it is an area of the world that we have stopped considering. Others, such as Turkey and China, have not. Speaking of demographics, according to forecasts made by Business Insider based on UN data, Italy is the only one of the world’s major economies to appear on the list of the 20 countries that will become more depopulated by 2050. Depopulation is not an irrevocable condemnation. The same happened to France in the late 1800s.  After the defeat suffered by Prussia (1871), there were fifty years of demographic stagnation, accentuated by the carnage of the Great War. The demographic stagnation was also indicated as one of the causes of the resounding collapse of France at the beginning of the Second World War. Since then, Paris has launched an ambitious population policy. According to projections, the French population is expected to surpass that of Germany and, by 2100, that of Russia as well. In Italy, population growth has begun to stall after the golden boom years.  Today, pro-birth campaigns are instinctively associated with fascism, and therefore rejected by public opinion. It is a deleterious rhetoric, to be shunned. Italians are not aware of how central this debate is. Demographic issues are perceived as boring and, moreover, the results of policies in this field mature only later.

They do not guarantee an immediate return to politics, which therefore chooses to ignore them. Other European states have also lived through the experience of fascism, albeit under other names, and we can suppose that, on average, foreign public opinion also considers demography a boring subject. What is peculiar to Italy? Continuity is not a political value in Italy, the elites lack political culture. Other countries have a more developed sense of strategy, they think in the long term. When France noticed that birth rates were decreasing, the newspapers headlined “Disaster! Do something!” Ditto in Germany, which, when it realized the danger of population decline, moved to avert it. The decision to take in migrants and refugees undertaken by Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 was also part of this operation. Stimulating economic growth is also necessary to stop the demographic hemorrhage. The data say that Italians want to have children (2 per woman, on average), but do not have the opportunity: the average is only 1.3 per woman. There is an evident discrepancy between what we desire and what we can obtain. It’s also a vicious cycle. The older people get, the less they care about demographics. The elderly population is less prone to risk: they travel, consume and invest less. So, the political actor is less inclined to intervene, lacking the stimulus of consensus building.  Long-term measures such as pro-birth measures do not guarantee votes. But if you do not invest, you condemn yourself to a slow and inexorable decline.  But this is not an ineluctable destiny: we are building it with our own hands.

“With us, continuity is not a political value.” Can you see this clearly in foreign policy? 

Since 1945, Italy has somewhat renounced tracing its own precise trajectory in foreign policy. With Fascism, there was an attempt, between farce and tragedy, to inaugurate a policy of power. Of course, a type of policy completely beyond our capabilities and steeped in an ideology that recalled the glories of the Roman Empire completely insane, further deteriorated by racism. Having lost the war, the ambition to count for something in the world ceased to fascinate us. The First Republic, at least, had found a way to carve out a space for Italy. I am thinking, for example, of the strategy of Enrico Mattei, who understood that Italy could play a role in the process of decolonization with ENI, or of the Christian Democrats’ open attitude towards the Middle East. With Tangentopoli even these impulses ended, and we closed in on ourselves. In part, this happened because we thought that our foreign policy was, after all, conducted directly by the United States. The Americans in Italy have very important aviation bases in Aviano and Ghedi, where there are nuclear devices, and for the Navy, since Naples is the home of the Sixth Fleet.  It is as if Italy thought: “perfect, I don’t have to provide for myself anymore, the story is over”. For sixty years we have given up thinking of ourselves as a geopolitical subject.

And as a unitary subject? How do you evaluate the current state of the dialogue between the North and the South of our country?

Our ruling class has forgotten the Mediterranean, and therefore it has forgotten the South. It compares itself to France and Germany. It interprets the EU as an aspiration, not as an arena in which to compete with other nations for the defense of the national interest. When it looks down, it sees only chaos. So, the South perishes. It gets older and older, partly because the young people are leaving. And attention: it is right and normal that they emigrate. The problem, in this case, is that no one comes to replace those who have left. It’s a negative-sum game. The Recovery Plan should create the conditions to attract minds from the rest of the country, Europe and the world to Southern Italy. So, would you welcome “southern working”? During the pandemic, many young people from the South who had moved north returned home, being able to work remotely. South working has reaffirmed the subaltern position of the South. They return home, being able to work remotely for companies in the North because the weather is nice and the food is good. So, the phenomenon is destined to remain an extemporaneous blaze. This cannot be the future. The South will be reborn if Italy becomes Mediterranean again. We cannot continue to ignore the sea, as we are doing.  Our Navy remains poorly equipped. An example? Last summer, two frigates that had been destined for our fleet were sold to Egypt.

You said that Italy sees the EU as an aspiration, not an arena. What do you mean by that?

It’s the rhetoric of “Europe is asking us to”. We keep looking at others, and not just for inspiration. We don’t imagine what is best for us independently. The others, on the other hand, are in Europe to defend their own interests.

What should Rome demand from Brussels?

A permanent Recovery Plan, first. Then a better management of migratory flows, that is, a revision of the Dublin regulation, itself an emblem of the lack of foresight of our political class. The choice of our government to sign it was extremely short-sighted. Already at the time, in 1990, there were signs of the imminent population boom in Africa, in the face of which an agreement of this type, which in fact offloads the burden of managing flows onto the countries of first arrival, would have been really penalizing for Italy. So, when it came to the ropes, what did we do? Quite simply, we stopped respecting it, letting migrants transit on our territory. A move that made our partners nervous, who then, understandably, proved resistant to the proposed change in the regulation.

Is this sovereignist talk?

“Sovereignty” is an empty word. The parties that claim this label, once in government, have immediately compromised relations with France by supporting the yellow gilets and tried to ally themselves with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the EU state that most opposes the revision of the Dublin regulation. Is this defending the national interest? No, exactly the opposite. These political forces grow in the polls because they give simple answers to needs that society really perceives, such as the definition of a national identity and security. But this is pure rhetoric. On the other hand, pro-European forces counter this “sovereignist” narrative by incensing the EU and vaticinating about a United States of Europe. This in turn is a very simplistic position. Our public debate eschews complex discourses. In my opinion, defending the national interest does not mean saying “let’s go it alone”, but rather having a clear direction and, starting from this, negotiating with foresight and awareness on the specific dossiers that interest us. It is interesting that Prime Minister Mario Draghi spoke of “sovereignty” in his first speech to the Senate, where he said, “there is no sovereignty in solitude”. A State can be independent on paper but not really sovereign because it finds itself dependent on others in various areas. For Italy, being in the EU is fundamental because it allows us to unload and share pressures that we would not be able to manage alone, for example on currency.

Who are our key allies?

France above all. We have many dossiers in common: Libya, Sahel, the Mediterranean, where it is convenient for both of us to reconsider the relationship with Turkey.  And today there is less distrust between Rome and Paris than there used to be. Germany. Northern Italy is integrated in the German value chain: Berlin cannot allow the North to fail, it needs to continue exporting high-quality products. Finally, of course, there is the USA. Nothing can be done without them. We must make sure that Washington returns to take an interest in the Mediterranean, where Turkey and Russia have been ruling for a couple of years. It would be fundamental for us to improve relations with the Maghreb countries: we have mentioned Tunisia and Libya, but also Morocco and Algeria. An addition on Libya. By refusing to use the military force, we have been bullied by General Khalifa Haftar. But, in order to be seen as credible, one must be ready to use military power, as other states do and as we have already done in other contexts, examples being the Balkans and Afghanistan. Egypt is a separate chapter. The Regeni affair has been a splitting point: if we want to be taken seriously, we cannot look away and continue to do business as if nothing had happened. In general, our ruling class dreams of being Central European, but we are Mediterranean. In Trieste, Mitteleurope and the sea do not make up a contradiction, but a union. Certainly, but Trieste is an exception. In Italy, it is often considered a German port, just as the Germans themselves want to consider it. For Trieste this may be fine, but not for the country system.

What should Italy do then?

Interpret Trieste as a vector of influence and an asset to intercept global trade, exploiting its strategic position at the crossroads of the Balkans and Central Europe. Overall, Italy should recognize the importance of the city and its port, increasing investments and strengthening infrastructures. The free port should be included in a national reasoning. First, however, Rome should ask itself a preliminary question: what do I need from the Balkans? For years, they have disappeared from the radar of our foreign policy, our attention has decreased. 

So, why be interested in Trieste if you are not interested in the Balkans?

Perhaps something is changing, thanks to the revival that the city has experienced in the last two years, first with the attempted incursion of China, then with the takeover of the German company HHLA. Trieste has finally taken back the national headlines.

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