Italy shouldn't trade economic benefits for following US in geopolitics
Published: Jul 26, 2023 06:24 PM
Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni Photo: VCG

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will visit the White House and meet US President Joe Biden on Thursday. Biden invited Meloni to the White House to discuss four important topics: Transatlantic cooperation regarding China, developments in North Africa, Italy's upcoming presidency of the G7 in 2024, and of course the conflict in Ukraine.

We can quickly dispense with three of these topics. Meloni is a fervent supporter of NATO intervention in Ukraine. While she certainly has made a lot of noise about her support for Russia in the past, today, she is firmly in the US-NATO camp. Italy is a stalwart defender of US hegemony. One of the best examples of that support is the role that Italy has played in North Africa, as a leading NATO participant in "keeping the peace," a euphemism for military intervention. Lastly, any substantive discussion about Italy's presidency of the G7 next year is irrelevant, as no country in the G7 would challenge US policy.

This leaves us with the question of China. There has been much hype about Italy's planned withdrawal from the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While we cannot be sure what the outcome of the Biden- Meloni meeting will be, the probability of Italy remaining in the BRI is unlikely. This is not due to economic reasons, but political and military reasons.

In March 2019, Italy's then prime minister Giuseppe Conte signed the memorandum of understanding on BRI cooperation with China. This memorandum made Italy the first G7 country to join the BRI, which surprised and troubled the EU and the US. However, Italian politics has its particularly dramatic characteristics: Since 2000, Italy has had more than 10 prime ministers (including the late Silvio Berlusconi, who was elected twice).Although every Italian prime minister claims that Italy is an independent nation, to a certain extent, this is far from the truth. The US has seven military bases in Italy with troops from the army, navy, and air force. These bases not only control the country, but also serve as a springboard for imperialist aggression against the Global South, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. In these US and NATO-led military aggressions, Italy is not, however, an innocent victim.

In recent months, Rome has actively participated in US efforts to contain China, through deepening relations with the island of Taiwan and engaging in defense-related cooperation with Japan and India. Recently, Rome dispatched the multi-role patrol vessel Francesco Morosini to East Asia to begin a five-month mission aimed at developing synergies and training experiences with the Quad. Reportedly, Rome also plans to deploy its flagship aircraft carrier, the Cavour, in the Indian Ocean-Pacific region.

However, following the US in geopolitics has not yielded economic returns for Italy. Over the past 16 years, Italy's GDP growth has been relatively stagnant, with a significant decline in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has not yet recovered to the level of 2007. The inflation rate has remained high. Ironically, the current high inflation rate is, to some extent, also a result of following the US political stance.

Other economic indicators are equally dismal. Italy's government debt ratio is one of the highest among all EU countries. In 2022, the debt ratio exceeded 150 percent of GDP and is now "stabilized" at about 145 percent. Some of that debt is owed to the IMF. Given that Italy's economic performance is by no means outstanding, why not continue with a program that supports much-needed infrastructure and economic growth, such as the BRI? However, both Meloni and her predecessor, former prime minister Mario Draghi, have prioritized maintaining alignment with the aggressive, militaristic policies of the US over the economic interests of the country. During his tenure as prime minister, Draghi explicitly stated that despite China being an important partner, Italy's economic interests remained firmly anchored in the West. Meloni, the representative of the far-right government, used her power to scrutinize China's state-owned chemical giant Sinochem, aiming to "limit" the company's access to sensitive technology from Italy. Just last month, Meloni's government made its decision on the case, imposing rigid restrictive measures on the ownership rights of Sinochem in Pirelli.

Will Italy "break away" from the BRI? With the signing of the BRI cooperation memorandum, memoranda of understanding in other areas have also been signed in succession, which means the BRI is not just about sporadic goods imports and exports for the two countries but may impact their relationship. Maybe the question is not whether or not Italy will stay in the BRI, but rather how much the BRI really matters to the country.

The author is an American journalist based in Italy. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn