Geopolitics on the rocks

Antonia Colibasanu

Why the US now fears what's happening in Italy

Italy, Europe, North America

Italy’s importance to the United States is found in its role within U.S.-European affairs

After the Five Star Movement and the League won parliamentary elections in March, an “end of an era” for Italian politics was declared by mainstream media. The win was not unexpected. Traditional politics lost ground as, for the public, they embodied the elites who did little to deal with the real problems voters had in their daily lives.

Worse, the big parties came to be seen not only as not the solution to problems, but the problem itself. This was similar to the result of the last U.S. elections. Trump won because he understood the growing gap between the ruling elites and the majority of the American voters. However, what triggers a change in politics doesn’t trigger a change in geopolitics and the last two years of Trump are proof to that.

U.S. relations with the world are determined by the American national interest. Its relations with Italy are set by the geopolitical imperatives of the two countries, and not by their changing politics. Italy’s imperative is keeping a sufficient level of unity among the country’s regions to prevent disintegration, while maintaining some degree of control on the neighboring Mediterranean territories to avoid the risk of invasion.

Italy has used its EU and NATO membership to balance internal and external pressures. The EU has been instrumental in addressing Italian internal socio-economic problems while NATO has played a similar role in addressing the security threats coming from the shores of North Africa.

Italy’s importance to the United States is found in its role within U.S.-European affairs. U.S. policy in Europe is focused on security. The relations between Rome and Brussels matter for Washington in the context of understanding the fissures of the EU. The extent of EU fragmentation is reflected in NATO. At the same time, Italy’s view (comprised within the Italian policies, official pronouncements or political exchanges) on how the EU should deal with both the Ukrainian and the migration crises are indicators for how Italy positions itself within NATO.

Italy challenges within the EU

The most important discussion Italy is currently having with Brussels relates to its socio-economics. Italy is still recovering after the 2008 economic crisis: the GDP is still stagnant and the unemployment rate is still high, above 10%, with the situation being worse for young people. The banking sector is still dealing with problems, even if number of the non-performing loans has decreased during the last five years.

In coping with the EU crisis, Italy's strategy has been developed on the premise that it is simply too big to fail. Considering that Italy is the third-largest economy of the EU, Rome has counted on the fact that the EU authorities will always ultimately come to the rescue. Also because of its size, Rome wants Europe to come to the rescue without interfering too much and imposing rules that affect in Italy's own way of doing things internally. Italy is against Brussels calls on spending cuts – because it feels its social problems are still high, while it is constantly negotiating with Brussels over its ability to protect the banking sector.

The Italian government has bailed out its banks despite regulations that the European Central Bank had publicized earlier.

It has done so after negotiating with the ECB and Brussels on the deal. However, such deals are seen as proof for just how ineffective the European Central Bank may be and, ultimately how Germany – the de facto leader of the EU - can’t really impose its own will over the eurozone matters, having to negotiate each time the euro area’s stability is questioned. For Italy, the negotiation process works to its benefit – it helps Rome to find easy fixes to its particular problems.  

There are some matters where negotiation doesn’t help much. Italy is disappointed by the EU lack of progress in addressing the refugee crisis. Italy has supported Germany in its push for a solution that would have involved all EU member states. That was not successful as migration was not similarly important for Eastern Europeans as it was to the Westerners. Most of the refugees were seeking asylum in the West and not in the East. The East doesn’t see why it has to share the burden for solving an issue that doesn’t affect them.

Similarly, the West doesn’t share a common vision with the East when it comes to the EU policy towards Russia. Italy wants no renewed sanctions on Russia considering the strong commercial ties between the two countries. Unlike Eastern European countries like Romania or Poland, Italy doesn’t feel threatened by Moscow’s influence and unlike Germany, Italy is not interested in the areas that Russia sees as its spheres of influence. Russia is an important export destination for Italy. Rome also gets about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia and the two countries’ energy companies operate together in projects around the world. 

Rome and Moscow have strategic interests that are rarely in conflict. Italy is worried about the instability of Libya, which has led to massive waves of refugees reaching Italian shores. Italy hopes to keep Libya in its sphere of influence also considering its energy needs - Italy gets roughly 20 percent of its oil and 10 percent of its natural gas from the North African country. Rome supports the United Nations' negotiations with Libya's competing factions but is also frustrated by the lack of progress. Italy would like Russia to provide diplomatic support for those negotiations, considering Moscow’s own interest in North Africa and its close relations with Libya.

However, for Russia, the stabilization of the region, let alone the reduction of migration flows to Southern Europe, is not a priority. Russia would like to expand its access to the Mediterranean and establish a foothold in a European sphere of influence – this would eventually reduce the U.S. ability to maneuver militarily. But for the moment, North Africa is to Russia an economic opportunity: it is a place where the Kremlin can sell arms and forge partnerships in the energy sector.

For Russia, regaining influence in Ukraine and keeping control of its buffer zone is most important. At its turn, the U.S. needs to keep Russia from advancing its influence in Europe: to do so it supports the build-up of the Intermarium, the new containment line between the Baltic and the Black Sea. While the Eastern Ukraine crisis is settled into a de facto frozen conflict, the U.S. is also negotiating with the EU on keeping the sanctions over Russia. Italy was pressured to follow official EU and US policy regarding sanctions, but it continually urged caution and moderation in the introduction of punitive measures. The matter is however, beyond Rome’s control.

The EU fissures and their importance for the U.S.

In Washington, the diplomatic statements coming out of Rome or any other capital of the EU are only read from the perspective of the potential EU fragmentation and its impact over NATO cohesion. While U.S. policy in Europe is focused on security, the European powers are shaping their relationships on the continent based on other, more complex factors.

The U.S. commits to the defense of Eastern Europe from the Baltic countries down to Romania, as part of its strategy to contain Russia, while Germany’s relationships in Central and Eastern Europe are guided by its economic interests that also relate to the EU regulations and the differences in political opinions between Berlin, Warsaw, Bucharest or Budapest.

From the diplomatic statements relating to the EU policy towards Russia, the U.S. tries to understand which of the European countries are in favor of the U.S. approach, which countries may actually send forces and which countries want nothing to do with it, in the event that the Eastern flank of NATO needs defended.

Also important to the U.S., the flow of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa has potential implications for terrorist capabilities globally, not only for Europe. The EU not being able to address it in a coherent way and the European countries’ failure to coordinate and deploy the forces needed to patrol the Mediterranean, to monitor and efficiently address the crisis, speaks of their preparedness to work on addressing their security needs in a coherent manner, one that involves planning and execution.

The Europeans have called on NATO to address some matters related to the refugee crisis. For the U.S. that translates into a call for their involvement. NATO has deployed ships for the purpose – but Americans are concerned about the chaotic political environment that made it impossible for action be taken by Europeans on a core and urgent security matter for Europe.   

This points to the fact that the EU’s fragmentation and odd decision-making process is affecting NATO. During the Cold War, there was political consensus and plans were made – the mission was simple. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were few missions involving NATO. The Alliance grew to integrate countries of Eastern Europe as member states.

With the re-emergence of Russian power and the complexities of refugee policies that involve everything from rules for maritime interdiction of refugees to fighting the Islamic State, the U.S.-European coordination becomes important again. NATO issues, EU issues and hybrid issues need to be addressed – by both Europeans and the U.S.

The notion of a trans-Atlantic alliance remains a conceptual foundation of U.S. defense policy, despite its willingness to engage in unilateral actions. It is assumed that in extreme circumstances all of NATO will act together. The United States relied not on NATO, but on a coalition of the willing in Iraq. The British were there. The American fear is that while it values the U.S.-British relationship, the British-EU relations would be damaged and this would create an even more difficult situation in NATO. The U.S. is monitoring the EU in order to understand how NATO will be shaped by the EU fragmentation.

It is forgotten that the U.S. was the first major advocate of European integration, considering it was part of the Marshall Plan from the very beginning. But the EU’s divisions are real. It is important for the U.S. to understand how Italy and Germany diverge on banking regulations and the future of the banking union. Just as it is important to understand how Italy and Romania diverge on Russia policy.

Their disagreements will spread to other areas and will therefore affect NATO. The American fear is that the trans-Atlantic relations that define American strategy will collapse under European fragmentation pressure. The U.S. looks to Italy – and other European countries – to understand where its allies’ interests remain the same and where they diverge.