Changes of government in Rome always raise concerns among its allies about Italy’s positioning on foreign affairs and security matters. Recurring political crises have limited the role the country is able to play in the international arena. Even if pro-Europeanism and transatlanticism are a staple of Rome’s traditional foreign and defence policy, chronic internal instability tends to undermine its credibility and reliability in the eyes of both NATO and EU allies.
A recent political crisis in Italy led to a new government emerging, with former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi as prime minister. As ever, questions have arisen about what Italy will do next. In the days following his appointment, Draghi made clear that he wanted a pro-European cabinet with a transatlantic vocation. He brought Luigi di Maio and Lorenzo Guerini both back as foreign affairs and defence ministers respectively, a move that was intended to convey continuity and reassurance to allies and the broader international community.
This is a moment in which the new American president and the European Union and its member states are considering what form European sovereignty should take – including what role the defence sector should play in this. The Biden administration appears relatively open to the EU building stronger European defence capabilities, even if the Italian public regards the new White House with some ambiguity, as a recent ECFR poll shows. Italy, as the third EU power in the defence-industrial sector, is cautious about the Franco-German partnership becoming unduly dominant.
Together, these are favourable circumstances that could help Italy develop its own strategic, long-term thinking and identify which goals best preserve its interests. The risk for it is that its recent political upheaval, and domestic demands for reform in various sectors, mean Rome may not engage Berlin and Paris sufficiently to shape European security and defence policy at this auspicious moment. There is also a risk that France and Germany will simply proceed towards an agreement and present it to European partners as a fait accompli. Other smaller or medium-sized countries in Europe share this concern. Yet today, Italy has many cards to play in the construction of a European defence architecture: Rome could act both as a link with Washington, which is searching for a new privileged European partner after Brexit; as an important centre of gravity for the EU’s Mediterranean policy; and as a point of contact not only for Berlin and Paris, but also for those EU partners outside the Franco-German partnership that want to find like-minded partners on crucial matters.
Italian officials reiterate that the future of European defence cannot be separated from solid transatlantic integration. Italy wants to build up its own defence capabilities in the context of a wider European cooperation project. However, Rome also holds the deep conviction that the transatlantic relationship is essential for guaranteeing it a geopolitical position in tune with its ambitions and technology base. Italian foreign and defence policy’s traditional steady balance between pro-Europeanism and transatlanticism has, surprisingly enough, survived all kinds of structural political instability over the decades. It will remain the basis for effective policy, reflecting Rome’s key interests. It is thus crucial for Italian decision-makers not to get lost in the maze of domestic politics’ twists and turns. They would do well to draw on the spirit expressed in a joint letter by the defence ministers of Italy, France, Germany, and Spain in the May 2020 calling for European defence and security cooperation to be strengthened.
To ensure Italy is playing a full and active role in European defence, whatever its own internal political tribulations, its government should pursue the following recommendations.
Firstly, engage in EU defence programmes, such as the EU’s Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, the European Defence Fund, and Permanent Structured Cooperation. Despite limitations in these programmes’ implementation and ambition, key technologies and capabilities can be still more easily acquired in cooperation with European partners and with co-financing from European funding than they can alone. This is not least given the effects of covid-19 on defence budgets. Developing technologically advanced defence capabilities able to deal with rapidly changing modern conflict scenarios and matching the needs of the armed forces requires a continuity and adequate level of investment in research, technology, and development. A glance at Italy’s defence budget reveals that the country cannot provide for this on its own; cooperation is therefore essential both within and outside of EU frameworks.
Secondly, maintain government investment to support a competitive defence-industrial sector. This is especially in those market segments where Italy possesses niche, or outstanding, capabilities. The defence ministry’s latest spending plans show an increase in investment, but the budget is worryingly low for programmes to be developed or procured in cooperation with other nations.
Thirdly, accelerate the full digitalisation of the armed forces. The military is aware of the increasingly pressing need to understand and invest in emerging technologies but is often too slow to adapt to the digital dimension.
Finally, ensure smoother cooperation and faster coordination among civil and military components both at national and at European level, as well as between public and private actors. From the management of critical infrastructure, to innovation and developments in emerging technologies, private sector stakeholders oversee key areas that contribute to effective foreign, security, and defence policies. Coordination and constant dialogue in well-established formats is of fundamental importance, and will lead to more coherent and solid action and better responsiveness to crises.
Italy can and must do more to ensure it still has effective armed forces and is able to support a foreign and defence policy that serves Europe’s and Rome’s own interests. Italy’s policymakers should avoid getting distracted by current, and inevitable future, political crises. They must keep focused on the medium-term improvements needed for Italy’s defence and on priorities relating to strategy and tools. This would help Rome play a relevant, more systemic role at the European level and for it to be a reliable partner to NATO and EU allies, while legitimately pursuing its own interests, no matter who is in the driving seat.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.