Italy’s next bid for victory: The EU and green geopolitics

Italy should use its G20 presidency and COP26 co-presidency to help the EU become a major player in green geopolitics and a mediator between competing great powers

Image by A.Currell

It has been a busy summer for those in the multilateral community who work on the green agenda and the fight against climate change. In Washington, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry recently called on China to join the United States in breaking the climate “suicide pact” by reducing its carbon emissions – as part of an extraordinary effort to reach a modus vivendi on green goals. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union is advancing the European Green Deal and gradually approving its member states’ national recovery plans. The climate agenda seems to be playing a major role in investment and other funding under these plans, especially those of Italy and Spain.

These transatlantic efforts combined on 22-23 July at the G20 energy and climate ministers’ meeting in Naples – an event hosted by Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s first-ever minister for ecological transition. In the lead-up to the meeting, the participants floated many ambitious goals, among them the resumption of a climate dialogue halted by the pandemic and an attempt to set shared climate targets for countries with disparate positions on green issues. All of Italy’s efforts were designed to strengthen the green multilateral agenda before COP26 in Glasgow in November.

However, the outcomes of the G20 meeting were decidedly mixed. The participants moved closer to an agreement on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But, as reflected in the final joint communiqué, they failed to reach an accord on accelerating decarbonisation and on stopping the international financing of coal industries, both issues at the core of the EU’s internal debate on its green future.

The G20 meeting came shortly after devastating floods swept across the heart of Europe. Those images are hard to forget and evoke the same sense of pain and solidarity Europeans have experienced since the pandemic started. These two crises, the climate emergency and covid-19, both threaten human security globally and have prompted many states to try to develop a coordinated multilateral strategy for addressing them. The May 2021 Global Health Summit in Rome, organised within the framework of the Italian G20 presidency and in cooperation with the European Commission, had exactly this objective: to provide the multilateral order – made up of diverse actors, many of them fierce competitors – with the means to react to future crises in a united and coordinated manner. One of the clearest effects of the Global Health Summit was to help put multilateralism at the centre of a model for managing the post-pandemic economic crisis.

The G20 meeting presented a particularly challenging task for Italy, for several reasons. Firstly, Italy was chairing the meeting for the first time since the launch of the format in 1999, and was doing so in one of the most difficult times for itself, Europe, and the global order since the end of the second world war.

Secondly, Italy’s presidency of the G20 comes between that of Saudi Arabia – which currently has a difficult relationship with the EU and its member states – and that of India, a global power under particularly intense pressure from the pandemic and a series of other challenges in the Indo-Pacific (such as Beijing’s activities in the region and the future of Afghanistan after the US military withdrawal from the country). These factors place a huge political responsibility on Italy to act as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and India, and to create a coordinated agenda that will be effective in the coming years.

While the European Green Deal should help the EU become a key multilateral actor on climate issues, the bloc is still new to the kind of geopolitical disputes this could involve

Thirdly, the instability of Italy’s domestic politics in recent decades has eroded its geopolitical power and prevented it from developing a comprehensive national strategy on the main themes of discussions at the G20: the green transition and the evolution of technology and infrastructure. Since 2011 a time when it was reeling from the global financial crisis, Italy has been ruled by seven different coalitions and six different prime ministers – none of whom, until recently, tackled the climate crisis with any particular urgency or coordinated on a green strategy with the country’s partners in Europe and elsewhere.

Of course, Italy was not alone in this: the EU only launched the European Green Deal in 2019, and many of its member states struggle to reconcile EU climate targets with their national interests, especially in relation to the economic effects of carbon reduction. However, Italy stood out for its lack of both a public debate on climate issues and a prominent political force advocating green policies that fit within a European and multilateral framework. The Italian political landscape still seemed disconnected from the green agenda, despite the fact that the Italian public is sensitive to climate issues and would like them to be a collective priority.

This awareness of Italy’s weak position on climate is captured by recent policy brief ‘Europe’s green moment: How to meet the climate challenge’, by Susi Dennison, Rafael Loss, and Jenny Söderström. As polls commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations show, Italy recognises the economic opportunities that arise from the European Green Deal but believes that the greatest challenge for the green transition will be in making effective use of EU funds, due to a lack of leadership and management capabilities. This has been many Italians’ main problem with the green transition: they want it but fear that they will not achieve it, because of huge gaps in their country’s administrative capacity and infrastructure.

However, these worrying political trends seem to be changing. The Draghi government appears to be reorientating Italian strategy within a European framework, which is necessary if Italy wants to benefit from the EU recovery fund and become a net contributor to the EU integration process. As this author and Arturo Varvelli recently argued in ‘Rome’s moment: Draghi, multilateralism, and Italy’s new strategy’, the country is set to play a defining role in the use of the EU recovery fund, whose success or failure will likely shape European integration for years to come and will affect the implementation of the European Green Deal. This would allow Rome to position itself closer to the Franco-German engine and help construct a multilateral system in which the EU and the US are equal partners working together on key multilateral issues, including climate, health security, and economic and infrastructure development.

To be sure, there are risks around the corner. While the European Green Deal should help the EU become an influential force on climate issues, the bloc is still new to the kind of geopolitical disputes this could involve. Nonetheless, the gradual exit from the pandemic should motivate Italy to use its G20 presidency and COP26 co-presidency to help the EU raise its climate profile and become a major player in green geopolitics. In this way, the bloc could mediate between competing great powers and promote pragmatic climate policies and strategies.

Due to its geographical position, Italy is vulnerable to challenges such as political instability in North Africa – which prompts migration that populists manipulate in the Italian public discourse. At the same time, the Draghi government’s focus on European solidarity and the transatlantic relationship means that Italy has an opportunity to internationalise the European Green Deal. Italy can do so by developing its relationships with countries in the EU’s southern neighbourhood and by supporting multilateralism as the only adequate framework for addressing global crises.

Italy has already enjoyed one major victory this summer, at Euro 2020. As the Draghi government works to balance its domestic political bargains with its international commitments, the question is: will it be similarly swift and resilient in the race to address climate change?

This article was made possible with support from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Programme Manager, ECFR Rome

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