One only has to glance at the Italian media to know that, across the political spectrum, Italy’s public debate is dominated by discussions of whether the Chinese government is attempting to buy the country. Following Rome’s official endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) earlier this month, most prominent Italian decision-makers and political commentators seem to have put aside urgent challenges on the European agenda to focus on this unexpected shift to the east. Even issues as divisive as migration and the powers of the European Union – pillars of the ruling Five Star Movement’s and League’s political identity – now seem somewhat outdated.
The debate pits those who prioritise strengthened economic relations with China against those who fear that the initiative will turn Italy into the “next Africa or Greece”. In many ways, the recent increase in Italian enthusiasm for closer economic relations with China began in 2014, when Matteo Renzi, then prime minister, conducted a high-profile tour of the country. Renzi’s successor, Paolo Gentiloni, continued the effort to court Beijing, as has the current Italian government.
China and Italy are currently negotiating a memorandum that includes 50 economic, cultural, and infrastructural agreements, most of which concern Italian state-owned and private companies, including national champions. The memorandum – which, unlike those Beijing has with 13 other European states, is not legally binding – will be signed during President Xi Jinping’s 21-24 March trip to Italy (the first such visit by a Chinese leader since Hu Jintao attended the G8 summit in L’Aquila in 2009). Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a former lawyer, has repeatedly emphasised that the memorandum will include all necessary references to the European and multilateral values Italy has asked China to respect. He aims to reassure Rome’s European and other partners – primarily Washington – that Italy remains committed to the EU and the transatlantic relationship.
Italy’s current attitude towards China has two key features. Firstly, no one would have expected the current government to be so open to Chinese investment, given its traditional orientation towards partners such as the United States and Russia. Secondly, the government is divided on the issue (this is hardly a novelty in Italian politics). The Five Star Movement and Conte strongly support the agreement with Beijing, seeing it as a unique opportunity to improve economic relations with China, especially through Chinese shipping to the ports of Trieste and Genova. Luigi di Maio – head of the Five Star Movement and a deputy prime minister – leads the initiative in his role as economics minister. He must handle the divisive China issue carefully, as his party is losing support to its partner in the governing coalition, the League.
League leader Matteo Salvini, the other deputy prime minister, is also in a difficult position. This is due to his long-running enthusiasm for US President Donald Trump and the transatlantic relationship more broadly. Salvini’s cautious approach to Beijing is reflected in his successful attempt to exclude from the memorandum any reference to Chinese investment in telecommunications. He has done so to prevent Huawei from becoming involved in Italy’s 5G cabling and construction project, in line with US warnings that the Chinese firm might use this to access intelligence exchanges between Italy and its NATO partners.
Regarding himself as the leader of Europe’s sovereigntist bloc, Salvini has approached the BRI with a reserve and subtlety he rarely displays on other issues. Yet the League’s position is clear: there will be no deal with China that undermines Italy’s security or relationship with strategically important partners such as the US.
With the European Parliament elections due to take place in less than two months, Salvini is also very conscious of the electoral support he can gain from taking a hard line on Beijing. Given that most Italians appear to have little enthusiasm for China, Salvini is likely keen to avoid any suggestion of having betrayed his “Italians and Italian goods first” campaign slogan. Yet he also wants to be perceived as a credible political leader, partner, and interlocutor elsewhere in Europe, especially Germany, the United Kingdom, and France – the three European countries that both benefit most from Chinese direct investment and are most concerned about Italy’s eastern shift. Salvini also appears to be acknowledging the concerns of the EU institutions, which often state that bilateral relations with China which could undermine European integrity and unity.
Thus, the BRI has joined a long series of issues that divide Italy’s ruling parties. In the run-up to Xi’s visit, it will be interesting to see whether they will present a united front on China, as well as in dealing with their European partners. The Italian president, who usually operates behind the scenes, will play a major part in this, trying to balance the two souls of the government, mediate between them, and reassure the US that security will always come before economics. Nonetheless, Rome now seems stuck between Beijing and Washington – between economic opportunities and security guarantees.
More broadly, Italian politics is in a highly unusual state: the domestic agenda has been overshadowed by foreign policy concerns. But this will not last long. The BRI debate could provide Italian parties with the perfect chance to test their strategies for the European Parliament election campaign – a campaign that will determine the fate of both halves of the government.