Italy and European integration: general background
Despite periodical, yet relatively short fluctuations, support for the European Union (EU) has been a virtually constant guideline in Italian foreign policy for a number of reasons, notably EU’s perceived role as a vehicle of pan-European geopolitical stability, economic re-distribution and socio-cultural modernisation.
When it comes to relations with the so-called ‘big three’, i.e. France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Italian foreign policy has traditionally oscillated between a genuine vocation towards supranationalism, especially by seeking cooperation with the European Commission against the risks of centrifugal drifts in the EU, and a recurrent temptation to take part in intergovernmental ‘directoires’ with at least one of those countries as a way to avoid diplomatic marginalisation in Europe, inject new dynamism in the European integration process and/or strengthen political consensus at home. The history of Italy’s European conduct since the very Treaty on the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to the Constitutional Treaty in 2004 provides much-telling examples of such disposition.
A litmus test for the continuing validity of the country’s two-fold approach to the EU and the ‘big three’ is given by recent developments in two separate, yet strictly interrelated areas in EU’s post-Lisbon architecture: EU economic governance and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
A tangible anti-austerity ‘entente’ with Paris in EU economic governance
Economic governance represents a defining issue for Italy’s role in the EU. Indeed, given its adherence to the Eurozone and its commitment to the ‘Fiscal Compact’ in March 2012, the country had to bear the impacts of the global economic and financial crisis without relying on two traditional, yet often overexploited policy tools, i.e. exchange rate devaluation and counter-cyclical deficit spending. Short-term difficulties add to a number of structural deficiencies in Italy’s economic system, including overall labour market rigidity and lack of long-term investment in education, research and infrastructures.
Against this background, Italy’s position on the much-needed reform of the Economic and Monetary Union insisted on, among other things, forging a truly common fiscal policy union aimed at balancing the effects of growth differentials on public finances in Europe, strengthening the role of the European Central Bank both as a last-resort lender and a protector against speculative attacks on its bonds’ primary market as well as reviewing austerity measures while promoting pro-growth investments to be co-financed by the EU.
In this context, political change in the Elysée in April 2012 allowed the emergence of a rather strong partnership between Rome and Paris, advocating a number of measures including the ‘communitarisation’ of the ‘Fiscal Compact’, a partial mutualisation of member states’ sovereign debts through the so-called ‘Eurobonds’ and a possible devaluation of the euro. While also involving countries like Spain, this rising ‘entente’ primarily aims at confronting Germany’s conservative positions on EU fiscal and monetary governance.
A potential ‘Drang nach Europa’ with Berlin in CFSP
Post-Lisbon CFSP presents remarkable institutional innovations, including the creation of the post of High Representative/Vice President, the establishment of the European External Action Service and the upgrading of EU Delegations across the globe. All this aims at giving more coherence and effectiveness to the EU’s external action, through immediate coordination and, potentially, long-term convergence of member states’ foreign conducts, and the progressive ‘diplomatisation’ of the Commission’s external policies, especially trade, development aid and humanitarian assistance.
This emerging CFSP architecture can provide Italy with unparalleled political leverage and empowered policy tools through which better pursue its political, security and economic interests in priority areas, spanning from Southern Neighbourhood to global security governance, while rewarding Italy’s long-standing commitment to a truly common European foreign policy and helping Rome to compensate for ever-decreasing financial and human resources for its external projection. However, the success of CFSP still largely depends on consensus among EU national capitals and requires ad hoc political critical mass to advance.
In this view, Italy might find an increasingly like-minded partner in Berlin. Indeed, though still in a dormant mode, Germany remains the most pro-European actor among the ‘big three’ when it comes to foreign policy issues, distancing itself both from London’s hyper-pragmatism and France’s conception of the EU as a mere ‘multiplicateur de puissance’. Diplomatic alignment between Italy and Germany on the occasion of the ‘Final Report of the Future of Europe Group’ in September 2012 might inaugurate more bilateral synergies on strategic thinking about EU foreign policy, including on politically sensitive defence matters.
Conclusions. Beyond the ‘big three’: combining intergovermentalism and supranationalism in post-Lisbon EU
While Rome seems inclined to increasingly partner predominantly with Paris and Berlin in these two key areas, the role of the United Kingdom to this end is much less manifest. Though some elements – including London’s push for the completion of the EU single market as well as its pro-Transatlantic geopolitical attitude – would allow closer consultation with Italy, the harshly Eurosceptic stance of the current British government makes such possibility politically unviable in the short run, leaving Italy to counter the enduring risks of a ‘Franco-German axis’ by building coalitions with less traditional partners.
Indeed, stronger political heterogeneity in the post-2007 European Council is pushing Italy to seek the collaboration of ‘intermediate’ countries including Poland, Spain and Sweden, but also of smaller states’ capitals, as a means to promote shared reflection and policy action in post-Lisbon EU. The ‘European Global Strategy’ project, initiated last year by Italy and those three countries on the possible review of the 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS), is a possible concrete example of this likely-to-increase trend in intra-EU coalition-building.
Despite these latest developments in its alliance-making strategy, Italy nonetheless retains a vital interest to accompany such politically meaningful, yet necessarily fatuous ‘mini-lateral’ formats by preserving and further increasing EU’s supranational method, which is still widely perceived in Rome as the ultimate guarantee of long-term, comprehensive and unbiased politico-economic integration in Europe. As such, combining ‘tactical intergovernmentalism’ and ‘strategic supranationalism’ is to remain a major tendency in Italy’s relations with the EU and the ‘big three’. Although such long-term inclination will hardly be challenged, at least for the time being, by the political orientation of any likely governmental coalition coming out of the forthcoming legislative elections, there is plenty of scope for Italy to reinforce its European commitment, including by building stronger internal political consensus on Italy’ EU policies as well as by making it a more proactive supporter of further European integration, starting with an ambitious agenda for its presidency of the Council of the European Union in mid-2014.