Italy’s foreign policy has traditionally considered the Balkan region as a key area of political, economic and even cultural projection since its own unification process in the late 19th century. This made the history of Italy and of the Balkans increasingly, albeit often problematically, intertwined.
The past 15 years have been marked by a deepening of Italy’s multi-dimensional and multi-level interaction with non-EU Balkans. This relationship has many components, building on a deep-rooted tradition of bilateral diplomatic relations and international agreements which cover a variety of issues and themes. In this context, Italy considers Serbia and Albania as the two ‘pillars’ of the region and the most important countries for its national agenda, as demonstrated by the regular, ‘trilateral’ diplomatic process between Rome, Belgrade and Tirana.
It should not sound surprising, therefore, that Italy has always been a vocal supporter of EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans. Rome ultimately deems the national interests at stake in the region – in particular, trade, investment and soft and hard security concerns - to be best safeguarded by the mid-term EU integration of the Balkans. As such, it has traditionally described the ultimate European perspective of the region as a strategic interest, due to the positive effects of European integration on domestic and regional reconciliation in the Balkans, its benefits for their institutional stability and internal security, the expected opportunities for Italy coming from EU-spurred socio-economic development in the region, and the likely rebalancing of Europe’s geopolitical equilibrium between northern and southern Member States, following EU’s enlargement to South-Eastern Europe.
The current EU enlargement strategy is thus assessed positively by Italy, albeit with some critical points. Rome still considers “sticks and carrots” as the best way to encourage reforms and gradual alignment with the EU acquis. The progress made by Serbia and Albania between 2014 and 2017 is viewed by Rome as an example of the relative success of EU conditionality. Given the crucial importance attached by Rome to the consolidation of the rule of law, Italy welcomes the European Commission’s insistence on ‘fundamentals first’, including having Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and Chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) opened early and closed late in the accession negotiations. Likewise, Rome deems the “regatta approach” as the only viable strategy for the region. This is in light of the precedents that have been set by Slovenia and Croatia, the perceived differences in political maturity and socio-economic development among candidates, and the need to inject a dynamic of positive competition. However, it is of paramount importance for Italy that the “enlargement fatigue” currently experienced by the EU does not generate a parallel “accession fatigue” among Balkans applicants.
Having said this, despite its reiterated pro-EU enlargement standing, the Italian approach to the Western Balkans and their EU path remains affected by some structural constraints. These include cyclic drops in the attention paid to the region by Italy’s political elites, also due to growing (euro)scepticism of ordinary citizens, and the coordination challenge posed by multiple and sometimes overlapping frameworks of regional cooperation, including the "Adriatic and Ionian Initiative", the "Central European Initiative", the "Adriatic Euroregion" and the "EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region".
Further vulnerabilities also lie in the need for stronger diplomatic focus, alongside regional security, economic and migratory issues, on the overall state of democracy and freedom of expression in the Western Balkans, and the recurring lack of sufficient political leverage to influence EU decision-making when compared to other European capitals, as witnessed in the early phases of the Berlin Process in 2015, and by the successful British-German initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in late 2014.
The imminent Trieste Summit on the Western Balkans, emblematically hosted by the Italian Government in the former port city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could and should represent, as recently stated by the Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano “a unique and unmissable opportunity to ensure that the European prospect of the Western Balkans does not become an abstract and distant concept, and to solidify every possible bridge between the Western Balkans and Italy, and between Italy and Europe”.
It is clearly time for Italy to rediscover its ‘Balkan vocation’, by matching a more proactive, comprehensive and participatory diplomatic engagement with a continued support for a credible and effective EU enlargement strategy in the region. The Trieste Summit might indeed provide an essential step in this direction.
Andrea Frontini, Policy Analyst in the ‘Europe in the World Programme’ of the European Policy Centre (EPC: www.epc.eu), think tank based in Brussels, Belgium.