European Affairs

Many of those complaining were usually cheerful senior Italian politicians and diplomats who have played active roles in Italian foreign policy and the construction of a more united Europe over many years. They were too polite to put a damper on the proceedings by venting their gloomy feelings in the conference. But, privately they gave remarkably similar accounts of their three main grievances.

The first is that Italian influence in the European Union has declined sharply in recent years, and particularly during and following the six-month Italian EU Presidency in the latter half of 2003. The second is that the new Europe that is emerging from the European Union's recent enlargement and the elaboration of a European constitution is not the close political union that Italy has always wanted. The third is that the recent clashes between the United States and some of its European allies (notably France and Germany), and the ensuing discord inside the European Union, have chilled the warm Transatlantic relations to which Italy has been dedicated for the past half century.

The three themes are closely interwoven. One conference participant said that Italy had always conducted its foreign policy like a skier, with one ski being its commitment to European integration, the other its attachment to the United States. When the two skis start heading in different directions, Italy finds itself in an impossible position. A leading parliamentary representative of Italy's governing coalition, who did not attend the conference, but visited Washington recently, complained bitterly that Italy was "isolated" in Europe and that "the major European countries do not consult us any more," because Italy had sided with Washington over the war in Iraq. "What is there in it for us in Italy, being members of the coalition in Iraq?" he lamented

Italy's relative lack of influence in the European Union has been highlighted in recent months by its exclusion from an emerging triumvirate of European leaders seeking to guide EU policies, especially in defense and foreign affairs.Many Italians, who consider their country one of the European Union's Big Four, deeply resent the way in which French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have agreed on their own tripartite initiatives.

Italy, however, has not been left out of this group because of its support for Washington over Iraq, as the Parliamentarian claimed. Mr. Blair, after all, has been President George W. Bush's closest ally in the war and is also criticized at home for not gaining any significant quid pro quo from Washington. Britain's close relations with America may mean that it will never win acceptance as a full partner in the triumvirate, at least by France. As a non-member of the euro, Britain cannot be at the heart of European economic and financial policies. But both Paris and Berlin believe that common EU foreign and defense policies cannot realistically be formulated without Britain, which retains much greater worldwide military and diplomatic clout than Italy. Another reason for Italy's absence is that his three colleagues do not regard Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as respectable or statesmanlike enough to be admitted into the inner sanctum.

Indeed, a number of Italians in Venice blamed Mr. Berlusconi's mishandling of Italy's EU Presidency as contributing to Italy's loss of influence. Mr. Berlusconi began his Presidency by publicly insulting a German member of the European Parliament, whom he said would have made a good guard at a concentration camp. He ended it by chairing a badly prepared summit meeting in Brussels that failed to agree on the new European constitution. In between, he came up with off-the-wall policy proposals, such as admitting Russia and Israel into the European Union, on which he had not consulted his colleagues.

Although the Venice meeting was off the record, Cesare Merlini, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Council for the United States and Italy, earlier stated publicly in Washington that "in the last few years Italy has lost the role as a motor of European integration that it used to have." Unlike many Italians, Mr. Merlini said he did not mind ad hoc cooperation between Britain, France and Germany if it helped to speed up EU decision- making, provided the grouping did not coalesce into a permanent directorate. He regretted, however, that Italy had helped to undercut an alternative proposal under consideration last year, which was to form an EU inner core composed of the six original members (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). Italians will not mind so much if management of the 25-nation European Union requires the formation of a variety of different steering groups, in some of which Italy would participate, but they will be profoundly vexed if their country is reduced to second-class status in the process.

Such problems would not arise, many Italians believe, if the European Union became a full political union in which individual nation states wielded less power and the central institutions more — an aim that Italy has long supported. As a relatively new nation in European terms, with a history of weak government in Rome, Italy has always had fewer objections to pooling sovereignty in the central EU institutions than older nations like France and Britain.

Many Italian policy makers hoped that the European Union would seize the opportunity of its recent enlargement and last year's constitutional convention to make a great leap forward toward greater political unity — hopes that have clearly been frustrated. They now have difficulty seeing how to anchor Italy's role in an amorphous 25-nation European Union, with weak central institutions, that is at odds over its future relations with the United States. Earlier illusory hopes of forming an alternative triumvirate composed of Britain, Italy and Spain have collapsed following the election defeat of Jose-Maria Aznar, the former conservative, pro-American Prime Minister of Spain, and the apparent defection of Mr. Blair to the Franco-German camp, despite continuing Anglo-French policy and personality clashes.

In truth it must be said that one of the main premises underlying Italian discontent, that Italy until recently exercised a big influence on EU integration, is somewhat exaggerated. Although Italy played a key role as a founder member in the 1950s, it has since consistently wielded less political power than the size of its economy and its population would justify. This is largely a failure of Italian governance — it is not the fault of the other member countries, still less that of the United States, as the Italian parliamentarian who visited Washington in June seemed to think. In a desperate search for a scapegoat, the parliamentarian even blamed the Bush administration for the failure of Italy's EU presidency — as if greater U.S. success in Iraq would somehow have transformed Mr. Berlusconi into a more skillful leader of the European Union.

All that said, it would be wrong to conclude that the canvas painted in Venice was one of unremitting darkness and despair. There was wide agreement among Americans and Italians that Europe and the United States will need each other more than ever to confront the dangers of the 21st century, and that a start is being made in trying to put Transatlantic relations on a sounder footing. A sign of brightness on the horizon was detected in the increasing realization by U.S. policy-makers, if not by all members of the administration, that Washington will badly need its European allies to prosecute the war on terrorism.

But the main onus will fall on Europe. The European Union cannot act coherently on the world stage if it cannot agree on one of the most fundamental elements of a global strategy, its relationship with the United States. At least some Americans also understand that a cohesive Europe is a prerequisite for a strong Atlantic partnership. Europeans, however, cannot simply mark time hoping for a change of leadership in the United States in November, which may well not happen, and would not solve Europe's problems if it did. The Europeans must solve their own problems. And the Italians, with their strong roots in both the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance, can still make a big contribution if they want to.

Reginald Dale is Editor-in-Chief of European Affairs.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number II in the Spring of 2004.