At least apparently, the meeting between US President Trump and Italy’s Prime Minister Conte – already widely planned and publicized – went well.
With some common and evident pride, they mutually defined each other as the initiators of what, nowadays, is usually called “populism”, consisting in the fight against traditional elites in favour of the “people” that, however, actually appears rather as a fight between two different components of the global elite: the old one that still focuses on globalization and the other that instead gathers around the evident crisis of globalism and wants to build a new multipolar world. Ultimately the opening to the world market has proved to be less effective than expected: the cost for destroying “domestic” jobs has turned out to be greater than the gains resulting from the globalized market.
President Trump, who has clear in mind what is still happening on the US-Mexican border, said that the Italian government’s work on the migrant issue “is formidable”.
Italy’s government work that, however, would be “formidable” both for illegal migrants and for the very few legal ones.
Nevertheless President Trump was particularly sensitive to an issue which is high on prime Minister Conte’s agenda, namely Libya.
Trump and Conte have established a new “strategic dialogue” between the USA and Italy on Libya, while the US President currently recognizes Italy’s hegemony over the Mediterranean and the stabilization of Libya and, later, of Northern Africa.
In more specific terms, President Trump said it would further diminish the American presence in the Mediterranean and would delegate Italy to manage and reduce tensions in the region. Hence the need for the Italian government to increase defence spending, as we will see later on.
In August 2018 Italy will already send some military ships to Libyan waters, while the United States still has many ships operating in the Mediterranean, which they do not intend to relinquish completely.
The new US-Italian “control room” will operate within the framework between this residual US presence and the increase of Italian operations in the Mediterranean.
Prime Minister Conte’s real project, however, is a great International Conference on Libya, to be held in Rome next autumn, which will see the United States play the role of hegemonic power and will enable the Italian government to definitively position itself as the leader of the whole Libyan political process.
In fact, Prime Minister Conte is thinking about a joint “control room” between Italy and the United States, especially for Libya and for security in the Mediterranean region.
Nevertheless there is a problem: the difference between the US and Italian war potentials.
There is also the different assessment of the Mediterranean region by the United States, which sees the Mediterranean in connection with the Persian Gulf and Central Asia (hence in contrast with Russian interests), and finally the contact with China’s maritime control area.
Conversely, probably due to a still narrow-minded vision, for Italy the Mediterranean is the region in which the migrants’ market must be controlled and finally be put to an end, by avoiding the interference of France – which is interested in encouraging the flow of migrants towards Europe and hence towards Italy – and the jihad, which is spread also through large-scale migration.
All French – and sometimes British – interests are far from Italy’s and often totally diverging with its goals.
Furthermore, Italy has long played all its cards on Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, the “legitimate” one according to the United Nations and hence – according to our experience – the weakest and most unstable and irrelevant government.
There are currently signs of a new relationship with General Haftar, but none of the two Libyan governments fully trusts Italy. Probably it would be a smart strategy for Italy to play all its cards on Fayez al-Sarraj, so as to remain his sole sponsor and later play from a vantage point with General Haftar himself, that now no longer goes beyond the old border with Tripolitania.
How will Italy be in a position to get in touch with the region in the West controlled by General Khalifa Haftar, a leader who reports respectively to Egypt, Russia and France, which has always pretended to support Fayez al-Sarraj but, from the beginning, has made the Service Action of its intelligence services side with the military of the East, of General Haftar’s Cyrenaica?
Clearly the de facto union between the United States and Italy for Libya serves to get France and most of the EU out of play – and, indeed, the EU has scarcely taken care of the issue. The French-EU system is now a structural opponent of Prime Minister Conte’s government, but is also a German ally. Germany is now an enemy of President Trump’s United States and he wants it to reduce its export surplus, which is greater in real terms than China’s.
The “distant friend”, namely America, to be called against the “near enemy”, namely the EU, which is an old and excellent Israeli strategy, but never replaces the direct operations against the opponent that is only a few steps away.
The Italian struggle is against the “Rhenish” Europe, which still wants to split up the “Libyan region” and is not interested in the migration issue, which does not affect France and Germany at all.
Germany has mostly migrants from the Middle East, not so much from the Maghreb region.
In fact, migration in Italy is an operation of “indirect strategy”: the costs for the State increase; the mass of skilled workers decreases; also the innovation potential of companies decreases since they are de facto forced to hire low-skilled migrants when they need manpower; finally the invisible costs of large-scale migration increase, such as health, prison system, security and initial support to the migrants themselves.
The aforementioned Italian-US “control room”, however, puts the EU in a difficult position: it is true that President Trump said that, in the future, Italy would play the role of “facilitator” between the USA and the EU, but Italy is as weak within the European Union as it is strong in the bilateral link with Trump’s “populist” United States.
The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), the gas pipeline that the USA favours against the gas lines controlled in Northern Europe by Russia and its “friendly” countries, is the “wedding gift” that President Trump asks to Italy.
This pipeline falls within a markedly anti-Russian policy line, but it also affects an Apulian region, namely Salento, that is already very sensitive for the current Italian government from the electoral viewpoint. In fact the Italian government won many votes from the anti-TAP movements, which are very strong in Salento, and are ready to fight to the death.
Will the Five Star Movement decide to lose its face and Apulia’s voters with a view to strengthening its friendship with the United States, while President Trump asks for government support to the TAP as Italian government’s “proof of love”?
Furthermore will the Italian government’s support for the TAP be useful in relation to the Russian Federation, which should become a supporter of the new “sovereinist” Italy?
I am afraid that if the current government does not choose from the beginning with which of the two powers it wants to side, it will find itself in the same unpleasant and uncomfortable situation as Arlecchino in Goldoni’s play The Servant of Two Masters.
Moreover, in spite of everything, the Russian issue is at the core of the new “contract” between Prime Minister Conte and President Trump.
The EU sanctions against Russia are strongly penalizing for the Italian economy, which has decreased its exports to Russia by 70%, with a loss of over 200,000 jobs and a 25% fall of Russian tourists in Italy.
Prime Minister Conte wants reassurances, and possibly support, to reduce sanctions against the Russian Federation, but Italy may decide to support the TAP – which was designed to counter the North Stream between Russia and Germany – in exchange for a decrease in US sanctions against Russia.
Hence, if Italy is linked to the anti-Russian front as a result of the Conte-Trump agreement, how will President Putin behave at international level? Certainly his behaviour will not be favourable and, anyway, capable of doing much selective damage to Italy.
Reverting to Libya, the US-Italian pact to get the Maghreb country out of the political and military chaos envisages ongoing consultations between Italian and US Defence and Foreign Ministers.
Hence is Prime Minister Conte absolutely certain of being able to favour the US trade on the whole European continent? We rather fear that Italy’s EU partners will not look favourably upon Italy’s brokerage and intermediation onto US markets, while possibly Italy’s trade deficit with the United States remains intact and the EU’s one with the USA is under attack.
As President Trump said, “the Italian companies’ interests will not be hit” – which, inter alia, now seems to be quite credible.
In Trump’s era, the Italian exports to the United States are worth 40.5 billion euros per year.
The total amount of trade between the two countries is worth 55 billion euros, but the Italian imports from the United States currently amount to 15 billion euros.
From 2009 to 2017, the Italian exports to the United States rose by 139%, as against a 58% increase in US exports to Italy over the same period.
The Italian exports to the United States often consist of cars, as well as “luxury and high-end goods”.
If President Trump taxes foreign cars, FCA – which imports about 50% of the cars it later sells to the USA – could be hit by a 20-25% tax, as the one thought by Trump’s Administration, which would reduce Fiat- Chrysler’s profits within a range from 616 up to 866 million euros.
This applies only to cars. But the US President wants to hit – along with the others – Italy’s trade surplus with the United States, which is approximately 36 billion US dollars.
It is an implicit, but probably involuntary attack on the strategy by Minister Savona, who is collecting the surpluses of Italy’s balance of payments to turn them into assets vis-à-vis the EU.
Moreover, there is also the issue of military spending that the US President wants to increase up to a yearly 2% level for all NATO European States.
However, if we spend the expected 2%, it is more than likely that Italy will ipso facto exceed the deficit / GDP ratio set by the EU that former Prime Minister Prodi once dismissed as “stupid”.
Hence how could Italy be the sole and effective broker and mediator between the EU and North America?
Therefore there are many lights and shadows on the new preferential relationship between the United States and Italy. We hope that everything will go well.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France