BRI: Italy cannot give up on everything

Foreign and national media are discussing Italy’s dilemma regarding the renewal of the agreement on the Initiative Belt and Road (BRI), signed in March 2019. As reported by the Financial Times, the four-year agreement for participation in the BRI “contains an unusual clause for automatic renewal upon its expiry in March 2024, unless Rome formally notifies Beijing three months in advance of its intention to withdraw.”

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, supported by a centre-right coalition in Parliament, had defined the decision to sign the agreement as a “big mistake”. However, his approach to China began to change last December, following a summit with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali.

In about an hour of talks, Meloni and Xi agreed on several points under discussion, starting with the rebalancing of bilateral trade: Italy needs to export more goods and services to China to consolidate its post-Covid recovery and meet the domestic demand of the Chinese market, especially more and more high-quality consumer products, to meet the needs of its growing middle class.

Yet, despite the obvious advantages in strengthening economic relations between Italy and China (the BRI has proven to be an inclusive, pragmatic and successful initiative), Rome seems to be the victim of its endemic limitation of sovereignty, the result of an unwritten dependence on the United States since the end of the Second World War. As the only true Mediterranean power in Europe, thanks to its privileged position, Italy is traditionally under special surveillance. Therefore, regardless of the colors of the individual governments, the country seems to want to continue sacrificing national interests on the altar of geopolitical constraints, which act in the form of external interference, which has been operating for decades within the Italian community. As a result, it should come as no surprise that, according to Bloomberg, Meloni expressed his willingness to break the deal with China during a meeting with US House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Under the first Conte government (2018-19), formed by the Five Star Movement and the League, Italy had tried to carry out an unprecedented political experiment with the aim of reviving the Italian economy after seven years of financial austerity under the EU Pact for Stability and Growth. The intention of that government was to recover the country’s negotiating power vis-à-vis the supranational institutions to which it belongs, i.e. the EU and NATO.

Looking to the BRICS represented the possibility of diversifying Italian foreign trade and vectors of foreign policy. The decision to sign the agreement on the BRI made Italy the first and so far the only G7 country to have joined the Chinese mega-plan, unleashing scathing criticism from allies.

The second Conte government (2019-21), supported by the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party, was mainly engaged in fighting the pandemic: this was the priority and there was not enough space to discuss foreign policy appropriately. The war in Ukraine changed many things. The Biden administration’s thunderous call for unity has revived NATO’s role and its false but powerful narrative about the clash between democracies and autocracies, exerting maximum pressure on European allies.

The Italian business world is now very worried. After having suffered the huge damages deriving from the increase in energy prices and the devastating impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the European economy, Italian companies fear a possible deterioration in relations between Italy and China, right now that numbers are record in terms of exports to the Asian giant (+92.5% in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year). “A possible withdrawal would lead to a cooling of bilateral relations in a historic moment in which companies and professionals are showing the frenzy and desire to return to the Chinese market”argued Mario Boselli, president of the Italy China Council Foundation, quoted by the Financial Times.

Sadly, the media are currently omitting the core tenets of the BRIits potential and its successes. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that the agreement on the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding between Italy and China (which joins Italy to 151 other countries in the world, including many European ones) had already been boycotted during the Draghi government. If the results of the first few years seem relatively limited, this is mainly due to a lack of commitment on the part of Italy, which has embarked on a sort of self-boycott, and certainly not to the Chinese initiative. The pressure on Italy regarding the BRI has to do exclusively with the US strategic agenda and with its interests, not with Italian or European ones. If Italy were to compromise its relations with China, it would be a clear demonstration of the government’s political weakness, which can be explained according to the ideological attitude of others.


Fabio Massimo Parenti he is currently Foreign Associate Professor of International Political Economy at China Foreign Affairs University, Beijing. He has also taught in Italy, Mexico, the United States and Morocco and is a member of various Italian and foreign think tanks. His latest book isThe Chinese way, a challenge for a shared future” (Meltemi 2021). On twitter: @fabiomassimos

The article BRI: Italy cannot give up on everything comes from Il Blog di Beppe Grillo.

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