Ever since Italy became a unified state in the 1860s, it has had a far more nuanced relationship with its European rivals and partners than readily meets the eye. Whilst Italy attempted to join fellow western and central European powers in colonising parts of Africa, Italy’s attempts to do so were far from remarkable. Likewise, when in the 1920s, Italy adopted fascism, it’s far-right government had fewer medium-term successes than those in Germany and Spain. Throughout the Cold War era, Italy had among the largest leftest oppositions in central or western Europe and as such, the country that tended to lean west, always stood on the verge of leaning east towards the Warsaw Pact. In the early 21st century, the centre-right governments of Italy’s longest serving Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi likewise sat somewhere between a stalwart NATO member and a country that likewise pursued generally positive relations with some of America’s top rivals.
Because Italy has long been both an internal and foreign policy paradox, today’s populist left-right coalition government should not be analysed in isolation. Whilst it has become increasingly common to view the political alliance between the left/populous Five Star Movement and the right/populist Northern League as an overt rejection of the weakening neo-liberal Franco-Germanic EU consensus, in reality, today’s Italian government is doing what many previous Italian governments have tried to do. Italy is today, thinking beyond Europe whilst also retaining a quintessentially European culture.
As the Republic of Venice was an important European hub at the western end of the ancient Silk Road, it is perhaps fitting that modern Italy is following in the footsteps of traders like Marco Polo in joining the new silk road – China’s Belt and Road initiative.
But Italy’s confirmed participation in Belt and Road is about more than Venetian nostalgia and it is likewise about more than defying northern EU members who are generally far more restrained in their approach to China’s groundbreaking global initiative for peace through prosperity. As southern Europe’s largest country, Italy has faced disproportionate challenges stemming from the 2008 Great Recession, the 2011 NATO war on Libya and the subsequently migrant crisis that itself was largely triggered by the collapse of the Libyan state. As such, Italy has been Europe’s frontier in facing multiple difficulties whilst the country is also on the brink of a new recession.
At the same time, as the Chinese market opens its doors to ever more imported goods, some of Italy’s top luxury brands and its unique agricultural products are becoming ever more popular among China’s increasingly affluent and vast consumer base. Likewise, as Chinese industrial goods tend to be more affordable than those produced in northern Europe, opening freer two-way trade with China could be a clear win-win for both Italian consumers and Italian producers.
Moreover, as Italy serves as the literally geographical gateway between Africa and Europe, Belt and Road trade between multiple African economies whose development is being aided by Chinese investment, grants and expertise could find that in the coming years, Italy could transform from an entry point for African migrants into Europe, to an entry point for goods coming into Europe from an African continent being rapidly transformed for the better due to China’s existing Belt and Road related projects. Likewise, as African consumers become more open to imports thanks to China’s long term partnerships for prosperity from the Mediterranean to South Africa, African consumers will one day be able to afford ever more European products – including Italian goods.
Taken as a whole, Italy is clearly looking to expand its economic fortunes and likewise its security by embracing the Belt and Road initiative. Belt and Road connectivity will not only open new doors for Italian exports whilst giving more consumer choice to ordinary Italians, but by fostering the potential for trans-Mediterranean trade to replace cross-Mediterranean migration, Italy’s location can be transformed from Europe’s liability to Europe’s golden door to future economic opportunity on a win-win model.
In this sense, far from embracing Belt and Road for ideological reasons, Italy’s government is acting in its own interests, whilst setting the stage for new Pacific to Afro-Mediterranean connectivity that will ultimately benefit China, Europe and African economies for years to come.