The Conte Government's Foreign Policy

The Conte Government's Foreign Policy

How Do Italians Evaluate It?

06/2019  | Reading time: 7 minutes

A research conducted by a research group from the University of Siena aimed to examine how Italians evaluate the government’s foreign policy decisions made over the past year. More than a thousand people were involved in the research. The results pointed out the satisfaction or the disappointment of the voters with various topics, such as decisions related to the European Union or the issue of migration. How popular is the European Union among Italians? How do they evaluate the Schengen Area? Do they agree with the stricter migration policy of the Conte government? What is their opinion about Italy’s role in international politics? Our article is searching for answers for the above-mentioned and similar questions.

Migration and economy have been some of the most pressing questions in Italy over the past period. During the election campaign, the government promised significant changes to Italians on these issues, as they have posed significant challenges for the country in recent months and years. Italy has the second largest public debt in the EU after Greece currently, and its unemployment rate is particularly high, especially among young people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a total of 648,117 migrants and asylum seekers (in 2014, 170,100, in 2015, 153,842, in 2016, 181,436, in 2017, 119,369, and, in 2018, 23,370) arrived through the Mediterranean route to the south-west coasts of Italy between 2014 and 2018, which was a major challenge for the country. Matteo Salvini has already emphasised during the election campaign that the aim is to reduce the number of arrivals and to deal with immigration in a much stricter way than before. As far as the strict immigration policy is concerned, it is worth examining the number of arrivals: this year (until 17 June), only 2144 people arrived at the southern Italian coasts, while, to Spain, 10,465, and, to Greece, 15,670. Before presenting the views of Italian citizens on the European Union and Italy’s migration policy, we would like to highlight some “Italian characteristics” of the country’s foreign policy that could be experienced in recent times.

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the Italian Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini was one of the most visible figures in the Italian press and news on a daily basis, not only when it came to issues related to domestic politics but also regarding those that concerned immigration. Also, during the period of tensions between the European Commission and Italy as a result of the Italian budget plan, statements made by Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Economic Development, Labour, and Social Policies, were predominant. In comparison with the frequency of Salvini’s and Di Maio’s performances, we saw the Minister of Economy and Finances, Giovanni Tria, or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, discussing news about migration and the situation in Libya fewer. According to some analysts, in some cases, the two deputy prime ministers overstep their competences, as they stand for issues or make decisions regarding certain kind of questions without the necessary experience and expertise in that specific field. It is also important to point out that the current Yellow-Green Government—composed of the League (Lega) led by Salvini and the anti-establishment political force, the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) led by Di Maio—was created after last year’s elections, and it is described by many as a “forced marriage”: it is a somewhat “unnatural” coalition of two political forces with divergent political platforms, a highly diverse electorate, and different territorial constituencies. Thus, the coalition cannot be defined as a unified force with a solid, coherent position on all issues; therefore, it is a clear political challenge for the party to outline unique, consistent political guidelines. An example for this is that, although the government can be defined as an Eurocritical political power, different viewpoints between the two sides were visible on several occasions, especially right after the establishment of the government.

The analysis of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, an independent, non-profit think tank on foreign relations, highlights that Italy’s foreign policy and international posture are nearly non-existent in the government’s contract, except for a few vague and general wordings and objectives, for example, the loyalty to NATO. According to Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, who is a researcher of the institute, the foreign policy has been the most conspicuous victim of the permanent competition and the lack of consensus between the ruling coalition partners. In his research paper, Feroci says that we should talk about at least four parallel foreign policies distinct from and often in contradiction with each other:

  • That of League leader’s, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, characterised by incessant antagonism toward the EU, substantial sympathies for Russia, a near obsession with controlling migrant flows, cracking down on irregular immigration, and closing external borders, and an explicit and declared affinity for the governments of the Visegrad Group (Poland and Hungary in particular).
  • That of Five Star Movement’s leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economic Development Luigi Di Maio: less predictable and linear but equally intent on the need to identify targets that he can use in a sort of permanent electoral campaign, along with daily disputes with the EU institutions, criticism of and controversy with France, and reticence about Italian foreign military missions, for example, the extemporaneous announcement of the withdrawal of Italian troops from Afghanistan. According to sources of the Ministry of Defence in January, Italy is considering pulling its troops out of Afghanistan within a year. Such news suggests the Defence Minister, Elisabetta Trenta, has referred to this after Donald Trump had announced future plans to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan. Since taking office last June, the coalition government has said it is considering cutting its presence in Afghanistan. The novelty itself was that, according to sources, the defence minister’ order that plans be drawn up for a full withdrawal surprised some colleagues. “The timeframe could be 12 months,” but no decision has been taken at present, only an assessment by the relevant minister,” the source said. The communication about the withdrawal of the team was, therefore, rather confusing.
  • Then, there is the foreign policy of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—and, on some points, of Ministers of the Economy and Foreign Affairs Giovanni Tria and Enzo Moavero Milanesi—who is often engaged in acrobatic manoeuvres aimed at redressing the gaffes and the political or electoral undertakings of the government’s two stakeholders, and ensuring a minimum of continuity to the country’s international posture without openly contradicting the two majority leaders. That happened, for example, in the case of the thorny negotiations over the budget plan, in forging a position on the crisis in Venezuela, in tense relations with France, and the controversy over the EU-funded TAV high-speed train project.
  • Then, finally, there is the foreign policy of President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, who, in his distinctively sober and reserved style, and rigorously within the confines of the Constitution, has more than once employed that “moral suasion” required from time to time to ensure predictability and continuity to the country’s foreign policy.

Considering that the above-mentioned politicians are indeed making many different, sometimes contradictory statements about certain topics, Feroci’s finding may seem to be grounded. It is worth pointing out that, according to the poll, 42% of the respondents think that Matteo Salvini is the primary figure who shapes Italian foreign policy. He is followed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte with 25%, then President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella with 16%, and finally the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Moavero Milanesi with 7%. Thus, the majority of those surveyed believe that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is the least decisive as a foreign policy maker.


Twenty-five percent of the respondents said that Giuseppe Conte is the most prominent player in Italian foreign policy making
Source: Flickr, author: European Parliament, licence: CC BY 2.0

Regarding Italy’s role in international relations, 75% of the respondents said that the country has little or no influence in Europe, and a vast majority, 79%, believe the same about the country’s role in a global context. Recently, the most important issues in Italy has been the budget plan and the tensions with the European Union (and, in general, the position of the Italian government on the functioning and role of the Union), as well as the issue of immigration. Thus, it is interesting to examine the views of Italians regarding these topics. It is worth pointing out that the relative majority of those involved in the public opinion polls are sceptical about the idea of an European unity. According to 38%, European countries are too different to achieve a successful European unity, while 35% believe that differences are not insuperable. In the light of the experience of Brexit, 11% of the respondents believe that Italy would benefit from an Italexit (leaving the EU), 33% said it would be inappropriate, 28% thought it would be convenient but too complicated, and 28% believe that it would be a mistake. Among Italians, the voters of the League and the Five Star Movement are considered the most sceptical about the EU, and most of them (18 and 16%, respectively) see that leaving the EU could be beneficial for Italy. 42% and 34% of them, respectively, think that the exit would be advantageous but too complicated. The research also asked Italians about how Italy should act to protect its interests in Europe more effectively. According to 44% of them, the best way would be to maintain its current freedom of action and actual role within the Union, but without forming an alliance with any other actor. Twenty-two percent believe that building a coalition with Southern European countries to counterbalance Germany’s influence would be the ideal solution, while 13% said it would be beneficial to collaborate with Germany in a more effective way. Twelve percent of them think that it would be possible to enforce the interest of the country more effectively if it would leave the European Union, and, finally, 8% of the participants would like Italy to be closer to Eurosceptic Central European countries, such as Poland or Hungary.

With regards to the European Parliament elections and the new composition of the European Parliament, it would be ideal for 36% of the respondents if the new EP would aim to extend the Union’s power to act, while 64% agree that broader competence should be given to the Member States.

In terms of the budget plan, 81% of the respondents supported the Italian government’s decision to find an agreement with the EU after a protracted conflict between the parties (we wrote about the problems and tensions around the budget plan in our previous analyses). They believe that, with its decision, the government has prevented further tensions, and reduced the doubts players and participants on the financial market have. Nineteen percent, however, believe that the government has acted improperly and should have kept its original, pragmatic viewpoint. In this context, it is also worth pointing out that 42% of the respondents said that the increase in the Italian public debt is a consequence of the introduction of the euro, while 34% reject the latter, and 24% were uncertain. Regarding the functioning of the Schengen Area, 71% of the participants believe that the current system and the free movement of persons are favourable, while 29% consider the introduction of border controls ideal instead of the free movement of persons. 62% of the respondents believe that, with regards to migration, neither the Union nor the European partners have been fair to Italy, while 54% believe the same regarding the budget plan.

The research group was also interested in Italian’s opinion about migration, a question that generates political and social tensions on a daily basis in the country. 59% of the respondents agreed with the Conte Government’s policy of closing the ports (which practically tries to seriously control the activity of non-governmental organisations’—NGOs’—rescue ships), while 41% believe that the measure is unacceptable, considering the fact that the search and rescue activity is an indisputable principle that cannot be undermined. However, it is worth noting that the proportion of those who support the closure of the ports is much higher among the voters of the League and the Five Stars Movement: 92 and 67% respectively. 85% of the centre-left opposition voters believe that the latter is unacceptable. The research also asked Italians how they evaluate the criticisms of the tightened rescue activity and immigration policy that some EU bodies and the United Nations have formulated. According to 37% of the respondents, these criticisms contribute to develop better solutions, and 27% see that the EU and the UN intervene in domestic affairs, and, thus, these criticisms are unacceptable, while 36% believe that the country should take into consideration these criticisms if they do not conflict with the Italian national interests. A large majority of the respondents, 89%, agree with the distribution of migrants within the EU and the quota system, while 11% do not consider it a positive measure. Regarding the question of immigration, the respondents were finally asked whether they agree on the statement that there is a clear correlation between irregular migration and terrorism. 45% agreed with the latter statement, 26% rejected it, and 28% were uncertain about the answer.

This article highlighted some results of the survey published in May on the current Italian government’s foreign policy decisions without attempting to be comprehensive. The author focused mainly on topics such as relations with the European Union, the Italian budget plan, and economic manoeuvres, as well as immigration. It is important to emphasise that there are significant differences between the opinion of the voters of the League and the Five Star Movement and the opinion of the centre-right and centre-left opposition voters on many issues. The research did not always highlight these differences; thus, the results presented relate to the whole proportion of the surveyed group. Where the survey focused only on the opinion of the voters of a particular political party or group, the article called the attention to that. The research surveyed Italian public opinion on US President Donald Trump, the perception of Russia’s behaviour, and bilateral relations between Italy and France as well. The position of the Italian citizens on the latter issues will be presented in our next article on the foreign policy of the Conte government.

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