“For the last three months this has been my main objective; but is the focus of an entire government, not of a single ministry. The prime minister made a visit to Tripoli, and will make another to the region in April. Every ministry is involved”, says Giulio Terzi from his office at the foreign ministry. Italy’s gaze is southward, across the Mediterranean.
When looking at a map at the placement of our sources of energy, the risks and opportunities of the Arab spring seem obvious. But it isn’t that simple, considering Europe’s Germany-dominated vision, for which the nearby regions to be financed and stabilised are to the east, and not to the south, of the unified continent. In addition to Germany’s skepticism, Italy has another obstacle to overcome: the rather personalized politics of the previous government, fruitful but with all the wrong connections – Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali have all lost their places.
In its efforts to be a protagonist in this new Arab world, this time as a system, Italy will be hosting a double-barreled Mediterranean summit Monday next: the 5+5 and the FOROMED. The names are complicated, and so is the Euro-Mediterranean layout, where rivalries and vetoes make it so things don’t always work. But the concept is that the foreign ministers of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Malta and Greece will be meeting in Rome with those of Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania.
Minister Terzi, what’s it all about?
«It’s been years since these bodies have met. We are going to have an opportunity to meet and speak with the men who are the expression of the Arab spring movements. There are fundamental political and security issues to be confronted, but we must also accelerate collaboration on economic and financing programmes; projects and support for small and medium-size enterprises and for large-scale infrastructures, as well as cooperation in the spheres of university study, science, technology, and training for young people».
The Arabs are rather disappointed by our limited response to the movements and their needs.
«Undoubtedly, but they are more critical of European sluggishness than Italian. They are well aware of the efforts we are making in Brussels to shift the attention and financing to neighbourhood policies with the Mediterranean. There has already been a significant increase in Commission-earmarked funds from €12 to 18 billion, but we want to go beyond that. Our interlocutors are expressing a dramatic urgency: it is difficult to stabilise a society and its institutions if you can’t ensure employment and growth».
The Libyan government has promised that our contracts will be honoured, but that government is temporary. Aren’t you afraid that after the elections the new one will change its mind?
«We have been given very clear answers to our concerns: that debts with Italian firms will be honoured, albeit through a form of revised pricing. Energy supply proceeds. The prime minister’s visit was not the end but the beginning of a process».
Egypt is also crucial for us. Italian firms there have not fled, but are worried.
«This is a topic that I have pledged to bring up again with the Egyptian foreign minister when we meet on Tuesday here in Rome to resolve a series of disputes dating back to the previous regime. We must keep our guard up».
Egypt is also political Islam. The Americans are in contact the Muslim Brotherhood. What about us?
«For some time now. I met last month in Cairo with the religious authorities, and was assured of their intention to see to it that the new constitution ensures fundamental freedoms. We are convinced that it is necessary to have close relations with all the parties in the parliament. I feel very strongly about that».
What is their economic model, if they have one?
«I do not believe they have one, but if you look at the history of their movement, you will find that the concept of Islam embraces economists and business persons. We can surmise that they are capable of producing business models compatible with our markets».
Syria. You recently spoke in Washington with Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State.
«We both support the Arab League plan for stopping the violence with a UN mandate, a credible number of observers, and a political process involving all the opposition forces».
Has Bashar Assad passed the point of no return?
«That is the feeling I get from the Arab League and the Syrian opposition».
Is bombardment on the Libyan model conceivable?
«Inconceivable given the current state of affairs. There is no proposal for intervention on any table, not even a humanitarian one».
War with Iran is the most feared and awaited event in 2012. By you as well?
«Apparently Iran is impervious to the sanctions. I continue to view military action as certainly possible but highly improbable. China and India still import oil from Iran but it is clear that they are getting worried. There is an international context forming around Iran».
Israel is increasingly certain it will have to bomb.
«No, I remain convinced that it is extremely improbable, unless a direct nuclear threat materialises».
Another conflict – the Palestinian one – is fuming like a sleeping volcano beneath the surface. Israel believes it can manage it without resolving it.
«We are aware that the Israeli government considers the Arab spring events a reason for not negotiating with the Palestinians. The Iranian threat is an added element. We want more, and hope very much that Abu Mazen is given room to move and a chance to confront the other talks on reconciliation with Hamas. Resumption of the peace process with Israel would strengthen that. Only in that way could he force Hamas to accept the conditions the world is demanding».