“When they called me I was in Egypt, and thought I had retired”. According to her, Emma Bonino had no idea she would be called upon to be Minister for Foreign Affairs on the cusp of turning 65. Her curriculum vitae is a full one. While her political activism and civil rights advocacy in Italy have justifiably been controversial, her commitment on international issues has never failed to earn unanimous respect. In her roles as representative of the transnational Radical Party, as European MP and European Union Commissioner for Human Rights, since 1979 Bonino has been crisscrossing the world on campaigns for mobilisation and missions not devoid of danger. Over the years, the Balkans, the African Great Lakes, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East have been the theatres of these risk-laden initiatives; while the campaign for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court and the ban on female genital mutilation have also been the recipient of her decisive contribution. For her own personal reasons she has become an expert on the Arab world, Egypt in particular, which explains the good sense that emerged in the latest meeting of the European Council on the Syrian crisis.
Minister Bonino, the stance you took in European Council discussions on lifting the embargo on weapons sales to Syria seems to have been more cautious and pragmatic than those that Italy has previously supported.
Each of us is hoping for a Syrian future of freedom, democracy and respect for women and the rights of minority groups, but above and beyond these aspirations, which I share, my primary objective is to stop the massacres, to silence the guns. To date the death toll is somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000, which is why we must seize the opportunity of the Russian/American initiative to hold a second Geneva Conference on Syria, without any kind of easy optimism: the conference has not yet been convened, and it is going to take a lot of hard work to do it. We are nowhere near setting a date or deciding on the list of participants and the agenda. There are, however, two points that to me appear undeniable. The first is that the Geneva II goals will have to include the application of Geneva I, which indicated the steps in the process of transition that had to take place in Syria, including the formation of a coalition government with members from both sides. The second is that it is not possible to insist, as a part of the opposition is doing, on the conference being predicated on President Bashar el Assad’s resignation; his exit from the scene is the goal of the negotiations, not their precondition.
You expressed disappointment with the outcome of the European Council.
What I was sorry about was that, after 12 hours of discussion, the conclusion was to re-nationalise a European foreign policy decision. The debate over Syria has led to the death of a major institution: the Common European Foreign Policy. While some elements of the embargo decided last year remain in effect, the decision on weapons sales from August 1st onward has been deferred to individual States. I am sure that France and the UK, the countries that pushed for this change, are not going to immediately start flooding Syria with arms, and I understand that their threat to arm the opposition is their way of getting Damascus to take them more seriously. But I would like to make it clear that anyone that doesn’t adhere to this line of thinking is not automatically a supporter of Assad, murderer of his own people, but is rather concerned with averting the rise to power of a regime that is simply of the mirror-image of what we are trying to get rid of. If we look at certain components of the opposition that met in Istanbul with the countries supporting them, if we look at Jasbat al Nusra, at Ansar al Sham, we can’t help but be worried. It is very clear to me that there is no military solution to this crisis.
You said you would be in favour of Iran’s participation in Geneva II, and there are many who didn’t like that.
I know this has made me a target of criticism, but peace is achieved with adversaries. The Iranians aren’t the only party to the Syrian crisis, so are the Russians, so what do we do, exclude them too? I understand the importance of the Iranian nuclear dossier, but in the interests of pragmatism it has to be kept separate from the Syrian situation if our priority is to end the massacres, especially those perpetrated by Assad, who is regaining terrain. We negotiated with Milosevic and Karadzic for peace in the Balkans, later it fell to the history of their peoples to eliminate them. A sense of responsibility demands the Iranians be included in the negotiations, also because it is becoming clearer and clearer that this is a fight to the finish between Sunnis and Shiites, not for religious reasons but for reasons of political hegemony and strategic positioning.
Two and a half years have passed since the start of the Arab spring. How would you assess the current phase?
I consider myself more optimistic than the majority of observers. There could still be some backsliding in terms of freedoms in those countries, but on one point there is no going back: the people no longer are afraid to speak out on politics, the wall of silence built of the terror of repression has come down. Now in place of the silence there is a lot of confusion, but democracy advocates are beginning to understand that demonstrations are not enough to bring about political change. I am a bit worried about the EU’s attitude, which continues to treat all the countries of the Mediterranean in the same way, while instead there need to be different approaches to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, etc.; these are countries that differ amongst themselves, and each has seen a different result from the Arab spring.
An important country that is beginning to be a concern is Turkey.
I am a friend to Turkey and consider it a mistake to have suspended their accession procedure – now we can’t complain that they’re looking to reposition themselves strategically. Nevertheless, I must say that there are worrisome elements in the Turkish government’s actions and must admit that Italy and Turkey together hold the record for negative rulings by the European Court of Human Rights: we for the conditions of our prisons and the length of trials, they for their abuse of pre-emptive incarceration.
What is Italy’s position on the U.S. attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?
We have to make the utmost commitment to convincing both parties that this is the last chance. And that a two-State, two-peoples – and possibly two-democracies – solution is either now or never. It is clear that there are people on the inside both in the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority who are not happy to resume the talks. The EU wanted to issue a declaration, but we Italians acted to prevent the European Council from intervening. If we wanted to mediate, we should have done so earlier; now that the Americans are making a new attempt, we have to do them the favour of keeping out of it.
In response to the bared-breast protest by Amina in Tunisia, a female Lebanese writer said “I don’t want to have to be forced to choose between a burqa and going topless” – what do you think?
I agree. I am not against the individual freedom to demonstrate, I question it politically. Although everyone has the right to act as they see fit, I believe that the real goal must be freedom and not to simply replace one model with another, the burqa for topless. Our common terrain is to gradually develop a space for freedom and mutual respect. Without respect there is no freedom, and I know of no freedom without responsibility. Licence is not liberty, and rights go along with duties. And if I have the right to express myself I also have the duty to respect others.
You are in favour of a federal Europe, but that would mean federalisation, sharing the burden of sovereign debt. This Germany and other countries of northern Europe will never accept.
I would hesitate to say never. France is in a recession and, if China continues to slow, Mrs. Merkel’s efforts will not keep the German domestic market going. Without sharing the debt, without a European Treasury Ministry with the ability to tax and spend, we will never resolve the asymmetrical shocks. American history from Hamilton onward shows that the U.S. was born of a shared debt for the war of independence. Today the only heavy-weight States are national States who administrate between 40 and 50 per cent of GDP. In the United States the federal government only administrates 20 per cent.
Even European peoples seem less enthusiastic now about European integration.
I think that it is necessary to move toward a political union. We all agree that the EU, such as it is, doesn’t work, but this should lead to a serious debate on whether we want a Europe of homelands or Europe as a homeland. I am federalist because federalism is the only European institution that holds diversity, democracy and accountability together. I don’t want a European super-state, only a few competences should be shared: economic and monetary policy, defence, foreign policy, research and citizens rights. For all the rest, subsidiarity. On the legislation of the internal market I would also take a step backward: it’s become too detailed, too intrusive.
You are in favour of more open policies on immigration and a simplification of citizenship requirements. But events such as the revolt of young foreigners in the outskirts of Stockholm and attacks against military staff in London show that even advanced integration policies such as Sweden’s, and very open policies such as those of the UK, do not guarantee the best results.
I don’t know of any country in the world with problem-free immigration policies; in fact, often the question is simply to contain the damage. Being a foreigner doesn’t necessarily make someone a saint, just as being born Italian doesn’t. That said, I think that a policy of legalisation, with rights and responsibilities, is a far-sighted policy.
Are you proposing the introduction of ius soli?
No, I am for progressiveness. It’s not like being born somewhere makes you a citizen – I think there’s more to citizenship than that. It should be gradual, there have to be criteria, for example being educated in Italy. Countries that have introduced ius soli are now thinking twice about it; but this is a theme that we need to have the courage to confront: people who pay taxes have the right at least to vote in administrative elections. That way they are made responsible.