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“From Syria to Iraq to Libya, Russia is crucial”, says Gentiloni

Spain is heading towards the indignado populism of Podemos; Poland has elected Andrzej Duda, an ultra-nationalist who hates Brussels perhaps even more than he hates Moscow, Greece is on the brink of leaving the single currency; and Great Britain is planning for its departure from the European Union. Is populism consuming the European project and will it continue to the point of causing its destruction? And what is happening to the two-faction system – is the good old “conservatives against progressives and may the best man win” model not working any longer? Is it failing to represent Europe’s angry citizens?

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni tells Il Foglio that “Spain and Poland are very different stories, even if it’s easy to group them together against the common target: Europe. In actual fact, if we look into the details, the European issue wasn’t all that crucial in the recent UK election campaign. And in Spain, Podemos does not have a rigidly anti-EU position. The most surprising result was the Polish one, in that it emerged in a country that has seen an extraordinary economic performance that was underpinned by the highest level of European funding in the history of the Union. However, there is no doubt that all these factors taken together – the Spanish result, the Polish result, the risks of the “Brexit” (the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union) and “Grexit” (Greece’s departure from the euro) – create a worrying European emergency.

A state of emergency, therefore, to react to the signals of impatience (euphemism) coming from all sides. And yet Gentiloni says that we must be careful not to confuse the symptoms – Podemos, the Poles and all the rest – with the disease.

“If we thought they were the problem, then we’d have an unsatisfactory analysis and so an unsatisfactory policy. The problem isn’t the extreme right-wing populist reaction even of the indignados. The problem is whether Europea is capable of fixing the things that aren’t working. Populism is a reaction to the way the EU has behaved in the face of the economic crisis. Badly, very badly. In the face of a crisis that is without precedent in the post-war years, it responded with the dictatorship of regulations rather than with politics and decisions”.

The economic crisis isn’t over yet, if it ever will be. In Europe, are we still stuck in the same inert state as before?

“I’d say that we’ve left behind us a decade in which, whether we’re talking about the Greek debt or the association agreement with Ukraine, there was a handbook of rules to apply automatically, without asking too many questions about the consequences. But we’ve moved on from that stage. Now there’s a new method. We’re going back to politics, for which the merit is also Italy’s”.

And in addition to the method, are there results too?

“As far as results are concerned, we’re still at the very early stages”.

Right now, the toughest debate in Europe concerns the immigration plan. Each day, the plan is attacked by countries trying dismantle a part of it.

“The Commission’s plan is a good one”, says the Minister. “However, anyone who thinks that, because it’s good, the plan will bring the flows of migrants to a halt, is living on another planet. People living in the Mediterranean, on the other hand, know that these flows will be with us for the coming years and that we will need to manage them, regulate them, share the burden of receiving them, and intervene in the countries of origin. The Commission’s plan is good because it recognises the principle of burden-sharing – I’m referring here to the agenda presented on 14 May – , multiplies the resources available, albeit to a still insufficient degree, and translates many of our requests into proposals.

And yet now we’re talking about more restrictive rules as a result of this European plan: the quota system for distributing immigrants will be applied only to those arriving in the future (so from the end of June 2015) and not to those who have already landed (Italy has 90,000 of these migrants). Moreover, not all immigrants will be taken into consideration – only those “in clear need of international protection”, so in practice only Eritreans and Syrians at this time.

“The relocation of future arrivals isn’t a new development, it was already in the original plan. The fact that the relocations concern people in need of international protection and not irregular migrants in general was also contained in the Commission proposal, which we all judged positively. Friction does exist, however, and how: some member states are disputing that proposal and the outcome is by no means a given. In short, I expect that the Commission, which is meeting today, will translate its agenda into draft legislation establishing the number of migrants entitled to asylum to be redistributed – it should be 40,000 ­– and that they don’t backtrack. We know that there are countries like France and Spain who are expressing reservations”.

Disappointed by France? Are we talking about a U-turn?

“No, no, I’m not talking about disappointment or U-turns or illusions. The knot will be unravelled by the Council of Home Affairs Ministers on 15 June. We have about 3 weeks to work and to remind everyone that the commitment to share the burden of the immigration emergency was a commitment made solemnly by heads of state and government after a disastrous shipwreck off the coast of Libya”.

Yesterday the Wikileaks site published 2 classified documents revealing the strategy for the mission in Libya. The two documents were presented as evidence that Italy is about to embark on a military operation on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

“No, there’s no military intervention”, says Gentiloni. “We have all possible options in mind, with the exclusion of military operations in Libya. Rather, there’s a discussion about a United Nations resolution authorising targeted actions against the migrant smugglers. I’ll be speaking about that with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, when I see him in Moscow next week”.

With Lavrov, will you also be discussing a possible role for Russia in the broader coalition of countries fighting against Islamic State?

“I believe it is most certainly in our ­– by which I mean the West’s – interest, and in Russia’s interest too, to have a sphere of common initiatives against terrorism. There are several dossiers on which we are – or could be – already cooperating with Moscow, from the Iranian nuclear question to Syria and to Libya. The meeting with Minister Lavrov takes place on the eve of the Paris Summit on 2 June, during which the common strategy against Da’esh will be reviewed”, says Gentiloni. (When referring to Islamic State, the Foreign Minister uses the Arab acronym, which Islamic State hates because of its similarity to the Arabic verb meaning “crush underfoot”). And the rumours of a plan for military intervention by the Arab countries in Libya, which also envisages a role for Italy? “As foreign minister I can do anything except comment on rumours”.

If on 2 June the war against Islamic State is to be reviewed, one very clear truth will need to be taken into account: things are not going at all well. Ramadi has fallen, Palmyra has fallen…

“We’ve gone through a period of excessive optimism, owing to the very important results obtained on the ground, especially in Iraq. At this point I’d avoid the opposite mistake, of taking an overly pessimistic view. The truth is that Da’esh cannot be underestimated. For Iraq, there’s no alternative to re-establishing the approach taken by the coalition since the outset, although I can see how some people might view it as flawed. Translated into practical terms, it means that the government in Baghdad cannot refuse the help from the Shia militias, must aim to strengthen the contribution of the Sunni communities and must have good relations with the Kurdish regional government”.

But can things go ahead like this, without an American intervention on the ground?

“I sincerely do not miss American interventionism. Right now, some people are putting the blame on Obama’s reluctance while others are demonising Tehran’s activism. But the origin of the situation – in addition to historic processes that we’d need to discuss in a book, not an interview – is the intervention decided by George W. Bush, the way in which it developed and the way in which it concluded in 2003, with the break-up of the Iraqi army, the outlawing of the Ba’ath party and so on. We’re still dealing with the consequences of the errors that were made then”. 

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