«Europe is experiencing one of its most difficult periods since the ‘60s. It does not need Brussels to engage in useless controversies. Italy is not raising controversy but it obeys E.U. rules and demands to be respected,” Minister Gentiloni said in reply to the unprecedented words of criticism addressed by the President of the EU Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, to the Italian Government. Foreign Minister Gentiloni prefers to focus on the challenges that the European Union is confronting.
Italy has done several things in the past month, not all of which are consistent with what is being done in Europe: launching a joint initiative with London, criticizing Germany and the EU Commission, promoting an initiative with the six EU Founding Member to relaunch integration. Is there a strategy behind such a flurry of undertakings?
“Besides protecting – as everyone does – its own national interests and rights, Italy is putting its stakes on relaunching the Union, being convinced that, on the one hand, it should be connected to a more expansive economic policy and, on the other hand, to a prospected progress in integration by a group of Countries, regardless of the fact that this goal is not shared by other partners. I believe there is no contradiction in sharing with our British partners the idea of a Europe seen as two concentric circles and, at the same time, pushing up the level of integration between the countries willing to do so.”
President Juncker criticises Italy for failing to set up hot spots, for applying fractions of flexibility to achieving the budget target without having previously agreed on it with the Commission, holding reservations on the funds allocated to Turkey for Syrian refugees.
“If the issue is flexibility, Italy is using the margins laid down under current rules. The controversy on who introduced flexibility seems to be irrelevant. It is evident that, from an operational point of view, it was a Commission policy, but politically it was a brainchild of Italy’s EU rotating Presidency.”
Mr. Minister, you are saying that Italy is obeying the rules, but President Juncker defined “astounding” Italy’s reservations on allocating its quota of the €3bn pledged to Ankara for Syrian refugees. Why are we pushing on the brake?
“Italy cannot be accused of holding up the immigration issue or dialogue with Ankara. We are debating if the 3 billion euros should be funded by the EU’s budget and not by Member States. That’s all!”
From the point of view of necessary alliances, would you call it wise to take a critical stand towards Germany?
“Italy and Germany share identical views on many European matters: foreign policy, migration and many more issues. It is true that we have different opinions on economic policy. If somebody portrays this as an Italian-German war, there is nothing I can do about it.”
However Italy has never before criticised Berlin, accusing it of taking a hegemonic attitude.
“Of course, we cannot overlook Germany’s different view on economy, the primacy of budget rules over investments, the banking union etc., because it is evident that the transition is very delicate. Now that Europe has finally emerged from the most acute phase of the crisis, it is crucially important to decide whether to encourage today’s signs of recovery or to keep the foot on the brake. If we have been having a more open discussion with Germany in these past few weeks, it is because there is something very important at stake.”
Do you think Germany has a hegemonic vocation?
“Every German politician of substance denies it. However I believe that the old assumption, according to which German’s true interest lies in a European Germany rather than a German Europe, still holds true. But then it is obvious that they have a competitive advantage thanks to their budget surplus, which the Germans want to leverage, asking for a reversed flexibility in applying the rules. They are not scandalised when they are the ones doing it and neither should they be if we do the same.”
What happened in Cologne has changed some key factors in the debate on immigration. Also Chancellor Angela Merkel revised the terms of her policy opening up to immigration, making them more restrictive. What is Italy’s position in the light of these new developments?
“There is no doubt that we have to combine reception polices and identity. In our constant effort to highlight the role of the cultural dimension in fighting terrorism, we have also advocated the need to invest in defending our values and identity. There is no easy road to multiculturalism in today’s Europe. Italy advocates continuity of behavior; we do our share, invest large resources in rescue operations and reception centres, urge a common European initiative on immigration, starting by changing the Dublin regulations and developing a common asylum system. Today we run the risk of underestimating the importance of this policy and the investments it implies, thus once again primarily placing all the burden on the neighboring countries and finally on the countries of first entry, such as Greece. We know all too well that if Athens were left on its own to receive or repatriate 800,000 refugees, it would never be able to do it. The danger is that when migration flows pick up again in the Spring, borders will be put up again.”
Would you agree with Mr.Juncker’s warning that if Schengen falls through, Europe crumbles with it?
“I know of no single market that does not also provide for the free movement of people.”
What progress has been made on the right of asylum?
“We have made little progress. A repatriation policy that, going by last year’s figures, would concern approximately 300,000-400,000 people, demands a European approach based on a common list of safe countries and a common financial commitment. Right now the need for a European dimension is not felt. Some countries, like Germany, Sweden and Italy, are making an extraordinary effort but the bulk of the 28 EU MSs is not responding; it is as if they were just sitting by while the storm is brewing. I do hope that the most committed countries will not back away and that the Union will be able to involve all of its Member Countries. This is the most incandescent political matter of the moment, the real challenge the EU has to face up to.”
What is the situation with the diplomatic process in Lybia?
“Italy still believes that the diplomatic process, which was set in motion last December between Rome, Skhirat and New York, will continue despite its well-known weaknesses and uncertainties. The group of countries that met in Rome are working in this direction. The final decision depends on the determination and consensus of the Libyan forces. I hope that the Presidency Council will make a proposal for a national unity government in the next few days, and that it will then secure two thirds of the votes of the Parliament. As regards the coalition, which is scheduled to meet in Rome on Tuesday with the same format of the December meeting, we agree that the establishment of this government will would be the crux on which to anchor the legitimacy of all the missions that interest us: regaining control of the territory, fighting terrorism, regulating migration flows and economic reconstruction.”
How big would you say is the risk that today’s critical security condition lead to a military intervention before the new government takes office?
“It is not a matter of downplaying the terrorist threat, but rather of being aware that it can be faced either through a completely external intervention –which we can never rule out should the political process fail, although it would be wrong today – or by supporting a country which is slowly regaining control over its own territory and can once again have its own government.”
Isn’t there the risk of being late against Daesh?
“There is no such risk at the moment. The threat is clear, some of its attacks were extremely serious, however we should never abandon the process to achieve an understanding at national level and opt for a military intervention, regardless of the will of the Libyan people. This is not the scenario we are facing today and I hope it will never be.”
Has any progress been made in the negotiations on Syria?
“Italy supports the action of UN envoy for Syria, Staffan De Mistura, who has been working to assure a meeting on January 25 in Geneva. It will be the first formal dialogue between the Syrian regime and opposition groups, which should also mark the beginning of a ceasefire. We understand that achieving this goal cannot be taken for granted. It is on Monday’s agenda of the UN Security Council meeting in New York. The relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are tense. There is controversy on the membership of the opposition delegation, which De Mistura would like to be as representative as possible of every opposing faction. This negotiation is taking place at the peak of a tragic humanitarian emergency. People are starving to death in besieged cities. Anyone who hinders a potential ceasefire must shoulder a tremendous responsibility.”