Minister Di Maio: from the openings towards China and Putin’s Russia by the Conte led government to the new strong Atlantic policy voiced by Draghi’s new cabinet. Governments come and go but you’re still in charge of foreign policy. How do you explain this renewed pro-US stance?
«Well, Italy has never changed its geopolitical fundamentals. Our governments have always been loyal to the Atlantic Alliance. Furthermore, Joe Biden’s administration has changed its approach compared to Trump. Rome and Washington have never been so close. The new US administration has scrapped isolationism and we are perfectly aligned when it comes to the fundamental issues, such as the defence of human rights or the environment. I have just been to Washington, mine being the first visit by a foreign minister since Biden’s inauguration, to emphasise Italy’s credentials as a solid and reliable interlocutor. At the same time, in the first few months of this year, we have seen trade with China grow by more than two billion euros compared to 2020 and we are committed to strongly supporting our businesses. However, I have never ceased to express to the Chinese leaders our concerns about the crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority and the Hong Kong riots. I also agree with the Biden administration in condemning the repression in Belarus or the persecution of Aleksej Navalny by the Putin regime».
Do you remember your enthusiasm for the Silk Road project with Beijing?
«There is no point in drawing parallels or dwelling on the past. Conditions are changing, we are working for the future. There will soon be major changes in Europe. The forthcoming German elections will see the exit of Angela Merkel after the important work she has accomplished over the years. What I say is let’s look forward».
The key issues of your visit to the US?
« Italy is a key ally in the new American policy. Biden and his administration have anticipated my decisions concerning Afghanistan, they assure their support in Libya».
Did Biden promise to send vaccines to Italy?
« We will discuss this later on. We have agreed that vaccines cannot be used as foreign policy tools».
Biden, immediately after his election, condemned Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Kashoggi but also said that long-standing economic relations with the Saudis could not change. Are we doing the same with Egypt or Turkey?
«Despite its condemnation, the US has not cut relations with the Saudis. Our relations with Egypt have been at an all-time low for years. There are Italian businesses working in that country, but they’re not pushed by the government. However, it’s obvious that we can’t stop relations with Egypt when we have to deal, for example, with the Ethiopian dam on the Nile and vital issues like Libya. There are aspects of the situation in the Mediterranean region that oblige us to negotiate with anyone, even undemocratic regimes. It is not a question of double standards, of principles on one side and business on the other. On the contrary, we have repeatedly criticised Saudi policy in the Yemen conflict. In the last few hours, Biden has expelled a dozen Russian diplomats, but at the same time he has invited Putin to the next climate summit. Italy too wants to keep open channels for dialogue».
Will granting citizenship to Patrick Zaki lead to an extension of his detention?
«Our relations with Egypt have reached an all-time low. The Regeni case remains unresolved, we have called for European ambassadors to be allowed to once again monitor the trials. There are human rights principles that are non-negotiable and Parliament is sovereign in its powers. The issue is rather to balance our communication, to avoid escalation, to free Zaki and get to the truth about what happened to Regeni».
Draghi has accused Erdogan of being a dictator and he retorts by reminding him that he is an unelected prime minister. Your thoughts?
« Everything Draghi said must be taken into account, including the need to cooperate with the Turks. However, I have nothing to say on this exchange and no intention to exacerbate tensions».
Can Turkish military power harm our interests in Libya?
«My line of approach is that Italy has a leading edge. We have historical ties with Libya, we are ahead of everyone else. We are currently engaged in reopening the sites of construction contracts signed a number of years ago, such as the coastal motorway or the construction of Tripoli airport. Eni is the strongest foreign company operating in the country. Everybody else has to start from scratch. Our embassy there never closed down».
When will you reopen the consulate in Bengasi?
«Very soon, by 1 June I think. In the next few days we will appoint the new consul. In the meantime, we have already signed the treaty against double taxation, which will facilitate our businesses in Libya. The key thing will be to push – together with the US – for the expulsion of all foreign mercenaries. The issue is on the agenda of my talks with the new foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, who will be in Rome on 22 April».
Do you think the maritime boundaries deal between Tripoli and Ankara can be scrapped?
«It’s a bilateral agreement between the two countries, so it’s up to the Libyans to discuss the matter. I think the fact that they received the Greeks, who are opening their embassy in Tripoli, is very interesting. The scenario is unique and rapidly evolving, offering us opportunities we can’t miss. Prime Minister Dabaiba is working to unite Libya, a difficult task, but it can succeed. We are working with France and Europe to make sure it does».
Is helping the coastguard a way of curbing migration?
« The best way is to strengthen controls at Libya’s southern borders and not at sea. The Italian company Leonardo, among others, has been offering tools to help in this mission for some time».
Have you fixed the date for withdrawing our 850-strong military force from Afghanistan?
«We intend to coordinate with the US and our other allies. We will begin pulling out on the first of May and expect that the US heavy logistics will be the last to leave by 11 September to facilitate the withdrawal process».
What do you respond to those who accuse you of abandoning Afghans to the Taleban?
« We certainly won’t stop helping the country. Our cooperation projects will continue. After all, Al Qaeda has been significantly crushed and Osama Bin Laden is dead».
Conte at the helm of the 5Star Movement, your opinion?
«I’m convinced he needs the support of all of us to help strengthen our movement».