Italy is to push for the creation of a European Army after the "new Europe" takes shape at this week's crucial EU summit following the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty.
Franco Frattini, the Italian Foreign Minister, said that the Lisbon Treaty had established "that if some countries want to enter into reinforced co-operation between themselves they can do so". This was already the case with the euro and the Schengen accords on frontier-free travel, and could now be applied to "common European defence".
In an interview with The Times at his office in the monumental marble-halled Foreign Ministry on the banks of the Tiber, Mr Frattini said: "We have finally concluded a never-ending story". The Lisbon Treaty, which comes into force in December, will be sealed on Thursday with an EU summit to choose an EU President and Foreign Minister.
He warned that "if we do not find a common foreign policy, there is the risk that Europe will become irrelevant. We will be bypassed by the G2 of America and China, which is to say the Pacific axis, and the Atlantic axis will be forgotten. We need political will and commitment, otherwise the people of Europe will be disillusioned and disappointed. People expect a great deal of us. After Lisbon we have no more alibis".
It was a "necessary objective to have a European army", Mr Frattini said. "Take Afghanistan: at present President Obama asks Poland, or Italy, or Great Britain for more troops. If there were a European army, he would have a 'toolbox' to draw from. He might need 30 aeroplanes: he would be able to ask if the European army was in a position to provide them."
Mr Frattini said that at present "every country duplicates its forces, each of us puts armoured cars, men, tanks, planes, into Afghanistan. If there were a European army, Italy could send planes, France could send tanks, Britain could send armoured cars, and in this way we would optimise the use of our resources. Perhaps we won't get there immediately, but that is the idea of a European army".
Asked how differing national equipment and systems could be integrated, Mr Frattini said Afghanistan had already shown the way. "There are no problems in current crisis areas. We work well together in Afghanistan. In the province of Herat, we Italians work with the Spanish. Why not form a common force? This would also bring economic benefits, because the countries involved would share the costs of military engagement overseas."
Mr Frattini suggested that "some European countries" such as France were not pulling their weight in Afghanistan. "Italy is already doing quite a lot: we have 3,200 men deployed, plus a contingent of 400 men for the elections who should now be able to return home. We send most officers after the United States to train the Afghan police and army, and we have abolished the caveats limiting the deployment of our troops, in return for more intelligence sharing."
He noted that Britain had suffered greater losses in Afghanistan than Italy, "but then the death of even one soldier is a tragedy. Even in the most difficult moments, such as the recent death of six Italian soldiers in Kabul, Italy has remained united in supporting the mission".
There was also a case for joint naval patrols in the Mediterranean, Mr Frattini said. "Europe could deploy a joint naval fleet or air force in the Mediterranean: why not? We could say, look, one group of nations is ready at once, and leave the door open for others to join, as with the euro."
Mr Frattini predicted that if David Cameron and the Conservatives came to power in Britain next year, they too would understand "that if we pool our forces in Afghanistan that is better than going it alone, that if we want to work for a common market without customs barriers that is better than putting the barriers back again, that if we have a problem with China — and with all due respect to the United Kingdom, China is a little bigger than Britain — it is much better if Europe negotiates with China as a whole. "
Asked about Mr Cameron's proposal for a law protecting British national sovereignty, Mr Frattini replied that national sovereignty was "already protected. I believe that when you are in government you understand the advantages of Europe — perhaps even the advantages of Schengen", he added with a chuckle. "When you are in opposition you say important things, but when you are in government things change. When you are in government you understand that Europe is an opportunity."
Mr Frattini acknowledged that in the past the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi had backed Tony Blair for EU President "because he is an important political leader". It had also made clear however that the successful candidate "must have a broad consensus. The Swedish Prime Minister, who will chair the summit this week, has said we will take a vote if necessary. But that would be a bad first step. It would not a be a good start for the Lisbon Treaty."
He said the signs were that the European Centre Right would get the Presidency and the Centre Left the Foreign Minister post — in which case the best candidate for the latter post was Massimo D'Alema, the former centre-left Prime Minister. "I say this for an objective reason, because of his abilities, and secondly because Italy will obviously support an Italian candidate. It is a question of national interest."
Mr Frattini said that post-Lisbon Europe was "obliged" to formulate common policies on economic growth, including investment and infrastructure, the fight against organised crime and illegal immigration, and "energy security". The most difficult task however was to reach a common policy on international issues such as the Balkans, Iran, the Middle East — where Europe had "not achieved any great results" so far — and future enlargement, including Turkey. "Europe is divided about Turkey: France and Germany unfortunately still take a negative view, whereas Italy and Great Britain are in favour, while other countries are uncertain."
Mr Frattini said that he also hoped for a common approach on illegal immigration, for which Italy had "paid a high price", with Europe failing to come to its aid as would-be migrants drowned at sea. The last EU summit had agreed to set up a European Agency for asylum seekers and refugees, with "common criteria for repatriation", and was committed to following Italy in concluding an agreement with Libya. "At the moment there is a kind of 'asylum shopping' because each country has different rules."