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Isolated or out of the games? The irrelevant role of Italy, the main EU outsider

Leader of France and Germany having talks with the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, during the last summit of the head of States and government. Italy is out the negotiating room for the top jobs of the EU [picture: European Council, 2019]

Italy is not an influent player in the political game for the nomination of the EU top jobs. It is not a surprise. The Italian head of government, Giuseppe Conte, doesn’t belong to any of the four major European political families in charge of shaping an alliance for the next European legislature, starting on 2 July. The ball is in the arena occupied by Christian-democrats (EPP), Social-democrats (PES), Liberals (RE) and the Greens. Italy government is in the opposition, so it doesn’t have the political initiative in its hands.

Nevertheless the time to vote in the Council will inevitably come. What Italy will opt for is still unclear, so far. Apparently the government would like a president of the European Commission who can give guarantees on the fiscal rules. A hypothetical appointment of the current German chancellor, Angela Merkel, doesn’t fit with the Italian wish list. Voting against the majority on a very sensitive file such as the top jobs, could produce consequences in the relationship with the other capital cities.

Already now Italy doesn’t have proper credit, and the last European Council meeting gave tangible elements in this sense. With the summit scheduled to start at 3pm, most of the EU leaders were in town already in the morning, in order to prepare their work, hold bilateral talks, attending the different summit of the European parties. Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, on the contrary, landed to Brussels just on time for the beginning of the meeting. External observers can draw the conclusion that Italy starts working when the political games are over, since the main decision have already been taken.

After all, the high level discussion is just the final act of the political story. General rules require that once around of the table, all participants have already developed their own strategies, set up their alliances. There is a clear impression that Conte is isolated. Italian officials struggle to pass the message that the country enjoys the highest consideration among the European partners.

It was underlined that the Italian prime minister held bilateral meeting with leaders of the European Council (Donald Tusk), Luxembourg (Xavier Bettel), Greece (Alexis Tsipras) and Germany (Angela Merkel). All of this happened after Conte’s arrival in Brussels for the beginning of the summit, instead of before as other leaders did. Then a picture circulated after the first night of the EU summit showing Conte having a beer together with the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. The question is: why such a spin?

If nobody has doubts about the central role played by Italy in the European political process, there is no need to prove it. On the contrary, it is in case of suspicion that counter-narrative is needed. The effort to demonstrate Conte’s influence at EU level is a fig leaf for the political weakness of Italy, in a try to cover the marginal role played by the country.

Behind the scenes it was explained that the reason of Conte’s last minute arrival to Brussels for the EU summit was that “he was late”. It is not the smartest explanation to give. It is clear that head of State and government have always a very full political agenda, but perhaps the message had to be delivered in a better way. “Internal reason” or “institutional activity” could be an option. But none of these formulas were used.

Conte was late. OK, it can happen since he is a head of government with a lot of things to do and to think about. But, always behind the scenes, it was stressed how Angela Merkel “briefed” Conte on the political meetings held during the day before his arrival. Such an image doesn’t help to clear the field from doubts. When a leader explains to another leader what’s going on it means one person is shaping the agenda, and the other is nothing but observing.  Person number one is Merkel, person number two is Conte. Germany rules, Italy doesn’t.

In a summit in which Italy didn’t have any relevant input, the  diplomats informed the national press that Conte fought on the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF 2021-2027), asking for no cuts on agriculture. According to the official truth Italy was able to change the text of the conclusions in a new satisfactory version. The claim is doubtful. It seems a desperate attempt to show that Italy really matters, when the truth is completely different.

If this the best victory Conte can claim, then, yes, Italy is far from being a true influencer of the European political scene. Perhaps Italy is not as isolated as somebody can imagine, but for sure this founding member of the EU is not at the heart of the political process. How this Italian government will be considered is easy to guess. Conte himself was considered a “puppet” during his visit to the European Parliament, last February.

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