Italy’s looming fault line: Conte warns against Europe’s ‘race to rearm’

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ROME — Italy must not fuel a European “race to rearm,” said former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, illustrating emerging divisions that could shape an expected 2023 election. 

Speaking to POLITICO, Conte — who now heads the 5Star Movement, the biggest party within Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government — expressed wariness about longer-term pledges from Italy and others to boost defense spending after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“I think that Europe and the EU needs to keep its nerve,” Conte said, sitting in the Rome headquarters of the 5Stars, which is working to establish itself as a more progressive force on Italy’s left. “Our response cannot be a race to rearm. Diverting resources from our green transition to invest in military industry would be a completely mistaken stance.”

To this point, the 5Stars have backed — albeit reluctantly — Draghi’s moves to up Italy’s defense budget and send weapons to Ukraine. 

But with polls showing a majority of Italians opposing these decisions and inflation ballooning, such spending will likely become harder to justify to 5Star voters with the approaching election, which must be held by next summer. Conte’s party is polling at a two-year low and needs to differentiate itself from the ruling government and its allies on the left, including the Democratic Party, which is closely aligned with Draghi and backs defense spending increases.

Europe should remain “lucid,” Conte said, aiming not for military leadership but leadership in human rights and protecting those in financial and medical straits. He warned that an arms race risks returning Europe to a Cold War mentality: The West versus Russia, China, India and the rest of the world. 

“It would be a huge regression,” he said. 

Friction over the issue emerged in March when the far-right League party filed a motion committing Italy to increase defense spending from 1.4 percent of GDP to 2 percent by 2024 — earlier than the current government plans of 2028.

The 5Stars initially supported the motion but later pushed back. The tension caused the leader of the leftist Democrats, Enrico Letta, to warn that the government could collapse before an agreement was ultimately found.

For now, Conte said the 5Stars will remain a “loyal and responsible” member of Draghi’s coalition. With many 5Star lawmakers anxious about losing their seats in the next election, the party leadership is not seeking to topple Draghi.

“But it’s clear that we expect to be listened to and the government must have a strongly progressive orientation,” he said. 

Draghi has helmed one of Italy’s most unambiguously pro-U.S. and pro-NATO governments. The prime minister specifically declared this government’s NATO-boosting stance in his opening speech to parliament and has echoed the military alliance’s calls for EU countries to do more to defend their own backyard.

When war broke out in Ukraine, Draghi stumped for military investments.

“The threat brought by Russia today is driving us to invest more in defense than we have ever done before,” Draghi told parliament in March.

While Conte has been willing to go along with Draghi thus far, he was “surprised” by how far other countries like Germany went. In late February, Berlin unveiled a special €100 billion fund to rapidly upgrade the country’s military. 

Instead of such massive investments, Conte said he favors coordinated investment in European defense, a policy also advocated by Draghi. Conte said it would help advance military technology, streamline resources and avoid duplication. 

“I invite our [German] friends to evaluate together a process of coordinated European investment, which offers the possibility of saving on national military investments,” he said.

The 5Star Movement has traditionally harbored some pro-Kremlin sentiments, pressed by a far-left fringe that is suspicious of U.S. hegemony and any military intervention. And the group has in the past expressed ambiguous foreign policy positions that caused head-scratching among NATO allies.

When Conte was in power, for instance, Italy became the first Western democracy to sign up for China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” a global investment project criticized as a way for Beijing to trap countries in debt and spread its surveillance technologies. The move caused the U.S. to express fears about whether the NATO military alliance could fully coordinate with Italy.  

Conte’s first governing coalition, formed in 2018 with the right-wing League and the 5Stars, also pledged to end existing Russian sanctions, saying the country did not pose “a military threat.” He also backed U.S. President Donald Trump’s bid in 2018 to readmit Russia to the G7 group of advanced economies. 

Conte defended his position in the interview. 

“As prime minister, I always renewed the sanctions against Russia” at the EU level, he said. “So there was de facto continuity in Italy’s foreign policy in terms of decisions.”

And his goal with Russia and the G7 was “to create a window of discussion,” he said. “Russia is a global player and has an important role in so many crisis scenarios. Forcing it into political isolation could have negative effects.”

Conte insisted he had always tried “to cultivate a channel of dialogue to avoid risking political isolation and the creation of neo-imperialist designs, as have materialized with repression in Chechnya, war in South Ossetia and in Ukraine” — a reference to several places Moscow has sent troops.

At the same time, Conte’s government did increase Italy’s defense spending and reaffirm Italy’s commitment to NATO’s 2 percent target. Conte reiterated in the interview that Italy’s NATO commitment was “beyond question.”

And he said it was logical to back Draghi’s move to send arms to Ukraine, arguing the Ukrainian people had a right to self-defense. 

Still, Conte called the support “a difficult decision” for his group.

“Peace,” he said, “is a pole star for us.”

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