Anyone who has ever visited Rome knows that it is a chaotic city. From speeding scooters to noisy street vendors, it seems that the streets can’t have a moment’s peace. And yet, last Saturday, everything was quiet in the Parioli neighbourhood. The entire block was in complete lockdown and even the flower boxes had been removed, while hundreds of policemen patrolled the area. This gigantic effort wasn’t disproportionate to the event: China’s President Xi Jinping arrived in Rome at 18:10, together with his wife and 500 other delegates, including members of the Party, businessmen, public officials, and journalists. Rome was the first stop of the European Tour that has brought the President to Palermo, Monaco, and Paris.
For being a tour which has been presented as focused on economic goals, there is a significant number of politicians around the President: the most important ones are surely the foreign secretary Wang Yi and the politburo member Yang Jiechi, ex-ambassador to the US. Their presence signals that business will never be separated from politics in China.
This tour has great relevance, for a number of reasons:
- The commercial partnership between Italy and China would be highly profitable
- Italy is a key element for the West, with strong ties to the US
- China could use economic incentives to spread its political influence over the West
- The US and the EU have both condemned the partnership
China is officially promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive plan of investments and commercial infrastructure. Including a European state in its project could produce incredible profits for both sides. Moreover, Italy occupies a strategic position, and it can be seen as the door to European markets and to the West itself.
But Italy is not only a rich economy: it is also an EU founder and a member of the NATO Security Council. It holds considerable influence over the geopolitical balance of power, and it has always proven loyal to the Western Block.
However, if China manages to play a major role in the Italian economy, it could also use its influence to exercise some form of leverage over the country’s political choices and military decisions, changing the whole geopolitical configuration and creating a dangerous divide between EU states.
That’s why its behaviour has been met with coldness and disapproval by the Western powers: The US has expressed its discontent multiple times, asking Italy not to get involved in Chinese business for its own good. The European Council too is struggling to find a strategy against China which could conciliate economic interest and political sovereignty.
But why has Italy decided to suddenly turn its back on its historical allies? Many elements have led to this move:
- New elections have weakened the bonds between Italy and the EU
- Economic gains could boost the government’s approval ratings
- Italy is looking for a powerful ally to gain autonomy from the European Union
Italy held its election roughly a year ago. The results saw the end of the moderate, pro-European party that had governed until then, as political power shifted towards something very different. The Italian Government right now is made up of a coalition between the populist ‘5 Stars Movement’, which gained much of its initial consensus by supporting Italy’s exit from the EU, and the ‘League’, a far-right party which has often criticized Brussels for its views on migrants and has been a protagonist in the diplomatic crisis with France. Both parties have repeatedly stressed the importance of autonomy and sovereignty. A partnership with China could boost the country’s economy, increasing voters’ support, while simultaneously showing that it is possible for Italy to survive without Europe’s backing.
Brussels must seek to create a new strategy to strengthen its bonds with Italy. Presently, the Italian people perceive that they are being treated as a second–class members due to their economic situation, and that the European Union is not helpful in stimulating economic growth. These issues must be settled urgently, otherwise, while the whole world observes Brexit as an example of weakness and division, another fundamental state will slowly abandon the EU.