From coronavirus to Mediterranean tensions, Italy has stepped up its diplomatic game during dramatic year, foreign minister says

Italy does not have its own nuclear arsenal, lacks a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and was on the losing side of the last World War. But Rome still exerts considerable international influence, thanks to its storied “school” of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its latest pupil is Luigi Di Maio, the youngest foreign minister in the history of republican Italy. Having departed as leader of the Five Star Movement (but still a key figure within the party), he has now spent an intense first twelve months in charge of Italian diplomacy.

In this exclusive interview, Di Maio tackles the many international challenges that now face Italy, including the coronavirus pandemic, US-China competition, rising threats in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and doubts about the transatlantic alliance. Despite the many difficulties, Di Maio is confident that Rome has seized the moment and provided “new impulse to Italy’s international profile and credibility.”

Below is a transcript of Di Maio’s conversation with Formiche’s Francesco Bechis and Valeria Covato:

Q: There are sometimes close diplomatic relations between Italy and Russia. The case of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and the crisis in Belarus demand that Italy and EU countries express a clear position. How do you think Italy’s relationship with Russia can be reconciled with Western values, and what are the red lines that Moscow cannot cross?

Di Maio: “The dialogue with the Russian Federation on the most important challenges on the global and regional scale is fundamental, and it fits within our foreign policy tradition. May I just say that we are, specifically, very worried about Belarus. From the get-go we’ve supported the adoption of a unitary EU response, which has defined some clear principles: solidarity to the Belarusian people, refusal to acknowledge the [official result of the] presidential elections; commitment to new elections—which should be called as soon as possible and respect the highest international standards—; adoption of focused sanctions on those individuals deemed responsible for violence and the falsification of the results; full support for the internal dialogue between [Alexander] Lukashenko and opposition forces; liberation of political prisoners and filing of penal procedures against the opposition. The Navalny matter is more delicate. What happened outraged us deeply, and we condemn what we consider a crime that calls for the ability and the willingness of the Russian political system to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.”

Q: Let us go on to China. During a press conference with your counterpart Wang Yi, you underscored the difference between commercial partners and allies. An issue that calls both of those roles into play is the development of new technologies, specifically 5G networks. The United States is promoting an international network of allied countries that use “clean” technologies, excluding Chinese ones. Do you think that Italian participation to this program is conceivable?

Di Maio: “Like other European nations, Italy remains open to all foreign investments that are compatible with growth and jobs, as long as they are in line with our country’s national security requirements and participation within the Euro-Atlantic framework. Being fully aware of the security implications that come with new telecommunications technologies—and the 5G network in particular—Italy takes the United States’ concerns seriously, and it closely coordinates with the EU, which has adopted a detailed package of measures (“Toolbox”) to mitigate the effects of the main cybersecurity risks. Based on these rules, our Golden Power committee, instituted within the prime minister’s office, monitors 5G tech adoption by our different national telecoms companies. The ultimate aims are to increase the overall security level of all users, safeguarding privacy, and improving the overall security of our country.”

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Q: There is a large Italian community in Venezuela, a country victimized by an economic crisis and an unprecedented civil conflict. Can Italy ever express a clear condemnation of Nicolás Maduro, even without recognizing the self-proclaimed government of Juan Guaidò?

Di Maio: “Italy condemns the authoritarian drift in Venezuela and recognizes this in the declarations of the European Union, both in the wake of the contested presidential elections in May 2018 to the more recent ones in July 2020, which have slammed the measures adopted by the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice at the expense of the opposition parties. I would like to stress that Italy does not recognize the validity of the May 2018 presidential elections, nor the democratic legitimacy of the winner, Nicolás Maduro. We have immediately joined those in the international community asking for new presidential elections, to be held as soon as possible. Having not recognized Juan Guaidò as president should not be misconstrued into an equidistant Italian position, one in support of Maduro, or even worse, one of indifference in the face of violation of rights and fundamental liberties. Our commitment, as part of the International Contact Group, remains that of promoting the efforts for the search of a peaceful, democratic, and common solution to the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis that is underway in Venezuela.”

Q: In Venezuela, as is the case with other international crises, the Vatican has made important diplomatic contributions. In your opinion, how can the Holy See contribute to the resolution of this crisis, and could it collaborate with the Italian government?

Di Maio: “The Holy See has traditionally undertaken (with great discretion and intelligence) an important role inseveral critical situations, particularly in Latin America, where the population is mainly Catholic. On our side we are open to dialogue and collaboration between all the partners that may act as facilitators in the search for a solution to the crisis, which cannot be initiated inside Venezuela in any case.”

Q: The theme of religious freedom is particularly dear to the Holy See, as is to the United States. To this day, in many authoritarian countries religious minorities are persecuted, often out of the spotlight of the international community. How can Italy help to denounce these violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms?

Di Maio: “Italy is on the frontlines of protecting freedom of religion and belief, and it has been for many years. This is also one of our priority themes in our mandate to the UN Human Rights Council for 2019-2021. In this sense, we undertake a leading role on the world stage, together with other like-minded nations, to denounce violations and abuses of freedom of religion and belief, and we encourage all the countries to take steps forward in this direction. Lastly, we have promoted a joint declaration with thirteen other countries in the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG-FORB) on Sudan, in support of the democratic and reform process brought forward by the transition government there. The country has seen progress through the insertion of the right to religious freedom in its constitution and the abolition of apostasy as a crime. Moreover, through our development aid initiatives, we carry out several projects to help people who belong to religious minorities across the world, especially in the Middle East, where they are sometimes the target of violence and discrimination.”

Q: The United States is asking to renew the UN embargo against Iran this coming October. What position should the EU take, and what role may Italy have on this issue?

Di Maio: “The EU, Italy included, shares the United States’ worries concerning the end of the embargo, but it intends to ward off a new escalation of tensions and the end of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] JCPOA. As [EU] High Commissioner [Josep] Borrell remarked a few days ago, the deal remains a key pillar of the global non-proliferation architecture and it can contribute to regional security.”

Q: A historic deal between UAE and Israel has revamped diplomatic relations between the two countries under the aegis of the United States. Do you believe that Italy can use its soft power to convince other countries to follow the example set by Abu Dhabi?

Di Maio: “The announcement on August 14 of a normalization of relations between Israel and UAE represents an important development for the stability of the Middle East. Italy has always maintained a balanced and open-to-dialogue position between the Arab world and Israel, which has resulted in us gaining credibility and authoritativeness. Today, this allow us to support the easing of tensions and the rekindling of positive relations between the region’s countries. However, I would like to emphasize a fundamental aspect of this “normalization”: the relaunch of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The commitment to suspend annexations—underwritten by Israel in the framework of its deal with the UAE—defuses a possible threat for the peace process and the two-state solution. Our hope is that this suspension may become permanent and favor the restart of negotiations between the two sides, on the basis of a two-state solution that’s just, sustainable, and which can really constitute a major turn for the stability and the development of all the Middle East. Italy—together with the EU—is ready to undertake any effort to facilitate the relaunching of the dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Q: Lebanon, a country where Italy is on the ground both in humanitarian and military terms, is undergoing a moment of serious political and social instability. The UN Security Council has recently revised the mandate of mission UNIFIL, adding some modifications connected to the heavy critiques from Israel and the United States on the approach, deemed too soft on Hezbollah. Do you share these fears?

Di Maio: “Lebanon is indeed going through a very complex situation: a serious economic crisis, a worrying epidemiological situation, and the consequences of the tragic explosion that happened in Beirut, to which were added the government’s resignations. The hope now is that the country may soon see the birth of a government capable of tackling the many challenges facing it. In this difficult context, Italy can boast a “historic” presence. Other than our participation in the UNIFIL mission with almost 1,000 soldiers out of a total of 10,000, and an Italian commander since 2018, we are also on the ground with the bilateral mission MIBIL, which conducts training programs for the Lebanese security forces. On the humanitarian front, after the devastating explosion in Beirut, we have granted three humanitarian flights and two ships transporting rescue teams, a field hospital, and various materials. The recent revision of UNIFIL’s mandate has revealed itself to be particularly complex this year, but the compromise that was reached seems balanced to us: some of the modifications that had been requested have been introduced without significantly altering UNIFIL’s mandate and its level of strength, in a moment when a mission capable of maintaining the tranquillity on the Blue Line is more necessary than ever.”

Q: Amidst the many conflicts that afflict the international community, one that has long been latent is ready to explode within a few miles from the Italian coasts, in the Eastern Mediterranean. Europe has taken a more assertive stance towards Turkey. Italy has historic relations both with Greece and Turkey, which is also a NATO ally; how should the country position itself?

Di Maio: “We are following with the utmost attention what’s going on in the Eastern Med; I was able to discuss with my EU colleagues on this matter last week, in Berlin. Italy’s position on the issue has not changed: we have ensured our solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, but we firmly believe that the assertiveness in condemning unilateral initiatives must be accompanied by the commitment to avoid a dynamic of escalation. Towards this end, we support the mandate given to the High Commissioner Borrell to identify a more constructive approach, one that may tackle the deep causes of the current tensions, which are the definition of Athens’ and Ankara’s maritime jurisdictions as well as the Cyprus issue.”


Oct 22, 2019

More in the Med: How NATO Can Refocus its Efforts in the South and Italy Can Lead the Charge

By Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and Lauren Speranza

Though NATO has made considerable progress in deterring an aggressive Russia to the east, it falls short in its “southern strategy.” Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and Lauren Speranza suggest three major courses of action to develop NATO’s strategy towards its southern flank.

Defense Policy Europe & Eurasia

Q: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has taken a leading role in Libya. Some members of the Italian parliamentary opposition believe that it has stolen Italy’s position in Tripoli. How do you respond to that?

Di Maio: “It is undeniable that Turkey has taken on a growing role in the Libyan crisis, establishing a solid presence in the country. But Libya is not a zero-sum game: our effort for the country’s stabilization remains a priority and we continue to maintain a leading role in it. A few days ago (September 1) I conducted a mission in Tripoli and Cyrenaica where I met with President [Fayez al-] Serraj, the President of the High Council of State [Khaled al-] Meshri, the President of the Chamber of representatives in Tobruk Aghila Saleh and the President of NOC (National Oil Corporation) [Mustafa] Sanallah. The mission allowed for the further confirmation of Italy’s commitment to a political solution to the crisis, and it was also an occasion to give a new impulse to bilateral economic cooperation and Italian investments in Libya, in view of the country’s reconstruction.”

Q: The ceasefire in Libya has prompted the creation of a road map to hold fresh elections. Do you think it can work? Do you think that the role of General Khalifa Haftar constitutes a threat for the identified course?

Di Maio: “My mission in Libya on September 1 happened a few days after the parallel declarations (August 21) with which President Serraj and President Saleh announced the immediate termination of hostilities in the country. The two declarations show divergences, but also common points, like the request to reactivate oil production, where we expect Benghazi to act upon the announcements that have been made. However, it is precisely this understanding between Serraj and Saleh that opens a new window of possibilities which must absolutely be seized. Sure enough, in my meetings with Serraj and Saleh I confirmed Italy’s full support for an inclusive and political solution to the crisis, and I encouraged my interlocutors to translate into concrete facts the commitments they had announced in their declarations. For now, reaching an effective and lasting deal on the ceasefire is absolutely a matter of primary concern. The parties are currently negotiating it, thanks to the UN’s mediation, within the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. It is also essential that the lock on oil production goes away. In these areas, we also expect General Haftar to make a constructive contribution.”

Q: Off Libya’s coast there is an EU operation flying the Italian flag: Irini. What is your assessment of the operation and what do you think of a possible collaboration with NATO’s operation Sea Guardian?

Di Maio: “Irini is a tangible sign of the European contribution to the resolution of the Libyan crisis and the enforcement of the arms embargo and to combat the traffic of illicit oil products from Libya. The results of the first three months of operational activities seem to confirm the choices that were made as well as the neutrality of the mission with regards to the parties in conflict. Irini has effectively conducted over 500 flag requests and forwarded more than ten special reports to the UN Panel of Experts on Libya; these bear testimony to the operation’s counterbalancing of the suspected violations that were observed. In any case, the decisiveness of operation Irini could surely be strengthened by means of a technical agreement of information exchange with operation Sea Guardian.”

Q: Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has called NATO “brain dead.” What is your take on NATO? Do you believe that Italy can invest more resources on defense?

Di Maio: “Our staunch commitment to NATO—of which Italy is a founding partner—is one of the pillars of Italian foreign policy. We are among the Allies that contribute the most to the activities and the finances of NATO, and our men and women in uniform earn widespread respect in all the areas they are deployed in. We continue to propose new methods for constantly adapting the Alliance to the most direct and pressing challenges to collective security. The creation of the Hub for the South in NATO’s Naples command is a tangible sign of this. Moreover, we participate in the process of strategic reflection (which began at the end of last year) to reinforce the political dimension of the Alliance, an objective that constitutes another traditional Italian strong point in NATO. To preserve a strong and solid transatlantic bond is a necessary condition for security in the Euro-Atlantic area, and at the same time, an essential component of effective multilateralism, to protect peace and international stability.”

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Q: North Africa is shaken by other worrying regional crises, from Algeria to Morocco to Tunisia. What role may Italy have in their stabilization?

Di Maio: “Italy is fully committed to the stabilization of North Africa. Despite the limitations that the pandemic has posed on diplomatic action, we have never ceased to strive to reinforce relations with countries on the Southern coast of the Mediterranean. This is demonstrated by my numerous telephone contacts with my colleagues from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, as well as my mission in Tunisia, together with minister [Luciana] Lamorgese and European Commissioners [Olivér] Varhélyi and [Ylva] Johanssonon August 17. Our efforts in the region do not only concern security and political stabilization, they also encompass the economic-commercial dimension. In particular, we are working on a detailed study regarding a collaboration with Maghreb countries that focuses on technological innovation and start-ups.”

Q: Another crisis scenario that has drawn the attention of Italy is the coup d’état in Mali. Do you believe that the efforts fielded by the international community are enough to eradicate the jihadist threat and prevent it from becoming a continental crisis?

Di Maio: “We are following what is going on in Mali with great attention. To Italy, the Sahel is a strategic area for the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, as well as the effective management of irregular migration. Italy, together with its European partners, supports the delicate negotiations carried out by ECOWAS and the African Union in Bamako that pursue a transition towards a civilian-guided government, which we hope can occur in a short time, thus strengthening the trust of Malian citizens in their institutions. The leading role that regional organizations—which Italy actively supports—have assumed in managing local political crises is a deciding factor for the success and sustainability of the proposed solutions.”

Q: Amid the establishment of Space Forces and the proliferation of space weapons, international competition is increasingly moving beyond the atmosphere. Is it possible to maintain a peaceful use of space? How?

Di Maio: “I am convinced of the importance of guaranteeing a peaceful use of space, and in that regard international cooperation is of critical importance. Within the different international forums, Italy works to enhance every initiative aimed to strengthen the international governance of space and the definition of responsible behaviors on behalf of states to ensure the sustainability and the security of space operations. I believe that the international community will be called to dedicate increasingly more attention to this matter in the future.”

Q: The United States is pursuing a return to the moon program (Artemis), which Italy has already clarified that it wants to participate in. What is Italy’s ambition in space?

Di Maio: “The United States is our main ally and has always been a privileged partner in the field of space exploration. Washington particularly appreciates Italian activities in this sector, and the undisputed excellence of the aerospace industry in our country. In fact, we are among the very first partners to which the United States has turned to for the development of the Artemis program. Our objective is to significatively contribute, both on a bilateral basis and through the common European effort via [the European Space Agency] ESA, to this new chapter in space exploration, characterized by a decisive involvement of the private sector, which could have exceedingly valuable outcomes for our sector-specific industries.”

Q: Geoeconomics also involved attracting investment and capital. The American fund KKR is on the verge of closing a deal with TIM after some politically-driven hesitation. Can you reassure foreign investors that Italy is an attractive and secure place for their investments?

Di Maio: “Absolutely yes, and the important investments that have arrived into our country in the last months, despite the pandemic, from those of the KKR fund to those coming from great US companies in the IT and digital sector, demonstrate the trust that foreign companies have towards Italy. As the government, we are aware of the importance of continually attracting foreign capital and investments projects with high added value to Italy. These represent a source of economic growth and jobs, both fundamental for the recovery that will have to follow this emergency phase. There is important work that’s being done in this sense, both abroad in the diplomatic-consular network and on the national territory by Invitalia, the regions and local organizations, plus, on the central government level, the inter-ministerial Committee for the Attraction of Foreign Investments (CAIE).”

Q: Minister, a year ago the government formed with the intent of bringing Italy back to its traditional foreign policy. One year later, what is your assessment?

Di Maio: “I think that we can consider the objective achieved. It has been an exceptional year, marked by a pandemic that shocked the world while demonstrating how important international cooperation is, nowadays, to face together the formidable challenges that lie ahead of us. During these twelve months we have given a new impulse to Italy’s international profile and credibility. We have demonstrated that the European Union can be improved and reformed by working alongside our partners that share our same interests, that dialogue is an added value, and that our alliances and our location within the Atlantic alliance is more solid than ever. Specifically, we have brought Italy back to being a main player in the greater Mediterranean region.”

Francesco Bechis is a reporter and analyst at Formiche, Rome.

Valeria Covato is editor-in-chief at Formiche, Rome.

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Image: Rome's ancient Colosseum is lit with colours of the Italian flag to show unity, solidarity and to honour victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from all over the world, in Rome, Italy, May 31, 2020. REUTERS/Remo Casilli