Italy Seeks a US-European Front to Face Common Challenges

‘Transatlantic bond remains as important as ever,’ said Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano

Unprecedented migration, instability in the Middle East, and the growing threat of terrorism necessitate a joint US-European approach to common security challenges that stem from the Mediterranean region, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said at the Atlantic Council on March 21.

“In the past, common security threats came from the east,” said Alfano, adding, “today, they are coming from the southern shores of the Mediterranean.” Describing the Mediterranean region as a strategically significant location that ties the European Union (EU) to NATO and then to the United States, Alfano insisted that “a common effort in the Mediterranean is a keystone to our security,” and should be a priority in NATO strategy.  

“Europe and the United States face common challenges in the Mediterranean,” he said. “For this reason, I am convinced that our transatlantic bond remains as important as ever.”

According to Alfano, “we need, for peace and security, a common strategy [that] is based on EU-US friendship, solidarity, and sincerity.”

To discuss the varied challenges emanating from the Mediterranean and prescribe a joint approach by all stakeholders, Alfano delivered a keynote address at the Atlantic Council, followed by a moderated discussion with Fred Kempe, the Council’s president and chief executive officer.

Alfano called for US and EU leaders to “look to the south where we face the biggest terror threats today.” US President Donald Trump has expressed that countering terrorism will be a strategic priority for his administration, however, “Europe has to increase its level of ambition,” the minister said.

Alfano described Italy’s stance in the region, particularly its engagement in Libya, a country currently in the midst of a civil war which leaves it vulnerable to the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or Daesh). Though the international community remains fixated on the threats posed by the conflict in Syria, “Libya is a strategic priority for Italy, as it should be for the whole of Europe,” Alfano said.

In order to achieve lasting stability in Libya, Alfano said a “global approach” is needed from Europe, adding that leadership of the United Nations (UN) is a fundamental piece of the puzzle. He said the United States should support Italy’s mission to position Libya as a priority at the UN and appealed to the international community “to consider instability in Libya as the real priority for security in the world.”

The crumbling state of the North African country has opened the door to terrorism and paves the way for ISIS to continue to spread throughout the region, and onward to Europe. According to Alfano, “we are facing a new threat: non-state actors with state-like capabilities… this makes the threat much more serious.”

“We need a lot of political leadership to manage this situation,” said Alfano. “It is not possible to have a solution with a bureaucratic approach.”

Alfano, visiting Washington to take part in meetings of the global coalition against ISIS, described Italy’s role in countering terrorism in the Middle East. He said his country is one of the largest contributors to NATO operations for immediate threats, and is working actively to cut off the chain of finances supporting ISIS.

However, he said, “if we want to succeed in our fight against terror, we need more diplomatic action to promote… inclusive political solutions.”

There is also “more work to do at home in a national response to terrorism,” according to Alfano. He said nations have a responsibility to their citizens to counter domestic terror threats. However, this is not achieved by sowing fear and discord, as has been the strategy of rising populist parties. “What are needed are concrete actions, not slogans,” said Alfano. He said that in order to effectively counter terror threats, governments need to identify and neutralize violent extremists.

In an attempt to ramp up its efforts to fight terror threats at home and abroad, Alfano said “Italy wants to step up its information-sharing with the United States,” reasserting the importance of a joint approach to security threats.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, US Vice President Mike Pence “reaffirmed the strong relationship between the US and Europe,” said Alfano, expressing the reassurance provided by the vice president’s word. The minister said that “the strength of our common freedoms and fundamental values… these are proven to be stronger than any horrifying terrorist plot.”

While the United States remains a key partner for the EU in countering security threats, “we need, as Europeans, to show to the US the necessity of a loyal approach to the issue of the cost of NATO.” Trump has rattled allies by calling NATO “obsolete,” a criticism primarily directed at the member states who fail to meet the Alliance’s requirement that 2 percent of national gross domestic product (GDP) be committed to collective defense.

Alfano claimed that a more comprehensive view must be taken. Italy, he said, “spends much more in other fields,” such as search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Italy has saved nearly 500,000 people in the Mediterranean in the last three years. According to Alfano, these humanitarian costs are security costs as well. He called for leaders to combine in an effective way human principles, humanitarian assistance, and effective security. “We consider peacekeeping as a qualitative element of security strategy,” he said.

Alfano said: “It is not useful to renounce solidarity to provide security, and it is not useful to renounce security to gain solidarity.”

Solidarity must extend to the Balkans as well, he said. “We have a concrete possibility of further integration in the EU,” Alfano said. He expressed his support for the integration of Balkan nations into the EU, saying: “We need fresh faith in the European ideal and in the European process from other countries that have fresh memories… of wars.”

According to Alfano, “the stability of the region, in spite of the dimensions of the region and in spite of the number of citizens… is fundamental for stability and security in the world.” He added: “It’s not only a problem of European integration, but it’s a problem of security.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: “We need, for peace and security, a common strategy [that] is based on EU-US friendship, solidarity, and sincerity," Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said at the Atlantic Council on March 21. (Atlantic Council/Bradley Howard)