China isn’t the biggest threat to Italy’s prosperity
Italy’s membership of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is up for renewal at the end of this year, and Western media outlets are speculating that Rome may choose to leave the pact.
Italy became the first and only G7 nation to join China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure vision, signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) just before a tidal wave of anti-China sentiment was unleashed on the world. Indeed, the country’s leadership was in a very different place then, with Italy being led by Giuseppe Conte of the Five Star Movement, whose populism faulted the Euro-Atlantic establishment for decimating the Italian economy through the 2008 debt crisis and the brutal austerity measures which followed. It is little wonder that Italy had decided to look eastwards.
Even 15 years on from the events of 2008, Italy’s economy still has not fully recovered. It was worth $2.4 trillion at the end of that year, but is only at $2.1 trillion now, and barely growing at all. New and concurrent economic crises have taken a toll. Italy’s current leadership no longer believes all roads lead to Rome, let alone to China’s modern-day Silk Road – rather, they lead to Washington. As pressure on the country has grown, its successive leaders, Mario Draghi and Giorgia Meloni, have sought to reset its foreign policy back to transatlantic-oriented goals, ending its rebellion against the establishment and thus contemplating quitting China’s grand initiative.
Oddly enough, the truth remains that it is the EU and US that stand as the biggest threat to Italy’s prosperity, not China. While dumping the BRI will receive plaudits from the US-dominated commentary circles in these countries, the reality is that they offer no alternative, no plans, and no incentives to make Italy a wealthier country. It is the “sick man” of the G7, an advanced economy that has increasingly lost its competitiveness, but also one that has been thrust into decline by being a southern EU country and a net loser of Eurozone policies.
It is precisely because of the economic upheavals that the country has faced over the past 15 years and widespread political dissatisfaction, that radical and populist politics have gained ground. China was rightfully seen as an alternative, a country that could rapidly expand Italy’s exports and invest in crumbling public infrastructure. However, this has quickly become politically incorrect. Italy’s leaders argue that BRI participation has been a waste of time. However, the reality is that when Eurocrat Mario Draghi came to office, he sought to reset Italy’s foreign policy and began using new “golden powers” to veto and cancel Chinese investments in Italy on a large scale. In 2021 alone, he blocked three Chinese takeovers, including a seed and vegetable producer.
Following Draghi, Giorgia Meloni, despite her outward populism, has been even more prone to pledging Rome’s loyalty to the transatlantic cause, having decided to become vocal in support of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and even visit Kiev. At this stage, it is very little surprise that her country is contemplating canceling participation in the BRI, something which can score political points and help dispel doubts about her loyalty to Brussels and Washington. Predictably, the mainstream media narrative readily depicts the BRI in predatory and malign terms, ignoring the obvious empirical truth that it is the EU that has saddled Italy with a national debt larger than its GDP, and not China. Of course, there is no alternative scheme or plan for Italy on offer should it leave the BRI, meaning it is cutting its nose off to spite its face.
By forfeiting its BRI membership, Italy will undoubtedly lose the opportunity to massively enhance its trade competitiveness, namely by opting out of projects such as Chinese-owned ports and railway links. As an example of this, Greece, to the southeast, has positioned itself as a "gateway to Europe" through Chinese ownership of Pireaus port and its connecting railways, which allows cargo to go up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, into the port and then across Europe. Italy could have competed for a share of this, but it has chosen not to, and it's not like it will be selling anything additional to the US with its protectionist "America first" policies, is it?
In doing so, Italy has chosen to stop being a leader pursuing its own path in the world to better strengthen its global clout, but instead to be a follower, to play second fiddle to the transatlantic establishment which doesn’t see it as a particularly prominent partner to begin with. Italy joined the BRI precisely because it was sick of being a “rule taker” from Brussels, in a similar vein to what Greece has experienced. Now it appears happy again to hold up the political orthodoxy of the elitist, US-led G7. In doing so, it can kiss goodbye any hopes of becoming a powerful and influential country again anytime soon. Italy is admired mostly for its past, as opposed to what it offers to the world presently, and if its current leadership has its way, that will likely remain the case.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.