December 21, 2017
How the EU and Italy could successfully face the challenges of the future new Word Order
The international chessboard has dramatically changed in the last few years, which has altered its balance. In this new piece for the column “World Disorder”, Antonio Badini analyses how western powers (especially Europe and Italy) can tackle this new situation and gain advantage from it
The defining features of the current state of the world are concern and, above all, disarray. While the US is retreating from its traditional position as hegemonic power of the world order and China and Russia are stepping in, the EU moves gropingly. Especially because of the emergent populist movements, it is often manifesting disunity as well as incoherence, swinging from the renewed French-German ambitions of a “federative Europe” to the failure of its western members to integrate the central and eastern ones, namely Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, which, on their part, often portray Brussels as an imposing, undemocratic entity. And in this muddled picture, Italy, once welcome broker between Atlanticists and Europeanists as well as an authorative voice on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern issues, is now faltering in finding a credible role and may run the risk of becoming an irrelevant partner.
Let us take a closer look at these far-afield paths. As to the international scene, the most immediate perception of many analysts is that the world is sliding into a worrying state of disorder with no institutional structure able to handle the hotbeds of tension and conflict erupting more and more often almost simultaneously in different parts of the globe. Compared to the past, at the current juncture what worries most is the lack of understanding among major powers to effectively tackle transnational threats that individual countries alone cannot manage.
Under such circumstances, maintaining international peace and security has become extremely complex for the UN. Indeed, in the light of the frequent conflicting interests among the veto-power nations, the UN cannot singlehandedly solve crises. In his speech at the recent annual UN General Assembly, President Donald Trump referred to sovereignty twenty times in forty-two minutes, indicating it as the first of the three “pillars of peace” — the other two being security and prosperity. “As President of the US”, he said, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leader of your countries, you will always and should always put your countries first”. This is an inappropriate statement in that it practically encourages the adoption of a new doctrine of sovereignty whose bearing and possible implications in the international arena are not yet predictable.
By itself, emphasizing sovereignty is not necessarily alarming, especially if the country doing it is, like the US, the one that underwrote the international institutional architecture, which was created soon after World War II to preserve peace and economic progress to the benefit of mankind. Actually, we all were used to the fact that traditionally the United States’ way of carrying on sovereignty had never disregarded the concept of shared responsability in dealing with the most pressing problems. To this end, American diplomacy strived to make its agenda understood so as to make the other major powers well aware of the goals, rules, and vision governing the behaviour of the country in working for world stability.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with the current president of the US. Indeed, Donald Trump has failed to shape any thoughtful, coordinated and comprehensive foreign affairs policy plan. So far, Trump has clearly preferred to act emotionally and by coups de théâtre rather than within a coherent framework. The bombing of a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack by Damascus in the Idlib province, the repeated threat of total destruction to North Korea for testing its intercontinental ballistic missiles, or, more recently, his surprising decision to recognize, without any preconditions or previous consultations with major allies, Jerusalem as the historic capital of Israel are just the better-known examples of a seemingly impromptu policy making. None of them is part of either a global or a regional (Asia and Middle East) policy.
Therefore, it should not come as surprise that the US has lost significant legitimacy in ruling international affairs. That is bad especially for those who still remember the enlightened decision, made soon after the Second World War by then-US President Delano Franklin Roosevelt, to give birth to the Bretton Wood Institutions. The goal of these institutions was to avoid the destabilizing consequences of the previous war—the economic disparities and lack of fair development prospects for all the “good will” countries. Unfortunately, none of them is well functioning; to the contrary, they have lost authority, including tht WTO and the IMF.
But if Washington has no reason to feel gratified, Brussels has even more serious concerns to deal with. Europe is indeed facing a number of simmering crises. Perhaps the first and foremost headache is the inconclusive result of the German legislative elections last September, which left the once firmly established, ever-powerful Angela Merkel in an awkward position. Actually, experts contend, the Chancellor seems to be at the mercy of events, firstly of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), whose leader, Christian Lindner, sabotaged Merkel’s bid to participate in a coalition with the Greens and the Social Democrats of the former president of the European Parliament, Mr. Schulz (SPD).
Whatever the outcome of the arm-twisting may be—and even if in the end the decision to rebuild the “Grand Coalition” or, alternatively, to convene new elections, prevails—it would be, in any case, highly unlikely for the German government, whatever may be the intention, to renew a strengthened Paris-Berlin axis. Indeed, such an idea, which of course implies a pro-active agenda for a “closer Union”, would be—electorally speaking—self-defeating for the “Grand Coalition” while conversely it would be a blessing for bolstering the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which, thanks to the populist backlash against EU initiatives such as migration and financial reforms, is now Germany’s third biggest party.
Should one feel frustrated for this impasse on the road to the reforms of the euro zone? Not necessarily. In fact, it may be positive that someone of high rank in Berlin has shown some claws, thus hampering a new attempt by the European Commission to grab power from the member states to promote an overhaul of the currency architecture. Actually, the EU is in a desperate need of reforms. The problem is what kind of reforms? The dispute, of course, goes much beyond both the Brussels technocracy and the technical aspects, such as whether or not this is the right time to accelerate completion of the Banking Union and strengthen the euro.
The matter is rather political in nature and should be dealt with primarily by the governments. There are reforms that are politically more urgent as they concern the lack of cohesion among the twenty-eight member countries, as well as the expectations of their respective citizenships, which have brought about the emergent populism and that require appropriate and reassuring provisions by the governments. Looking ahead, the most urgent reform is to limit the European Commission’s prerogatives on lawmaking, which, among others, would bring an end to the powerful lobby that on a daily basis deals with officials in Brussels over the heads of member states.
Many analysts believe that the time has come to hear, possibly through regular referendums, EU public opinion on whether the European Commission’s current role in lawmaking is still consistent with democracy’s principles. At first glance, and from a legal viewpoint, the Commission does not fulfill the prerequisites of democratic accountability and transparency and, therefore, it should be of general interest to look seriously into the matter. At the beginning, when the right of initiating the lawmaking process was recognized by the Rome Treaties, the overall situation was quite different. Now, what is most needed is to create a “new spirit” in the EU, aimed at keeping the current member countries close together, thus averting a splintering process that could, sooner or later, drag Italy down, too.
Let us look at the real facts. Italy cannot allow globalization to run unrestrained and must strengthen its public policy, namely the politics of globalization, to shield its economic system from uncontrolled speculative capital (not direct investment), and unfair trading practices. In this regard it might be useful to explore French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a “Europe that protects”. Moreover, a number of specific dysfunctions undermine the Italian public sector, both at a national and regional level. As to the former, although Italy has recently managed to shrink the budget deficit well below the EU ceiling of 3 percent, despite the Quantitative Easing measure adopted by the European Central Bank no substantive progress has been made to cut its comparatively huge public debt (133 percent of GDP at the end of 2016).
Another serious and old problem regards the wobbly administrations of many southern regions, an issue that risks reviving Italy’s division between the norther regions and a cluster of central-southern ones. The serious dysfunction is the failure by the southern regional bureaucracies to devise suitable projects that could benefit from the special EU structural funds. This should be a warning to the government to not be overly ambitious with the objective of a “closer Union”. Now Italy, also because of its “take-up” fund inadequacy is unexpectedly a “net contributor” of about 5 billion euros to the EU budget—a situation that runs counter to its financial requirement to support the economic growth.
The above-mentioned anomaly is made even more painful by the financial burden that Italy has to shoulder to keep costly security mechanisms working close to its borders to face the serious issue of immigration. It would be advisable that, because of the maelstrom in the Mediterranean and among Middle Eastern countries, which constitutes a very dangerous threat also to European security, the Italian government convincingly requests a decision granting more flexibility in the application of the ill-advised Maastrich benchmarks. It is very likely that in its undertaking Italy would get such support from member countries to prompt the EU Council to grant it. Italy could then take the lead in promoting, with like-minded partners, a reinforced EU preventive diplomacy in the area, including crisis management, thus filling the vacuum left by the retreat of the US. There is a delicate aspect, however, to be taken into account.
Indeed, the above-suggested initiative cannot overlook the fact that Russia has, in the meantime, become a very influential player in the region. This new factor, which implies a need by the EU to set up close political consultations with Moscow, calls for a previous settlement of the current sanctions imposed on Russia. But this is not a prohibitive task, which, in any case looks worth attempting. Actually, some analysts compare, on a mere legal basis, Russia’s annexation of Crimea with the forced expropriation by Serbia, by US initiative, of its then-autonomous province of Kosovo.
Who can deny the critical importance of a EU-brokered rapprochement between America and Russia? It would be, among others, a good test of how the forthcoming world order, based on spheres of influence, can be instrumental in bringing back stability in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and, at the same time, in paving the way to a fair settlement, with the active involvement of China, of other international crises that are threatening world peace.