The Renzi-Obama summit

Last Friday’s summit between Italy and the United States was an occasion for American President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to discuss issues of mutual concerns, particularly Russia and Libya, and consolidate the personal bond they laid the ground for during their first meeting in Rome last year. 

The United States wants assurances that Italy will continue to support U.S.-European Union efforts to press Russia, including via sanctions, to stop fomenting unrest in Ukraine. Last March, EU countries committed to keeping sanctions in place until the second Minsk Memorandum—the Ukrainian-Russian peace deal brokered by France and Germany in February 2015—is fully implemented later this year. Yet, EU leaders will not make a formal decision on whether to extend financial, energy and defense sanctions against Russia before next June. Russia has been courting EU member states whose commercial interests have been most affected by sanctions. These include countries in financial distress, such as Greece and Cyprus, as well as countries where Russia-leaning governments are in power, such as Hungary.  

If Italy were to add its weight to this group, the intra-EU consensus supporting sanctions could begin to erode. Italy has, after all, strong trade, energy, and political interests at stake. Its businesses have paid a heavy price because of sanctions. Its energy policy has suffered as well, particularly due to the Kremlin’s decision to drop South Stream, a gas pipeline under the Black Sea that Russia’s energy giant Gazprom was developing in cooperation with a subsidiary of Italian energy company Eni. Above all, however, the Ukraine crisis has shattered Italy’s longstanding plans to establish a constructive relationship with Russia, which Rome sees as an indispensable interlocutor to preserve Europe’s long-term security and manage issues of international concern. 

Concerns about Italy’s position on Russia are, then, understandable. Yet, as much as Italy would like Russia and the West to mend fences, the chances that Renzi will break ranks with the United States’ and Rome’s most important EU partners are low. What Italy will do is instead to insist on the need to reach out to Russia on those issues on which cooperation is still possible. Renzi made this clear during his visit to Moscow last month, where he reiterated Italy’s commitment to the Minsk II Memorandum but also insisted that Russia can make a positive contribution to ending crises in the Mediterranean, particularly in Libya. 

Libya has lately emerged as Italy’s most urgent foreign policy concern—which is why Renzi is seeking U.S. support to address the crisis there. The country is in a state of quasi-anarchy, with two rival governments—one in Tobruk, the other one in Tripoli—fighting for control over national resources. Libyan oil shipments to Italy have shrunk, while migration flows towards Sicily have exploded. Furthermore, groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS) have started operating in the coastal cities of Derna and Sirte. The Italian government has signaled its willingness to take part in a multinational force, even in a leading role, to restore a degree of stability in Libya and contain the expansion of ISIS activities there (which, for the time being, are however quite limited). 

To this end, U.S. political backing and logistical assistance is key. Yet, Italy’s stated resolve to take action has not been matched with a well thought-out initiative aimed at clarify the scope, objective and mandate of such an international action. For an intervention in Libya to have any chance of success, it is of paramount importance that United Nations (U.N.) efforts to broker a deal over a national unity government between Tripoli and Tobruk succeed. Only in that context would the idea of sending in a multinational force supporting the national unity government make sense. Italy would then be best advised to seek greater U.S. involvement in the U.N. process, including by exerting pressure on the Tobruk government—and its key supporters, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates—to accept a compromise. 

The meaning of the Renzi-Obama summit extends well beyond security issues. For Renzi, Obama’s support to his reform agenda lends more substance to his claim that his plans to reform the economy would boost not only Italy’s economic prospects but also its international credibility. This is of critical importance for Renzi as his reform agenda—which includes a comprehensive labor market reform as well as plans to overhaul Italy’s constitutional set-up and electoral law—are controversial both within Renzi’s own center-left Democratic Party (PD) and with the population at large, most notably with such key leftist constituencies as the main trade unions. 

For his part, Obama appreciates Renzi’s resolve to moderate German fixation on fiscal consolidation as the most appropriate response to eurozone financial troubles—a course of action the U.S. administration thinks has caused more harm than good to Europe’s, and indirectly America’s, economy. Lately, the German-led camp of EU member states supporting austerity has lost some (but just some) ground, particularly after the European Central Bank started its own quantitative easing program. But the U.S. president is convinced that EU countries need not only expansive monetary policy, but also more fiscal leeway to boost domestic demands. In strongly pro-EU and reform-committed Renzi, Obama has a valuable ally to make the case with the austerity camp that Europe needs growth more than balanced budgets.