For Italy’s new and unusual ruling coalition composed of the 5 Stars Movement (5SM) and the League (previously, the Northern League), foreign policy issues remained conspicuously marginal in the two populist parties’ “contract of government” (Il Foglio, May 17). However, recent actions taken by their government have already revealed something about the coalition’s overall approach. Since the beginning, it has showed a rather friendly attitude toward Russia (see EDM, TASS, June 8), although Italy could not oppose the renewal of the European Union’s Russian sanctions given the pressure from other member countries (La Stampa, June 7; Huffington Post—Italian service, June 29). Against this backdrop, a remarkable development has been the strengthening of relations between Italy, Austria and the Visegrad Four (V4—a cooperative Central European regional grouping bringing together Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) (Affari Internazionali, August 24, 2017). This foreign policy evolution is being driven primarily by Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (who also heads the League party). Though his ministerial portfolio is theoretically limited to issues of domestic security, Salvini is indisputably dictating the broader agenda of the new government, including evidently foreign affairs. He has remained quite active and vocal on social media on a number of disparate issues, from the economy to public health.
As for foreign policy, Salvini announced that he spoke to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Il Giornale, June 4) and later Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (Il Giornale, June 5) regarding an idea to form closer links with Vienna and Budapest. Orbán welcomed this new Italian approach, stating that “with Austria and Italy, the Visegrad Four has never been so strong” (Magyaridok.hu, June 22). Considering Orbán’s reputation as an ally of Vladimir Putin in Europe, Salvini’s overtures to the Hungarian leader are also consistent with the strong pro-Russian focus of the new Italian government.
Rome’s sudden focus on strengthening relations with these Central European countries represents the most significant Italian foreign policy rupture in the recent past. Until only a few months ago, Italy, Austria and Hungary were often at odds on many issues, from migration to Vienna’s promotion of “double passports” for German-speaking minorities in the Italian border region of Alto Adige (La Repubblica, July 21, 2017; Ansa, Dec 17; La Repubblica, March 7, 2018). In addition, Salvini has openly criticized France (TGcom.24, June 23; Il Fatto Quotidiano, June 13; La Repubblica, June 22), using harsh rhetoric possibly unheard in Italy since the early days of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, in 1887, when the latter strengthened Italy’s relations with Germany and Austria into the Triple Alliance.
Interestingly, when Crispi rose to power in the late 19th century, he simultaneously held the positions of prime minister, minister of the interior and foreign minister. Although today Salvini does not formally hold all these posts, he is de facto playing all three roles given his political centrality in the current government. Indeed, observers have noted that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte enjoys limited autonomy from the leaders of the ruling coalition’s two parties—Deputy Prime Ministers Salvini and Luigi di Maio (who heads 5SM) (L’Espresso, June 28). Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi is an independent technocrat (La Repubblica, May 31), extremely well-respected in Italy, Brussels and abroad, but who holds little political weight inside the League-5SM Cabinet. For years, he held the position of minister of European affairs in various governments. He was likely chosen by the relatively inexperienced ruling coalition to help it navigate the byzantine procedures and negotiations within the EU as well as to reassure European partners concerning the new Italian government’s perceived Euroscepticism (Il Fatto Quotidiano, June 1). Within the Cabinet, major Eurosceptic personalities notably include Minister of European Affairs Paolo Savona and Undersecretary to the Presidency on European Affairs Luciano Barra Caracciolo (Il Sole 24 Ore, June 13; La Stampa, June 17).
Rome’s current flirtation with Vienna and Budapest likely has a number of motives. First, this government will probably be short-lived, and many observers in Italy have noted that Salvini is still acting as if in a “permanent electoral campaign” (Sole 24 Ore, July 2). As such, he has an interest, for both political and electoral reasons, in being perceived as close to the so-called “Sovereigntist leaders” of Europe. That is, he wants to build up a reputation among the electorate of firmly asserting Italian interests on the European scene and of being the defender of Italians, in line with his slogan “Prima gli Italiani” (“Italians First”).
Second, the new Italian government shares the views of Austria and the V4 concerning the need to reinforce Europe’s external frontiers. And although Italy and this bloc of countries continue to hold somewhat incongruent views concerning the reallocation of refugees and the reform of the Dublin Regulation (which dictates the responsibilities of EU member states for asylum applications), at the moment Italy is focused on using this alliance to advance its goals on all three issues.
Third, this foreign policy orientation is also driven by structural and historical reasons. Despite the fact that the League has now turned into a proper national party, electing parliamentarians in the center and south of Italy, this political faction still remains firmly rooted in the north of the country—an area historically linked to Mitteleuropa (“Middle” or Central Europe). As such, the League perceives this continental region as more central to its foreign policy approach than other parties and groups in Italy, for cultural and geopolitical reasons. In other words, Salvini’s outreach to the right-wing government of Austria or to Orbán’s Hungary was not motivated purely due to their ideological similarities with the current Italian Cabinet.
This Italian–Central European axis is unlikely to outlast the present leadership in Rome. But the foreign policy outreach to Mitteleuropa will serve Salvini’s political goal of being perceived as part of an “alliance of strongmen,” alongside Putin, Orbán and Sebastian Kurz (the Austrian chancellor), who want to halt immigration and reinforce state borders.