Italian defence under the new government

On 1 June, the new Italian government took office. The two anti-establishment partners, the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Stars Movement) and the Lega (formerly the Northern League) barely mentioned defence in their discussions — mostly centered on spending less abroad, and more on national interests.

However, with the G7 summit involving the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, NATO’s ministerial meeting involving the Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta and the inauguration of new NATO foreign mission in Montenegro, things have been moving pretty fast in the calendarforcing the coalition to make priority choices and quickly outline an otherwise unknown position on security and defence.

Here’s a four-point analysis of what can be expected:

1) A focus on national interests

With the government announcing that it will only care about adjusting public expenditures, Italy is likely to decrease funds in the defence field. Apart from rumours that Elisabetta Trenta plans to reduce Italy’s many and expensive international deployments, the government’s few defence policies outlined yet are already heading in that direction:

  • Supporting research and the national know-how regarding not specifically military field (e.g. engineering and building ships, planes and High-Tech Systems)
  • Review of military missions abroad, in the view of their compatibility with national interest,
  • Rationalisation of military costs, in order to save public funds.

The government plans to improve security compartment and enhance law enforcement staff. Specifically, it provides a fund increase for investments in equipment, as cars, non-lethal weapons (e.g. teaser, key defender), arms, body armour, and the introduction of cameras in uniforms and cars.

As to parliamentary works, the Chambers are currently examining two Legislative Decrees in defence and security:

  • The approval of a scheme to acquire remotely piloted planes of MALE category (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) and enhance Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance skills by 2032. The scheme is needed in order to provide the Italian Defence with sophisticated tools for recruiting and transmitting information on operating backgrounds.
  • The implementation of the European Directive on arm exports. The Italian decree provides an arms traceability system that requires to know exactly the fabrication and destruction of any firearm and introduces the notion of “disguised arms,” forbidding the use of any type of them.

2) A restrictive immigration policy

The desire to focus on national interests will translate into a restrictive immigration policy, as shown by the Aquarius crisis. In closing its ports to the NGO ship, the new government called for a policy change in Brussels and burden confrontation, even though it meant endangering its relationship with France at a time when the deal with Naval Group is close to being signed and could propel Fincantieri to the top.

3) A focus on NATO rather than European Defence

The immigration threat makes NATO more relevant for Italy, despite the new government’s spending review objective. As explained in this excellent Rusi commentary, Italy is a big contributor to the NATO alliance, with 24 current or planned missions involving Italian troops. Italy has more troops on foreign deployment than any other European country except the UK and France:

« According to statistics from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, Italy currently has 5,000 troops on foreign deployment – far more than Germany (around 3,800) or Spain (around 1,700). Some 600 Italian soldiers are serving as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, along with some 900 with Resolute Support Afghanistan. Nearly 300 Italian sailors (along with two ships and two aircraft) are part of NATO’s Sea Guardian mission in the Mediterranean; another 500 or so are deployed in Niger. Until May, the Italian Air Force helped protect the Baltic states’ air space as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing. Italy has even dispatched 162 soldiers, along with 50 vehicles, to Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission. »

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s latest visit to Rome, on 11 June, was a reminder of Italy’s essential role to NATO : « Your contributions are in the interest of Italy’s security, and they are important for the security of the whole Alliance, » he said.

That is why Rusi analyses Elisabetta Trenta’s plan to reduce international deployments as a big mistake :

« The armed forces are a cheap strong card. Last year Italy spent 1.13% of its GDP on defence, a far cry from NATO’s 2% benchmark. That the armed forces manage to do so much with €13.21 billion is an achievement, yet any reduction in funding would surely jeopardise the future of Italy’s cost-effective military outreach. »

4) An open stance towards Russia

Russia will perhaps be Italy’s biggest strategic U-turn. Rather than a military threat, Russia is considered as an economic and commercial partner by Italy, as underlined by Stefano Stefanini, former Permanent Representative to NATO and former Diplomatic Advisor to the President of Italy, in this excellent European Leadership Network commentary

« On Russia, there is little doubt that Italy will not strike a chord with NATO and the EU mainstream, as shown by Prime Minister Conte’s prompt embrace of President Trump’s suggestion that Russia be re-invited to the G8 Group. The inflated narrative about the damage to the Italian economy done by Russian sanctions will continue. But, at least for now, the new government will stop short of single-handedly opposing the renewal of sanctions. Similarly, the coalition will be more cautious than its predecessors with regard to the deployment of Italian troops and assets, especially in out-of-area operations. On the other hand, it will soon discover the military value and political capital Italy gains by participating in peace keeping and stabilisation operations. »

What’s more, renewing political relations with Russia could help facing the current Mediterranean instability (e.g. tensions between regional powers, migration flows and Islamic terrorism).

Bearing this in mind, the best way to conclude this article, and understand Italy’s position on defence and security, is perhaps to quote Matteo Salvini, Minister of Interior :

« If someone in Europe thinks that Italy must continue to be a massive refugee camp, they are very much mistaken. Italy only wants to help Italians. »

Photo credit : ©Pixabay – Frecce Tricolori

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