May 19. 2024. 1:59

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Italy still undecided on renewing partnership with China


The Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni still has yet to decide whether to renew the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Rome and Beijing that is set to expire next year.

In 2019, the former government of Giuseppe Conte signed the MOU with China. Italy has since joined China’s group of partner countries in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project – known as the ‘new Silk Road’ – making it one of the first, now numbering 18, EU member states to join.

The agreement, valid until March 2024, aims to strengthen political relations and trade between Rome and Beijing and includes dozens of deals between institutions and businesses. At least three months’ written notice is required to withdraw, while renewal is automatic for another five years.

Trade between Italy and China in the past three years “has set new records, touching €73.55 billion in 2022 and putting Rome in the forefront at the European level among countries that have trade relations with China,” the Chinese Ambassador to Italy Jia Guide has said.

However, according to Silvia Menegazzi, professor of Chinese Studies at LUISS Guido Carli University, today, the context has changed, as well as the West’s perception of China.

“From a political point of view, already in 2019, the agreement created obvious difficulties for the Conte government, in the face, however, of important benefits for the Italian economy”, she told EURACTIV Italy.

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“Today the international context has changed considerably, and the role of China is different. This can only further exacerbate the political debate, while the Meloni government finds itself in a cul de sac”, said Menegazzi.

According to her, the simplest solution may be to let the agreement renew itself as withdrawal would make more headlines.

After all, “doing business with China benefits everyone”, the professor added.

Meloni’s uncertain, party leans toward a ‘no’

Before being elected, Meloni was known for being hostile towards China as she even called Conte’s agreement with China a “big mistake”.

As a prime minister, however, she appears to be more cautious about taking a clear position.

“I hope the time will serve Beijing to soften its tone and do something concrete toward respect for democracy, human rights and international legality”, she stressed, sharply criticising the tensions in Taiwan caused by China.

These days, however, Meloni says the China dossier “is still being evaluated”, and in her party, some members have expressed scepticism about Beijing.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, Meloni’s brother-in-law, said the government would act “with a lot of prudence”, which, according to the minister, was lacking under Conte’s rule.

China “has pros, being a very important trade partner, but also cons: a development model far from ours, different rules on respect for workers’ rights, a different approach on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, on the climate, on Africa,” he said.

In November 2022, Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, Meloni’s longtime right-hand man, said Fratelli d’Italia’s position is firm on not renewing the agreement.

Crosetto stressed that Italy could not disregard economic cooperation with China as it should aspire to increase exports to Beijing but avoid trade relations being “too one-way”.

Enterprise and Made in Italy Minister Adolfo Urso has also repeatedly warned that technological dependence on Beijing should be avoided at all costs to avoid making the same mistake made with Vladimir Putin’s Russia on gas.

Regarding global trade, Urso said that China is trying to “subdue our democracies” and that “we must be aware of this”.

Tajani’s diplomacy

Last February, China’s super chief of diplomacy, Wang Yi, met in Rome with vice premier and foreign minister Antonio Tajani (Fi/EPP), who said the talks that focused on trade interchange and human rights dialogue were positive but branded discussions on the agreement with Beijing as “premature”.

“We are evaluating the agreement”, the minister said more recently.

With Beijing, “we have good relations, we see, there are many forms of collaboration, including commercial (…) We must have good relations with everyone, India, however, is increasingly becoming a strategic partner of Italy in that area”, he added.

According to Menegazzi, however, India, which has been seen by the West in the last two years as a useful country to counterbalance China’s rise, is not an ideal partner in several areas.

“India also has an often-ambiguous position concerning major issues, from war to trade. It has its own interests that most of the time do not coincide with those of Western countries”, she told EURACTIV Italy.

(Federica Pascale | EURACTIV.it – Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos | EURACTIV.com)