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REPORT – Italy, Mediterranean security and European defence

On 25 June 2019, the presentation of the report “Molto Agitato” took place in Brussels. The report was wrote by Paul Taylor, Senior Fellow of Friends of Europe and author of several reports on European cooperation on defense. According to the report, Italy plays a crucial role as a security actor in Europe because of its geo-strategic position and its role as a member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The role of Rome as a stabilizing force on the southern flank is of vital importance in a region where all the current security challenges converge: the historical rivalry between European countries, the Libyan crisis and civil war, migrations, radicalization and human trafficking. The security challenges are destined to increase in the Mediterranean region because of the current Italian political situation and the lack of an EU and NATO global approach. This opinion was shared by Mary Fitzgerald, analyst and journalist expert in the field of Libya’s crisis, Alessandro Marrone, Head of the Defense program at the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Antonio Missiroli, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges and Ambassador Stefano Stefanini, Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO (2007-2010) and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council of the United States, who took the floor during the presentation.

Central Mediterranean :

The author besides working as a journalist in Paris, also writes the column “Europe at Large” for Politico and he worked for Reuters as a foreign correspondent in Paris, Tehran, Bonn, Israel/Palestine, Berlin and Brussels, and as correspondent leader in France, as a diplomatic editor in London, and finally as editor of European affairs. He explained why he chose this title for his report. Firstly, “Agitato” in a musical composition indicates the movement, out of the ordinary. Nowadays, this is the image we have of the Mediterranean area, which during the last decade has seen political upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Libya, then the beginning of the Syrian civil war and the failed coup organized by Fetullah Gulen in Turkey. Secondly, the title also represents the Italian political situation that since last year has put together two “anti-system” parties (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega) which relied on the population’s dissatisfaction and skepticism to win the elections.

According to the speakers, in this moment, Italy must face two kinds of instability.

The first one, caused by internal issues, is due to a lack of a clear foreign program that pushed Rome away from Brussels, Paris and Berlin. Furthermore, the Italian relations with the White House got worse after the visit of deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to Moscow, during which he showed his skepticism towards EU sanctions and called for closer cooperation with Russia.

The second one, coming from the Mediterranean area, shows the lack of an EU and NATO strategy that may help Italy. Indeed, Italy wants to create two new headquarters to prepare, conduct and evaluate capacity-building programs in the defense field with joint exercises with partner countries. But a lot of NATO Member States do not consider this initiative as a priority.

For the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) was re-launched. Italy leads (or participates in) 21 of the 34 PESCO projects, adding two in cooperation with France and most importantly has brought the project of a European drone. The fronts on which Italy has to face challenges do not end with defense security issues. The European Commission rejected the Document of economy and finance approved by the Italian government because deficit financing (reddito di cittadinanza) and the flat tax are contrary to the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. The new government decided to bring the deficit to 2.4% in 2019. Italy is the third most indebted country in the world, the second in Europe after Greece, with a level of approximately 132% of the GDP.

The combination of these issues does not allow the country to draw up long-term and stable defense programs, considering also that Italy has historically adopted an approach based on “engagement, not combat”, which is called “Difesa all’Italiana” (Defense in an Italian way). It is a combination of civil and military means: not being a historically warlike or a strong military power, Italy has a different approach.


The Italian army is engaged in 40 international operations in 23 countries: from Afghanistan in South Asia to Latvia, from Niger and Mali to Iraq, from the Indian Ocean to Somalia. Many of these missions are under the aegis of NATO and the United Nations. According to recent estimates, more than 6,000 Italian soldiers are deployed in international operations (more than German and British). According to the political theorist Raffaele Marchetti, Italy has a “hybrid diplomacy” based on custom: Italians are often the first ones to arrive and the last to leave. They are called “good people » because they combine the tasks of maintaining security and working with local communities and international agencies to promote dialogue and sustainable development[1]. For instance, we can point out the mission to strengthen the capabilities of the Somali security forces supported by the Carabinieri and the 300 Afghan border police officers who obtained the qualification of teachers thanks to the training of Italian militants.

This is the “Difesa all’Italiana” based on engagement and not on combat. Italian military spending is complicated to calculate because there are 3 defense budgets and only one is submitted to the Ministry of Defense for examination (equipment is managed by the Ministry of Economic Development and others expenses are approved by decree of the government). If, for NATO, Italy is one of the least conspicuous countries in defense spending with1.13% of GDP, it is also true that if we consider the other two budgets it reaches 1.26% of GDP. Despite being a country that spends little on internal and external defense Italy deploys important resources which, when added to the real defense budget, equals the countries considered most invested for the EU and NATO.

The Mediterranean area needs a new EU strategy to face the increasingly hybrid threats coming from the South and to coordinate diplomatic, economic and political tools in order to develop relations with the countries of the region. Then, a division of tasks between NATO, the EU and the coalition of available countries will be necessary: the EU could lead policies with its soft power and NATO should develop its capacity building by making a large investment in training and in joint exercises, improving dialogue with the EU. At national level, an Italian-French agreement is also indispensable to bring together strategic, economic and migratory interests, improving a bilateral friendship treaty that includes periodic consultations between Rome and Paris. Firstly, the two countries should find a common agenda for Libya including a joint approach to improve security and the fight against human traffickers. Secondly, they should open to investments enhancing industrial defense policies. Thirdly, they have to create a new political approach for the Balkan region, together with Germany.  To achieve these aims, Italy should start reforming the field of defense, eliminating waste. According to the experts, the centralization of the armed forces activities is needed to avoid duplication in order to reduce the costs for the superfluous personnel and enhance training and exercises. The Italian strategic approach must therefore be based on a true political-strategic leadership capacity.

Unfortunately, these goals still seem far away. Nowadays, Italian policies are based on three characteristics:

  • Frustration: which still pervades public opinion, as it was demonstrated by the European elections results,
  • Engagement: which is still stable in many areas of defense but risks to be reduced if the costs are cut and the country continues to follow the path founded on “engagement, not combat”,
  • Inconstancy of policies: the absence of solid and lasting strategies able to improve all sectors that feed the defense industry.

Italy has always shown diplomatic, multilateral and inclusive capabilities and these features produced optimal results. For instance, in 2006, the second Lebanon war broke out. The conflict was precipitated by the 2006 Hezbollah cross-border raid. On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah fighters fired rockets at Israeli border towns as a diversion for an anti-tank missile attack on two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence. The ambush left three soldiers dead. Two Israeli soldiers were abducted and taken by Hezbollah to Lebanon. Five more were killed in Lebanon, in a failed rescue attempt. Hezbollah demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in exchange for the release of the abducted soldiers. Israel refused and responded with airstrikes and artillery fire on targets in Lebanon. Israel attacked both Hezbollah military targets and Lebanese civilian infrastructure, including Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. On 11 August 2006, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1701[2] in order to end the hostilities. The resolution, approved in the following days by both the Israeli and Lebanese governments, called for the disarmament of Hezbollah and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, with the deployment of Lebanese soldiers. Thanks to pressure from Italy and France to Secretary General Kofi Annan, the resolution also strengthened the capabilities of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for its peacekeeping mission.

The are many actors in the Mediterranean area, each of whom should have a specific role. Security field cannot be improved if the European countries most involved in the challenges coming from the area work on different priorities with divergent objectives. According to experts, Italy is paying the unjust consequences of French action in Libya, admitting that the current Italian government, instead of strengthening relationships, is worsening each kind of dialogue with Paris. At the same time, it is necessary to improve a constructive dialogue with all concerned actors. Even if the colonization is over, there is still, and rightly so, a reason to think that some European countries continue to interact with African local and national actors in an authoritarian way, fostering the spirit of revenge of those who, nowadays more than ever, feel themselves exploited either by European governments or national governments (some instrumentalized by European countries). A more constructive approach is fundamental. It is estimated that there will be 2.5 billion Africans in 2050 exceeding the Chinese population. NATO Admiral James Foggo said: “60% of them will be under the age of 24 years old. Either we get involved in development and help those young people go to school and get a jobs or they are going to pick up an AK-47[3]. A contextualized strategy is therefore needed, considering that the European continent is facing a significant population decline with Italy as an extreme case of an ageing demographic. For this reason a solidarity policy among Member States but also the creation of a constructive dialogue with the other part of the Mediterranean are paramount.

Maria Elena Argano

[1]Molto agitato, l’Italia e la Sicurezza mediterranea, Paul Tylor, pp.59


[3]Molto agitato, l’Italia e la Sicurezza mediterranea, Paul Tylor, pp. 37 (english version)

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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