Italy government

Reviews | The Italian government is looking to the East. Where is he going there?

TRIESTE, Italy — I love this place. I do not know why. I was not born here, I was not raised here, I have never lived or fled here. I didn’t even fall in love here, strolling one evening in the breathtaking Piazza Unità, one of its four sides looking out to sea.

I think I like Trieste because it’s a geographical, mental border and more. Nestled in the northeast corner of Italy, it’s Latin, Germanic, Slavic. It’s Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish. It is a place of literature and commerce. The south stops here: the Adriatic Sea bathes the European coast, then decides that it can go no further. The north ends here: the karst plateau is a terrace for the mainland and, over the centuries, the Viennese have traveled there to enjoy the view. The Orient stops here: the sighs of Russia have never gone further. The west ends here: NATO bases ready to repel Warsaw Pact invaders remain scattered.

Trieste was created by the Habsburg Empire, which had few coastlines. In the early 1700s it was just a big village of fishermen, salters, market gardeners. The empire made it a port, with a monopoly on imports and exports, privileged levies, soft rail fares – a world that collapsed a century ago. Since then, Trieste has been through a lot. It was reconquered by Italy in 1918, then chosen as the emblematic city of fascism. It was occupied by the Nazis in 1943, then taken by the Yugoslav Communists in 1945. In 1947, Trieste was placed under Anglo-American military government; it was only returned to the Italian state in 1954.

Today, it is finally a prosperous and peaceful European city. The seaport, shipbuilding, coffee and insurance companies and scientific research institutes provide employment for all. But it is a city of ever-changing politics, sitting on the slippery fault line of European power.

More than anywhere else, Trieste reflects the choices facing Italy today under its new nationalist government. Made up of two Euro-skeptical parties, Lega and M5S, and unlike its predecessors, it appears resolutely turned towards the East.

Trieste has always considered itself a western outpost and has helped transport people from border regions like Istria and Dalmatia (now part of Croatia but where many Italians have lived for centuries) to the Italy and others European Union nations. The city has always been proud of this role and is now struggling to keep up with developments.

Is the Italian government fair looking at east, or is that where it’s headed?

On August 28, Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega, was in Milan to welcome the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who proclaimed his host “my hero”. A few days later, Lega MPs voted in favor of Budapest in the European Parliament, which was about to take action against the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic activities.

The Italian government’s verbal support for Vladimir Putin of Russia has been frequent and uncritical. In May, Mr. Salvini called Mr. Putin “a leading statesman”. Contacts between the Lega and United Russia, Mr. Putin’s party, are intense and continuous: conferences, congresses, meetings. Italian Minister for European Affairs Paolo Savona is not only an avowed Euro-skeptic, he is also anti-German and pro-Russian. In an interview before being named, he said: “Putin is a realist. He is against a Europe that would harm him. And this Europe does it.

The new president of Italian public television RAI, journalist Marcello Foa, like all his predecessors, was appointed by the majority in power. He openly supports Mr Putin and has often been a guest on RT, the Kremlin-funded TV channel, where he defends Moscow on its Ukraine policy and other issues. On television talk shows, intellectuals who side with the Italian government refer to “Italy’s affinity with Russia” and demand the closure of American military bases. And Moscow does not lack support in the ranks of the opposition. Silvio Berlusconi and the Russian President go back a long way, with Mr. Berlusconi often visiting Mr. Putin as well as Mr. Putin at his home in Sardinia.

So far, none of this has been followed by major changes in foreign policy. Still, Italy’s traditional allies are worried. A delegation from the US State Department is expected to make a discreet visit to Rome soon to hear Italy’s position in December, when the European Council will have to decide whether to continue sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. As things stand, the authoritarians of Eastern Europe and Russia are mentioned, esteemed, admired and championed by Italian leaders at every turn.

Over the centuries, Trieste has learned to fear the turning points of history, guessing when uncertain times lie ahead. Does the Orient harbor old adversaries or new friends? For now, the new nationalist Italy is not leaving either the European Union or the West, but if steps have been taken to prepare for the future, they are in the direction of distance. The 2019 European elections could cut Italy at the pass – or bring in the cavalry.

When who knows where we’ll end up?

Beppe Severgnini is the editor of Corriere Della Sera magazine 7, the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Spirit” and an opinion columnist.

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