Date: 5 July 2019    Author: Jan Rokita

Polish–Italian Relations: A Conservative Dream of a “Roman Form”

For years, Italy has not been of much of importance to Polish politics. It was too far away and too far to the West – belonging to the powerful circle of Latin nations in Europe, and, above all, so far utterly uninterested in politics. What has united the two countries in recent years were two factors. First, the opposition of the Polish and Italian governing parties to the disproportionate influence of German political culture and economic thinking, both of which are now dominating the current practice of the European institutions in particular, and second, greater openness to influence, and consequently, to the interests of the EU’s South.


The visit of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to Poland in January 2019 to meet with Jarosław Kaczyński, President of Law and Justice (PiS) and the agreements between the Italian Five Stars Movement and the Polish Kukiz’15 party initiated at the same time raised the question of what Polish politics is looking for in Italy. Correspondingly, does the country stretching between the northern slopes of the Carpathians and the cold Baltic Sea find anything significant and permanent on the peninsula? (Or “ch’Appennin parte e ‘l mar circonda e l’Alpe”, as Petrark once put it “geopolitically” in his love sonnet ).

Until now, Italy had practically not existed as an area of interest for Polish politics and Polish state leaders. Indeed, it had its moments, but rather out of courtesy and tradition. Polish politicians asked for meetings with their Italian counterparts usually when they came to church celebrations or had audiences with the Pope. In turn, in the political perspective of Rome, Poland, and the whole area between Germany and Russia, did appear sometimes, but rather as a source of political trouble. Why? Because Warsaw would either demand imposing sanctions against the Kremlin together with Washington or support the EU budget restriction policy together with Berlin, both of which would directly affect the interests of the European South. Left-wing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in power in Italy until 2016, was still somewhat interested in “Polish phobias” in the context of the head of the European Council Donald Tusk. Renzi considered his point of view on the issue of the protection of the European Union borders to be an expression of “disrespect for the Italian nation”, while his views on the war in Ukraine the result of “Polish Russophobia”. However, in fact, both in Rome and in Warsaw, until recently, it was recognized that there were no significant interests that could link both countries. Therefore, it is not surprising that intergovernmental Polish–Italian consultations at the level of prime ministers have been frozen almost spontaneously since 2013. To put it simply, there was nothing to consult. Luigi di Maio, who at the end of April once again flew to Warsaw, this time to a pre-election meeting of the Kukiz’15 party, has just announced that these consultations are supposed to be resumed.

Admittedly, the idea of the superiority of political ties between North and South over those East and West, the latter of which dominate the real content of Polish politics on a daily basis, is still revived from time to time (probably even more than before). The European South appears in this idea as an almost rescuing alternative to the tiring entanglement in complicated and highly troublesome relations with Russia and Germany. One could even say that this idea is a result of the incomplete Polish consent to the status quo, which arose in the Central and Eastern European region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two elements of this status quo are, to some extent, uncomfortable for the Polish political self-awareness. The first of these is the peripheral economic status of the influential German economy, which admittedly gave not only Poland but all the countries of the Visegrad group, a strong impulse for economic growth and the second industrialization, so much desired after the collapse of communist industry in the 1990s. However, at the same time, it created (somewhat similar to Italy) a Polish complex of the perception of transforming the country into a manufactory of German industry . The second element is the constant fear of political incalculability of Kremlin rulers followed by the awareness of the total dependence of one’s own security on the – far from evident – readiness of NATO to fulfill their allied defense obligations, and, in fact, of the USA. In essence, the idea of building links with the Central South of Europe (especially with Hungary, Romania, and Croatia), both political and infrastructural, is sometimes treated as a way of at least balancing those real but troublesome dependencies, or even of strengthening the importance of Warsaw in relations with Berlin, Moscow, and Washington. After the 2015 elections won in Poland by Law and Justice, the idea took the political form of the so-called Three Seas Initiative (TSI).

However, Italy has so far remained on the margins of this kind of project: as aforementioned, too far away and too far to the West, belonging to the powerful circle of Latin nations in Europe and, above all, utterly uninterested in politics. This does not change the fact that recently, in the circles of Warsaw’s conservative intelligentsia, the thesis on the so-called “Roman form” of Polish political identity has been vividly discussed, the defense of which would require a significant correction of the real policy pursued by the Polish state. A Warsaw-based professor Marek Cichocki became an intellectual voice for such ideas. In practice, this would mean putting a stop to the excessive influence of German political culture and German economic thinking which dominates, in particular, the current practice of the European institutions. It would also mean greater openness to influence, and consequently, also to the interests of the EU’s South, including, in particular, those of Italy. “The story of Europe must start with Aeneas and not with Adenauer and Schuman, Rome is more important than Brussels, and Poland’s return to Europe after the communist era is a return to the sources, the warmth, and light that exist here in the South. It must be admitted that the ruling Law and Justice party treats such intellectual inspirations in a friendly way. Also, it is difficult not to recognize in them a particular affinity with the much more intense and longer lasting Italian debate on the harmfulness of the domination of “German values” in Europe.

It was not until 2018 when the yellow-green coalition took power in Rome, that the matter was finally brought to the level of political realities – at least partially. Throughout Central
and Eastern Europe Salvini was cheered on when, barely ten days after taking office, he started a battle to block Italian ports for black and Arab immigrants, the symbol of which was the case of the ship “Aquarius.” Rome has unexpectedly acted as the main ally of the Visegrad countries in terms of their view on the role of the external Schengen border. Shortly after, in June 2018, an active but primarily exotic Polish–Italian alliance was formed at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers of the Interior, the result of which was the overthrow of the so-called “Bulgarian project” of relocating immigrants within the EU. The idea was defended with determination but also with ineffectiveness by Berlin and Paris until the very end. The exotic nature of this alliance can be clearly seen from the fact that Rome vetoed the Bulgarian project on the grounds that it limited the forced relocation to extraordinary situations such as the crisis of 2015. Warsaw, at the same time, did so on the exact opposite grounds, because any forced relocation, even in this relaxed version, was unacceptable to it. In Warsaw, firmly in conflict with the European Commission under the leadership of Mr. Juncker, the Italian categorical demand to limit the Commission’s control functions in relation to the Member States of the European Union was also welcomed, although it is worth remembering that Italy and Poland want to ‘stop’ the Commission in entirely different matters. Rome has traditionally wanted the Commission to finally stop imposing budgetary rigor, while Poland is concerned with the intrusive interference of Brussels in the reform of the justice system. The tactical alliance of Polish and Italian interests was strengthened by the propaganda attacks of the media and European politicians on the yellow-green Italian coalition, which President Macron described as “leprosy spreading even in countries where we thought it would be impossible” .

The unprecedented cycle of conflicts between Rome and Paris, which broke the old rule of silencing all differences between the two countries in the name of the cultural solidarity of the Latin peoples, was exceptionally to the advantage of the Polish Government. It was because Macron, from the very first moment of its presidency, spared no public insults and threats to Poland, mainly because of the high competitiveness of Polish companies and Polish workers on the French market, irritating to the French people . Just like in the case of criticism from the European Commission, the reasons for the state of relations between Warsaw and Rome, on the one hand, and Paris, on the other, were completely different. The Polish–Italian alliance, however, was formed according to the proven norm that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. The rest has been done by the metapolitical ideas: Salvini, Kaczyński, and Orban are convinced that the EU can only be brought out of the current state of confusion if the European idea is reconciled again with the national identities revived today and if the so-called “European values” are no longer defined in a way confronting Christianty. The sudden intensity of Italian–Polish (as well as Italian–Hungarian) cross-party consultations, including these visits of Deputy Prime Ministers Salvini (to Law and Justice) and Di Maio (to Kukiz’15), was triggered by the European elections in May and the consequent need for political reorganization of the European Parliament in the summer of 2019. Both Italian deputy prime ministers and leaders of the government coalition have ambitions to exert more significant influence than before on the shape of EU decisions and need allies from large countries, such as Poland.

However, it was in this very aspect that geopolitics entered into Polish–Italian relations, causing considerable problems for the partners, the situation of which leads them to a tactical alliance. When united Italy, still at the end of the 19th century, abandoned its revolutionary and “Garibaldian” view of its role in Europe, it soon concluded that its interests were strongly correlated with the European influence of Russia. The unification of the country could have been made easier by the fact that after the defeat of the Crimean War the Romanovs took offense at the Habsburgs, so Italy had only one enemy left on the battlefield – Vienna, which was a much weaker enemy. The secret Italian–Russian system concluded in 1904 in Racconigi, directed against the interests of Austria and Turkey in the Balkans, remains a symbol of that “anti-ideological turn” of Italian politics, which from that moment, despite various historical adversities, continuously returned to the idea of including Russia in the mainstream of intra-European politics. Italy was the first Western country to break the taboo by recognizing Soviet power in 1924, and during the Second World War it consistently showed that the war of their ally Hitler with Russia was by no means an “Italian war.” At the end of the war, Italian-loved communist leader Palmiro Togliatti led the famous “Svolta di Salerno,” introducing (not sovereignly, as some people say, but on Stalin’s orders ) a party of Soviet agents into the very center of power of one of the emerging Western alliance states. It was only the dramatic events of 1948 and the subsequent isolation of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) that made Stalin–Togliatti’s plan merely impossible. However, as early as 1960, Christian Democrat president Giovanni Gronchi was again the first western head of state to come to Moscow to announce a return to the old idea of integrating Moscow into European politics and a list of new interests with Russia from companies such as Eni, Fiat, and Olivetti. Gronchi even ignored the condemnation of his line by the Holy See, which
– in the famous sermon of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, will accuse him of betraying the memory of the Poles murdered in Katyn . After the fall of the Soviets, Italy again became the initiator of Russia’s inclusion in the G7 group at the Naples summit in 1994, and stood on Moscow’s side during the war with Georgia in 2008, and against Poland, when it tried to locate an American “anti-missile shield” on its territory. Prime Minister Enrico Letta then flew to Sochi to open the West–boycotted Olympics there, almost precisely at the time when the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine began.

This glance at the history of the united Italy’s great dream about Russia allows us to understand that this is a dream that was passed on from generation to generation. Moreover, the attitude of the current yellow-green coalition, which evokes so much emotion in Poland, is neither historically new, nor unique, nor – most importantly – results from any ideological radicalism of the League or the Cinque Stelle Movement, but is simply a permanent legacy of Italian geopolitical thought

The liberal opposition in Poland is making a mental mistake, treating the Salvini League – in particular – as a special case of support for Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist whereabouts. A recent edition of the prestigious Italian geopolitical magazine “Limes” has revealed that Italy’s civilizational mission is to “take advantage of the current situation to push Russia towards the West, freeing it from Chinese embrace” . What is more, it also shows that it is Moscow that chooses Rome as its privileged partner, seeing that the West widely disregards its interests in Europe and in the Mediterranean. The author of this geopolitical sketch and the book “La Russia nel Mediterraneo” published in 2016, Pietro Figuera from the Istituto di Studi Politici S. Pio V in Rome, emphasizes that although the “sovereign” group currently in power in Rome “are tactical allies of the Kremlin, but it is, in fact, the result of a permanent attitude of the state, and not the line of some transitional government” .

At the beginning of his cabinet, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tried to implement a project of in-depth cooperation with Moscow, hoping for the lifting of sanctions against Russia and on the Kremlin’s suggestion, blocking to build a trans-Adriatic TAP gas pipeline to bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. The mistake made by the leaders of the yellow-green coalition was a misunderstanding of America’s intentions. They believed that in this way, they would somehow inscribe Italy in Donald Trump’s new global strategy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conte’s key visit to Washington in July 2018 was a real disaster. Trump “scolded” the Italian Prime Minister not only for the pro-Kremlin excesses, but also for signing a memorandum in Beijing on the construction of a 5G telecommunication system with the Chinese, and threatened Italy with US economic and financial retaliation . The effect of that visit turned out to be striking. Italy now loyally votes for sanctions against Moscow every six months, confirms the construction of TAP, buys 90 American F35 fighters, supports the American-inspired rebellion in Venezuela (although Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio is protesting here), and deliberately tries to bind itself deeper with the Visegrad countries, which in Rome are treated en bloc as the most faithful allies of the USA. As far as China is concerned, Conte broke the earlier memorandum. Importantly, Italy is doing all of this with the conviction that it should be doing the exact opposite.

Trump’s lesson permanently influences the geopolitical strategy of the yellow-green coalition. Italians understood that ‘contrary to all their hopes, the US approach to Russia has unfortunately not changed’ and that they are condemned to ‘follow the US superpower in their most fundamental choices’ . There is a fundamental difference in approach between Italy and Poland when it comes to the recognition of American leadership in the name of fundamental reasons for one’s security. In Poland, there is a fear that America may fail to fulfill its obligations in this area, hence the insistence on the increasingly strong presence of the US Army and American military installations on Polish territory. Italian politics, on the other hand, lives sui generis with a ‘complex,’ being convinced that Italy should, in essence, follow a completely different course, but cannot, because of its weakness – primarily financial – which makes it dependent on US-controlled international financial institutions. Even the Fitch ratings of February 2019, which are relatively positive for Italy, are treated in Rome as proof of America’s “satisfaction,” which could change at any time. The current calculation of the Conte government is, therefore, moving in this direction in order to take advantage of the opportunities offered by current American policy. Italian analysts are mostly convinced that Trump’s European goal is to counteract both Russian and German influence on the continent, in the name of the same principles that led Americans to intervene militarily in Europe in both World Wars. While in the case of Russia (and China) Rome is trying to demonstrate its subordination to Washington in actions (and not necessarily in words), in the case of Germany it may want to use the opportunity to confront Berlin, especially in the most critical field for Italy: eurozone reform, European co-responsibility for debts, and agreement on budget loosening. Italians are even counting on the fact that in the event of any EU’s (i.e., indeed German) economic retaliation, they could count on compensation and rescue from America.

Profound differences and collisions of Italian and Polish geopolitics are now visible. In Rome, Poland is treated as part of the core of the “European empire of the USA” and would like Washington to influence its younger ally so that it does not cling to the German financial strategy of disciplining the South of the EU. However, in Poland, under the rule of the Law and Justice party, the reference to Germany is very ambivalent. The political rhetoric of the ruling party can be highly anti–German, both because of the unexpired trauma of the Nazi occupation and the strong syndrome of the “German manufactory”. When it comes to the European integration, however, Warsaw and Berlin have been going hand in hand for years, especially when it comes to opposition to the building of diverse circles of integration and strict fiscal rules. The recent declarations of the Polish head of diplomacy do not leave Italy with much hope here: “Do not subsidize those in need of reform.” In the event of a sharp dispute with Berlin over the rules of the eurozone, which may arise in the event of a further economic downturn, Rome might not be able to count on Poland, nor on Central and Eastern Europe as a whole

because it may be on the side of Germany. In Warsaw, on the other hand, there remains an insurmountable distrust of the Italian view that the greater influence of Moscow on Europe is correlated with the growing importance of Italy and the possibility of being promoted to a higher level of sovereignty over America. Even if political pragmatism makes successive governments in Rome, regardless of their ideological orientation, follow Washington’s directions in key world politics out of unwanted necessity. Both sides are unable to overcome their natural geopolitical limitations, i.e., radically different geography and completely different heritage of their state policy. Italia will not become part of an imaginary “Baltic-Adriatic corridor” and will remain on the margins of the slowly developing projects of the Three Seas Initiative

Furthermore, the dreams of the Polish intelligentsia of transforming the “Roman form” into real political shapes will likely remain illusions. What is real, however, is the opposition of the parties in power today in Rome and Warsaw to the excessive claims of the European Commission and the vague common hopes of reconciling the European idea with the national idea and religion. For the time of the ongoing ideological war in the European Union, it is quite a strong platform for cooperation, but it is not rooted in profound and permanent geopolitical interests.

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