Rome hopes G20 offers chance for fresh start on world stage

Italy’s new foreign policy of multilateralism is a shift under Mario Draghi

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Rome’s EUR neighbourhood takes centre stage at the G20 summit in the city this weekend, almost 80 years after its original intention as the home of the 1942 edition of the world Expo.

That never took place because of the Second World War.

Now, leaders will meet in the historic surroundings, created by Benito Mussolini to glorify his fascist regime and its links with ancient Rome, and turned into an important venue for cultural events and meetings after the war, thanks to hyper-modern buildings designed by world-renowned architects.

Like the EUR, the summit is an opportunity for the Italian government led by former ECB chief Mario Draghi to promote itself internationally.

Mr Draghi wants Rome and the EUR to become the stage to tell the world that Italy is back.

Before he became prime minister last February, Italy’s foreign policy was out of step with much of western Europe.

The 2018 elections gave a majority of seats in Parliament to two populist parties: the Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian and Sinophile Beppe Grillo, and the League led by nationalist Matteo Salvini, an admirer of Vladimir Putin who, in a 2018 tweet, called the Russian President “one of the best politicians of our time”.

In March 2019, Italy signed a deal on the Belt and Road Initiative with China, and in the darkest moments of the Covid-19 pandemic, it gratefully welcomed help from Beijing and Moscow.

But things have changed since Mr Draghi has been in charge, with Rome now firmly back in the West’s camp.

An analyst working for companies in northern Italy said: “The Italian economic elite is pro-West, and Draghi is an expression of that elite. I remember the astonishment of an Italian bank’s board member in the fall of 2018 when I told him that the populist government included forces favourable to a repositioning of Italy on the geopolitical chessboard.”

Today the M5S – or Five Star Movement party – is led by Giuseppe Conte, who has become openly pro-EU and cooler towards China. In February, Mr Salvini said, “We must look at democracy and the West and the liberties of the West.”

The transformation of the two populist parties is at least partly due to Mr Draghi, who has excellent relations with US leaders and is adamantly pro-EU – the European Central Bank is one of the few organisations on the continent for which May 9, the little-known EU holiday, is a holiday.

“Draghi realises that Europeanism and Atlanticism are part of an investment that Italy must support and renew,” said Marco Follini, former deputy prime minister. “In recent years, part of the political class showed nearsightedness imagining Italy projected out of the EU and Nato area; another part believed that belonging to that area was in itself a guarantee that needed no nurturing.”

Andrea Ceron, professor of political science at the University of Milan, said, “the traditional pillars of Italy’s foreign policy are prevailing with the Draghi-led government, ie, the preferential relationship with the USA, and the usual good relations with the Middle East, starting from Egypt”.

Mr Draghi knows that the West can no longer dictate the world’s agenda and that Rome has to deal with Turkey and Russia in the Mediterranean, and with China at the global level. As former prime minister Romano Prodi did in 2006, Mr Draghi bets on multilateralism, adding two adjectives that speak volumes: strong and pragmatic. A multilateralism that, rather than looking at the UN, focuses on the dialogue between the global and regional players, such as the US, the EU, China, Russia and India, and addresses internationally relevant issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, the situation in Libya and Afghanistan.

“With Draghi Italy is back, although our country still lacks a vision and a strategy to play a leading role in some dossiers on the Mediterranean and the Middle East,” says Silvia Colombo, a senior fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. On Mr Draghi’s recent phone call with Mr Putin about Libya, she says: “Today you cannot think of closing the doors to Russia, it would mean cutting off a fundamental counterpart. The same goes for China, a key player in the Gulf."

Rome has also been more active in the EU in recent months. “Draghi enjoys great credibility in Europe and he is playing a role of substitute leadership in an EU that has lost Angela Merkel, becoming a figure of reference,” says Riccardo Brizzi, professor of contemporary history at the University of Bologna. “He proved it at the European Council of October 22 when he raised his voice on the migrant issue, closing to the hypothesis of funding walls on the EU’s external borders and to changes to Schengen Agreement.”

Whether this will be enough for Italy to be stronger in the global arena is another matter.

The summit – the first in-person gathering of leaders of the world’s biggest economies since the Covid-19 pandemic started – is not business as usual. That is especially true because as soon as the event ends, a bigger UN summit devoted to climate change begins in Glasgow, Scotland.

The leaders of Russia and China are not attending in person. Turkey nearly set off a diplomatic incident on the eve of the meeting. And the US, Australia and France will be at the same table for the first time since Washington pulled the rug out from under Paris’ $66 billion submarine deal with the Australians.

In many ways, the two-day G20 meeting is serving as a Roman holiday preamble to the 12-day Glasgow summit.

While economic recovery is a top agenda item, setting a shared, mid-century deadline to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and explore a commitment to reduce methane emissions will be vital.

Mr Draghi, who helped save the euro with his now-famous promise to do “whatever it takes’,’ will have his hands full trying to steer the meeting to nudge some solid climate commitments before Glasgow while negotiating a new era for European multilateralism.

EUR, the history of a neighbourhood that sums up the history of Italy

The meeting of the G20 will take place in the Convention Centre la Nuvola (cloud), in one of the most striking neighbourhoods of Rome and Italy: EUR, which stands for Esposizione Universale Roma.

In 1935, Rome’s governor proposed to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini that the 1942 Universal Exhibition was held in the Italian capital.

The goal was to show the world the might of the so-called Italian Empire and to celebrate the 1922 March on Rome, which resulted in Mussolini ascending to power.

The idea excited Mussolini, who like Hitler was a fan of monumental architecture.

The construction of EUR began in 1937. It was a mixture of Roman architecture and Italian rationalism, halfway between a theatrical setting and a glorification of fascism.

The most famous building is the Square Colosseum. It seems inspired by a painting by De Chirico, and is now rented to a luxury fashion brand; it is no coincidence that it was chosen as the set for some Hollywood films.

Due to the war, the Universal Exposition never took place; with the return of democracy in Italy, EUR was completed, and quickly became the most fashionable district of Rome, thanks to its huge parks and large companies that opened their headquarters there.

Today, EUR is the venue for large cultural events and corporate meetings, it boasts futuristic buildings and the old fascist buildings, some of which still retain the regime’s insignia, such as eagles, are the seats of important museums.

Updated: October 28, 2021, 3:45 PM