Strife Interview – Benedetto Della Vedova, Italian Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs: Europe’s uneasy path

Andrea Varsori, Strife’s Editor-in-Chief in discussion with Benedetto della Vedova, the Italian Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs (Credit Image: Benedetto della Vedova’s staff)

Benedetto Della Vedova has been the Italian Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation since February 28, 2014, serving in the Renzi and Gentiloni governments; he has also been a Member of the Italian Senate since 2013. He is currently competing in the Italian national elections with the +Europa (“More Europe”) political party, headed by former Foreign Affairs minister Emma Bonino and campaigning on a strong pro-European platform. Strife’s Editor-in-Chief, Andrea Varsori, met with him at King’s, where he participated in the KCL Italian Society’s debate “The Road towards the United States of Europe”. On that occasion, they spoke on the future prospects for the EU, its internal divisions, and the Italian take on Brexit.

AV: 2017 was a year of important national elections in four European countries: the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Austria. Do you think that the European Union emerged stronger from this?

BDV: Absolutely. Especially concerning the French elections. I would like to highlight, however, that although this battle was won, and it was surely a hard one, the war is far from over. And this war consists in a considerable political struggle: that between those who support openness and those who support different varieties of closeness. In this regard, the Austrian elections demonstrated that this fight is not over yet. Van der Bellen’s victory [in the 2016 presidential elections] had seemingly given good reasons to many to hope for a pro-European turn in the country. In last year’s political elections, however, Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP won and formed a government that has as its junior partner the nationalist FPÖ party. The match, thus, is not over yet.

AV: In this context, then, where can a new impulse to European integration come from? Maybe from the reform of a particular domain of EU governance?

BDV: Actually, I think that elections are the most important factor, with all their natural limits. We need to be aware of how people are voting in Poland, in Austria, in France, where the electoral results were fundamental, and of course in Italy, where there are reasons to be worried. Most importantly, we need to acknowledge the fact that the European Union is a recurring topic in several national campaigns. Different nationalist discourses are engaged in criticising the EU. It is necessary to build an effective counter-narrative, first of all on a political and symbolical level.

AV: Do you currently see any examples of this counter-narrative in Europe?

BDV: The foremost example I can think of is Macron’s electoral campaign. Most importantly, the French president has kept saying the same things after being elected, for example in his Sorbonne speech [on September 26, 2017]. Macron won exactly because he confronted nationalism directly, arguing, against the prevailing common sense, that there is a need for shared sovereignty, the only possible type of sovereignty.

AV: It was surely a controversial choice of terms. A sizeable portion of European citizens probably sees the very expression “shared sovereignty” as a contradiction in terms.

BDV: I think that the main fault of making this idea popular lies primarily on political leaders. They have often decided to use emotional arguments to their advantage, on the assumption that they would have benefited from them for a long time. This often did not happen, but those same ideas that they disseminated among the population stayed and took roots. Brexit is an example of this phenomenon.

Benedetto Della Vedova has been the Italian undersecretary for Foreign Affairs since February 2014 (Credit Image: ANSA)

AV: As far as Brexit is concerned, what do you think of the current state of UK-EU negotiations?

BDV: In my opinion, the EU has been doing very well. Up to now, Brussels managed to act without allowing internal divisions to have too much of an impact. Of course, within the Union there is a variety of positions, depending on what is at stake in each country. Besides this, the Union’s position has remained tightly knit and every member state is respecting it. Actually, the United Kingdom has the most unclear position. London must decide what endpoint it desires to achieve. On a continuum that goes from Canada to Norway, the United Kingdom should decide where to end up.

AV: Does Italy have a preferred endpoint in the current negotiations?

BDV: I can only tell you which my favourite endpoint is. Personally, I would prefer that Brexit negotiations ended by leaving room for a potential British change of mind. This change of mind can take place with a referendum, just like the one that was had in June 2016, and can express the opposite political choice. I am convinced that such a great democracy as Britain can reconsider the decision that it took.

AV: In this context, Italy is often described as sympathetic to the UK on Brexit. This impression is particularly evident in the Italian press. Do you agree with it?

BDV: This impression may be appropriate for the current government. Prime Minister Gentiloni has surely been very ‘friendly’ towards London – and rightly so. Personally, I am convinced that the relation between Italy and the UK should consist in an outspoken friendship. Outspokenness in mutual relations should not prevent cooperation between the two countries – on the contrary, it can be conducive to that. Actually, my dream is to set a way to have the UK not leave the European Union. Having said that, those who say that ‘Brexit is Brexit’ are right: it is a serious and historical move that we simply cannot ignore. Surely, it is impossible to have ‘business as usual’ after this referendum. The fundamental point that must be clarified in Europe now, in the Brexit negotiations and in general, is that the European single market, its flows, and its positive consequences could not survive the end of political integration. It is impossible to imagine a real single market without its governing institutions: economic and political integration support each other. For them, the Latin brocard aut simul stabunt, aut simul cadent [they will either stand together, or fall together] applies. This must be reaffirmed, of course, to fight nationalism, which is an enemy of both political and economic integration, as it often implies the adoption of protectionist policies. It should also be reaffirmed, however, to Central European countries.

AV: In this regard, how should the EU deal with the more sceptical position of some Central European member states, like the Visegrád Four [Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic]?

BDV: With the Central European countries, we need to engage in a political confrontation that should be solved in political terms. Of course, inside the Union each country is free to make a choice regarding the type of policies that they want to implement internally. But it should be clear that belonging to the single market means sharing not only its rights, but also all the duties and responsibilities that follow from them. From this point of view, the refusal of some member states to share the burden of migrant hospitality is inacceptable. Central European countries receive, and rightly so, structural funds that helped and still help them to reach a level of development that is comparable to that of Western Europe. As for structural funds, Italy is a net contributor. Benefitting from the EU budget through structural funds, however, entails the need to take part in the Union’s common efforts, including sharing the burden of immigration policies. The two things are inseparable: accepting the former means accepting the latter too.

This article has been translated in Italian by Andrea Varsori. The Italian version is available here.

Images Sources 

Feature image: here (credit image: ANSA)

Image 1: Picture taken by Mr Benedetto Della Vedova’s staff during the interview.

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