Politics in Italy can resemble the haunting arias at the La Scala opera house in Milan. Photo: Courtesy of La Scala

In the spiritual home of opera, tragedy is only an aria away.

For Italy, battered by economic and political turmoil during the past two years, solving this Puccini-style problem has thrown the European Union country into the arms of China.

Already there are plans by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative when President Xi Jinping arrives in Rome later this week for a two-day state visit.

“With all due caution, I think it can be an opportunity for our country,” Conti said last Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio has been at the vanguard of courting Beijing, despite anger from the United States and alarm from the EU.

If a deal goes through, Italy would be the first Group of Seven industrialized nation to join the BRI project.

“I am afraid that up until now we have handled this in too amateurish a fashion, without any real coordination,” Lucio Caracciolo, the director of the influential Limes geopolitical review, told the Reuters news agency.

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“My fear is that in the end, we will lose on both counts, getting nothing substantial from China while the United States retaliates against us for having got too close to Beijing,” he added.

Yet for Di Maio, who leads the populist 5-Star Movement, this is a golden opportunity to tap into much-needed investment and boost trading links.

Major powers

Data released from Eurostat revealed that Italy lags behind the three major powers in Europe.

Last year, Germany’s exports to China hit 93.8 billion euros (US$106 billion), followed by the United Kingdom on 23.4 billion euros and France on 20.8 billion euros. Italy was a distant fourth with exports of 13.17 billion euros.

“In the near future, the relationships between China and the European countries involved in the BRI will be principally based on economic and trade cooperation,” Natan Colombo, a professor of economics, finance and law at the Hainan Tropical Ocean University, wrote in a commentary for Beijing’s state-run China Daily.

“China is paying attention to countries such as Italy, Greece and Portugal, which need infrastructural and financial investments and are quite weak in the EU, both economically and politically,” he continued.

“Among all the other European countries, there is a race to become the Chinese best partner in the EU, considering also the damages in [trade] produced by the protectionist policies implemented by [United States President Donald] Trump’s administration,” Colombo added.

If only it was that easy.

During the past 18 months, the BRI has become highly controversial in the West and among other US allies.

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These ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways will connect China with 68 nations and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in a maze of multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure projects, including a web of digital links.

But the grandiose plan has started to run into major roadblocks. A 10-month trade war between Washington and Beijing has only increased tension between the world’s two leading economies, with the fallout descending on Europe.

“It is clear that the tremors of the US-China trade conflict have hit more than just Chinese or American-flagged companies,” Jacob Gunter, a policy and communications coordinator at the European Chamber, said, referring to a survey last year relating to business confidence.

“With 53.9% and 42.9% of respondents viewing the American and Chinese tariffs respectively in a negative light, it is clear that disruptions are far-reaching,” he continued.

“Interestingly, while many had speculated that European firms might find new oppor­tunities as a result of the conflict, only 4.2% reported any positive views of the situation,” Gunter added.

Apart from the European Chamber’s report, one of the EU’s institutional bodies, the European Commission, has warned of the dangers posed by the BRI, as far as security issues are concerned, and has called for a curb on Chinese state-owned enterprises involved in the program.

Slow pace

The EU has even branded Beijing a “systemic rival” after growing frustrated by the slow pace of reform in the country and by a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical European sectors.

In his 2017 State of the Union address, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker hammered home the point.

“Let me say once and for all, we are not naive free traders,” he said. “Europe must always defend its strategic interests. This is why today we are proposing a new EU framework for investment screening.

“If a foreign, state-owned company wants to purchase a European harbor, part of our energy infrastructure or a defense technology firm, this should only happen in transparency, with scrutiny and debate,” Junker added. “It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so that we can protect our collective security if needed.”

His “harbor” reference was a far from subtle reprimand of the sale of a majority stake in Greece’s Piraeus port to China’s state-controlled Cosco Shipping. In EU circles, this was considered a port in the eye of an investment storm and a step too far in Beijing’s all-consuming new Silk Road adventure.

Nearly two years later, the EU will scrutinize the European Commission report, EU-China – A Strategic Outlook, this week.

Still, Italy plans to press ahead with an array of joint-ventures, which could benefit oil giant Eni, gas infrastructure company Snam and shipbuilder Fincantieri, according to media reports.

The third-largest economy in the eurozone is also considering agreements, possibly with Cosco Shipping, to develop the ports of Genoa, Trieste and Palermo.

“When I returned to Italy I found inertia when it came to China,” Michele Geraci, a junior industry minister in the Italian administration, said.

“We need to play catch-up,” Geraci, who speaks Mandarin and lived in China for 10 years before joining the right-wing government last year, added.

Yet for the opera-loving nation, this might end up being an act too far for its EU partners and its US allies.

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