Rome view: Obama’s European tour

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On 27 March, Barack Obama will land in Rome to meet Italy’s head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Pope Francis. The Italian visit will take place during Obama’s first trip to Europe of 2014, after his attendance at the third Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague on 25 March and the US-EU Summit in Brussels on 26 March. The European tour will provide an occasion for Obama to show the United States’ commitment to transatlantic relations and give him the opportunity to discuss with European leaders pressing issues such as the Ukraine crisis, the role of NATO, and transatlantic economic cooperation.

Not surprisingly, the Ukraine crisis will be the central issue of the visit. Obama called an extraordinary G7 summit in The Hague on 24 March to put pressure on Moscow. The US president is seeking European support for shared and harder action against Russia. However, the European and US positions are not necessarily in tune. The US (particularly the US Congress) wants tougher measures, while the European Union, or at least part of it, is more cautious. The situation is falling victim to the usual EU paralysis, in which different member states have different interests at stake and therefore advocate for different positions and solutions. In the Italian case, Prime Minister Renzi and Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini have called for a diplomatic solution based on a dialogue with Moscow. All stakeholders consider dialogue with Russia to be the minimum common denominator, as demonstrated at the international meeting on sanctions held in London on 11 March. And common sense too dictates that dialogue must occur. But Italy’s main concern is restoring the role of Russia as a reliable international partner. One-third of Italian gas imports come from Russia, and it is clear that the Italian dependency on Russian gas supply plays a decisive role in its choice of action on how to deal with Moscow. 

The Ukraine crisis casts light on the role of NATO in international crisis management. The NATO summit that is set to take place in Wales in September will be the first meeting after the Crimean crisis and the first after the end of military operations in Afghanistan. It will be chaired by the new secretary-general, the thirteenth since NATO was established. Italy is pushing for its own candidate to become leader, and no doubt this will be discussed with Obama in Rome on Thursday. 

Beyond Ukraine and the Italian candidacy for the NATO leadership, other issues on the table for discussion will be nuclear proliferation, energy security, NATO enlargement, terrorism, and cybersecurity. But Obama’s visit will also focus on economic transatlantic cooperation, and more specifically on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Negotiations for TTIP are still at an early stage. Since the very beginning of the initiative, Italy has strongly supported TTIP, and its support did not waver even during the Datagate scandal. Civil society groups in Italy and around the world are organising to demonstrate against TTIP, in the sort of protests that we have seen over the years directed against the World Trade Organization negotiations, against service liberalisation, agriculture market access for products that do not reflect European sentiment, and so on. However, it looks as though Italy is eager to adopt and implement investment measures as soon as possible to address its growth and economic crisis, with – perhaps – a strong position in defending geographical indications. 

The Italian employers’ federation, Confindustria, estimates that TTIP will produce a yearly growth of 0.48 percent of GDP for Europe and 0.39 percent for the US for the period 2017-2027. European exports to the US are set to increase by 28.03 percent (about €187 billion) while US exports to the EU should experience a 36.57 percent rise (€159 billion). According to the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade (ICE), given the high incidence of Italian exports in the fields affected by US duties and non-tariff barriers, the opening of US markets would benefit Italy more than many other countries. Confindustria says that TTIP will mainly benefit Italian SMEs, which are penalised by excessive administrative and bureaucratic costs. The organisation believes that trade facilitation and the greater harmonisation of rules and procedures resulting from the implementation of TTIP will re-launch Italian SMEs’ competitiveness.

Certainly, Obama is not coming to Rome just to hear how enthusiastic Italy is about the TTIP. He might want to be reassured that the new government is taking concrete action to overcome not only the crisis but also the stalemate in which the country still lives. This means taking steps to implement wider reforms, like those included in the “destinazione Italia” decree, one of the last acts of Enrico Letta’s government. The programme included 50 concrete measures that laid out comprehensive reforms, including attracting investment, justice reform, fighting corruption and tax evasion, and reducing the bureaucratic burden for citizens and companies, including start-ups.

During his one-day visit, Obama will also discuss poverty and inequality with Pope Francis. This meeting may produce more than the usual rhetoric, for two reasons. First, Russia is also engaging more with the Vatican and Christianity is becoming more and more important for the country. Second, the two leaders may address an issue that is not simply a matter of social justice but also the basis for economic growth: inequality. If Italy does not begin to address this crucial point, no other economic measure or economic reform will be able to take the country out of its current slump.

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