Italy’s Former Ambassador to China has blasted an attempt by Germany and its “satellites” to stop Italy from joining China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” as unfair, saying that Berlin was happy to do business with Beijing “in every possible way”.
Alberto Bradanini said on Sunday that Rome had decided to go ahead with the plan partly out of frustration at the lack of action by the European Union in tackling trade deficits with China.
Italy wanted to take the matter into its own hands, he said, describing the decision by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who is to proceed with a framework deal during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit later this month as “logical and normal” in eyeing deeper business ties with China.
“The countries of Northern Europe, Germany and its satellites in particular, which are today opposed to the signing of this (memorandum of understanding between Italy and China) maybe because they need to pay lip service to American pressures make business with China in every field and in every way possible, with or without the belt and road umbrella,” Bradanini said.
Italy will become the first G7 member to join Xi’s signature initiative to grow global trade, and cooperation between the two nations could include greater access for Chinese companies to the Italian port of Trieste one of the region’s busiest and with access to the Mediterranean.
Bradanini, who served as Italy’s top envoy to China between 2013 and 2015, said it would be an “asset” to join a major initiative that would strengthen Eurasian connectivity, especially as Italy had fallen victim to the EU’s inability to narrow trade deficits against China.
In 2017, Italy contributed to about an eighth of the EU’s €176 million (US$198 million) trade deficit with China. “In spite of that, the European Commission, to which the EU member states have surrendered full responsibility in trade issues, does nothing,” Bradanini said.
“Europe is not an asset for Italy, but a liability, a factor of structural damage to its economy and the well-being of its citizens,” he said.
Bradanini rejected the assertion, put forward by some experts, that Italy’s controversial shift towards China could be a deliberate attempt by the Italian government to consolidate its Eurosceptic stance.
“I believe the Italian decision which I hope will be positive to sign the memorandum with China has nothing to do with the critical momentum between Italy and the EU, and is solely based on the legitimate protection of national interests,” he said.
Xi’s visits to Italy and France this month precede an EU-China summit which will take place on April 9. It has been reported that the EU will propose a joint statement with China that would put more pressure on the world’s second biggest economy to ensure greater transparency regarding its overseas infrastructure investments.
Italy is not the first EU Member State to sign a Belt and Road pact with China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Malta, Poland and Portugal have all made their own deals but it is attracting the biggest backlash because it is the first founding EU member, as well as the first G7 Nation, to do so.
The German Government has not publicly attacked Italy for Conte’s proposed deal with Xi, but Italian diplomatic sources said the eurozone’s biggest economy has been exerting pressure behind doors in Rome, Berlin and Brussels.
The White House has openly asked its European ally to drop what it has characterised as a debt trap and a vanity project.
Seeking to calm US concerns, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Sunday that all Italy wanted to achieve through the initiative was to boost its exports, not “to strike a political deal with China”.
But Bradanini said there would be political gains for Beijing when Italy joined the belt and road programme.
“For Beijing this memorandum of understanding has a mainly political value, because Italy is one of the G7 countries,” he said.
“Every country has the right to promote its interests. It is not surprising that the Chinese government does likewise.”
Italy’s role in the belt and road plan is “still undetermined”, and it should “insist that the commitments in the memorandum of understanding are fully implemented”.
Bradanini conceded that advantages for Italian companies would be limited.
“There is almost no comparative industrial or capability advantage for Italy against other countries, since what Italian companies offer can be also found elsewhere,” he said.
“While China has full control of its economy, Italy can only act through the few remaining public companies or by trying to persuade the private sector good luck.”
Bradanini also played down reports that Italy was considering allowing more Chinese investment in its northeastern port of Trieste, as part of the memorandum of understanding, saying it may be too late for the Italians to take full advantage of such a move.
Cosco, China’s leading shipping company, has already invested US$670 million in the Greek port of Athens-Piraeus, which has become the Chinese hub in the Mediterranean and the second busiest port in the European Union.
“Italy should verify the existence of a genuine Chinese interest [in the port of Trieste], and negotiate an agreement based on its interests,” Bradanini said, adding that Chinese containers would find the port conveniently located for onward shipments to Austria, Eastern Europe and Germany’s Bavaria region.
“In terms of port logistics, each European country tries to collect Chinese investments. It is logical and normal,” Bradanini said.
“Italy actually should have done more in the past, because after Athens-Piraeus, the great opportunity is perhaps behind it.”