European issues were expected to dominate Italy’s foreign policy in the year ahead, along with the need to mend ties with some historical allies, according to major analysts here.

“The major deadline is represented by the election to renew the European Union (EU) parliament,” Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, president of Rome-based think-tank Institute for International Affairs, told Xinhua.

“Italian political forces will struggle hard in the campaign, and this includes the two parties (rightwing League and populist Five Star Movement-M5S) forming the current governing coalition, which will be competing against each other,” explained Feroci, who’s also former permanent representative of Italy to the EU.

EU Parliament Vote

The election to choose the new European parliament will take place in each of the EU member states between May 23 and May 26, 2019.

Major analysis centres here appeared to believe that poll will be crucial for both the EU and some member states, such as Italy, where traditional stances were recently put into question.

“According to the outcome, that vote could provide stability or, on the contrary, send a strong message of discontinuity for the future of the EU,” the former ambassador stressed.

“As for Italy, I do believe its national interest remains in the EU framework, and it would require the country to play a more active role within the integration path,” said Feroci.

Yet, the two governing parties have gained consensus on the base of a Eurosceptic platform, and this marked a big change for Italy, one of the six founding states of the EU and one of long time pro-European members in the past.

Risk of Isolation

This recent change of mood, interlaced with the hardship of a long economic crisis, benefited especially Eurosceptic League, which was now the strongest party in polls.

Since the current coalition came to power in spring 2018, tensions have sporadically risen with both Brussels and some historical continental partners, such as France.

At the same time, Italy’s governing parties moved closer to Eurosceptic forces in some eastern EU countries, such as Poland and Hungary.

A comprehensive report recently provided by IAI and Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), another think-tank based in Milan, warned against the risks of such shift.

While experts from both centres said a rise of nationalist forces in the EU vote was most likely, they also warned the control of the EU parliament could remain in the hands of traditional pro-European political families, such as Popular party, Socialists, and Liberals.

“Today, some seem to think Italy will forge new alliances with subjects or countries that are not really at the core of the EU integration,” IAI director Nathalie Tocci said in the report.

“Yet, by allying with parties not belonging to the large political families, Italy essentially risks to remain out of all games,” warned the director.

In fact, the political balance within the next EU parliament will be crucial to choose the key institutional figures in Brussels, including the EU Commission president, the European Council president, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Defuse Tension with France

Fighting back the risk of isolation would require mending ties with France, and that was seen as another priority for Italy in the next months, according to the analysts.

France and Italy were historical allies in the framework of the European integration and of the Atlantic, besides sharing some strong economic interests.

Yet, since last year, Rome and Paris have quarreled over a number of issues including migrants, the Libyan crisis, and a high-speed rail project to link the Italian city of Turin to Lyon in France.

The diplomatic row reached a peak in early February, with the temporary withdrawal of the French ambassador to Rome.

A phone call between Italian President Sergio Mattarella and French President Emmanuel Macron helped defuse tensions, and business associations from both sides called for restoring the usual friendship.

“Bringing the relationship with France back to normal would be most desirable for Italy, because there are real converging interests between Paris and Rome,” Nelli Feroci said.

Up to 2018, the two countries discussed a new bilateral treaty to strengthen their ties and boost mutual efforts to speed up the EU integration, on the model of the Aachen treaty recently inked between France and Germany.

“We expected the treaty to be finalised in 2018, but unfortunately the initiative stalled. I hope it can be resumed after the EU vote in May,” the former ambassador said.

Russia & China

Finally, experts expected some developments in Italy’s foreign policy towards Russia and China.

“Italy has a keen interest in helping re-launch a dialogue with Russia, given the historical good ties between Rome and Moscow,” the IAI president noted.

“However, this goal must be pursued not through unilateral initiatives, but in cooperation with our European and Atlantic allies, because some of them are wary about Russia, seeing it today as an unknown variable, if not a real threat,” he explained.

As for China, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for third-country cooperation was inked between Rome and Beijing in September. And a Task Force China was launched at Italy’s Economy and Finance Ministry in October.

Now, the next step would be for the Italian government to sign a specific Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), analysts believe.

The project could directly involve Italian ports as western terminals of the Belt and Road Initiative, and Economic Development Undersecretary Michele Geraci earlier this month told local media that the discussion on the MoU was “in a very advanced stage.”

China is Italy’s largest trading partner in Asia, with the bilateral trade reaching 42 billion euros (47.7 billion U.S. dollars) in 2017, according to data by the Foreign Ministry.

Furthermore, the Italy-China Foundation stated at a meeting held in Trieste on Tuesday that Italy was the third largest recipient of Chinese investments in Europe, behind Britain and Germany. (1 euro = 1.14 U.S. dollars)