Conte warns of Europe’s ‘rearmament race’ – POLITICO
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ROME — Italy must not fuel a European “rearmament race”, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said, illustrating the emerging divisions that could shape an election expected in 2023.
Speaking to POLITICO, Conte – who now leads the 5 Star Movement, the largest party in Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government – expressed mistrust of longer-term promises from Italy and others from increase defense spending following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think Europe and the EU have to keep their cool,” said Conte, sitting at the Rome headquarters of the 5Stars, who are striving to establish themselves as a more progressive force on the Italian left. “Our response cannot be a rearmament race. Diverting resources from our green transition to invest in the military industry would be a completely wrong position.
So far, the 5 stars have backed – albeit reluctantly – Draghi’s moves to increase Italy’s defense budget and send weapons to Ukraine.
But with polls showing that a majority of Italians oppose these decisions and inflation is soaring, such spending will likely become harder to justify to 5-star voters as the election approaches, who must take place next summer. Conte’s party is at a two-year low and needs to differentiate itself from the ruling government and its leftist allies, including the Democratic Party, which is closely aligned with Draghi and supports increased defense spending.
Europe must remain “lucid”, Conte said, aiming not for military leadership but for leadership on human rights and the protection of people in financial and medical difficulty. He warned that an arms race risked sending Europe back to a Cold War mentality: the West against Russia, China, India and the rest of the world.
“It would be a huge step backwards,” he said.
Friction over the issue emerged in March when the far-right League party tabled a motion committing Italy to increase defense spending from 1.4% of GDP to 2% by 2024 – earlier than the government’s current plans for 2028.
The 5Stars initially supported the motion, but later pushed it back. The tension has prompted the leader of the left-wing Democrats, Enrico Letta, to warn that the government could collapse before an agreement is finally reached.
For now, Conte said the 5Stars would remain a “loyal and responsible” member of Draghi’s coalition. While many 5-star lawmakers fear losing their seats in the next election, the party leadership is not looking to unseat Draghi.
“But clearly we are waiting to be listened to and the government must have a strongly progressive orientation,” he said.
Draghi led one of Italy’s most clearly pro-US and pro-NATO governments. The Prime Minister specifically stated this government’s pro-NATO stance in his opening speech to Parliament and echoed the military alliance’s calls for EU countries to do more to defend their own backyard.
When war broke out in Ukraine, Draghi refused military investments.
“The threat brought by Russia today pushes us to invest more in defense than we have ever done before,” Draghi told parliament in March.
While Conte was willing to go with Draghi so far, he was “surprised” to see how far other countries like Germany have gone. At the end of February, Berlin unveiled a special fund of 100 billion euros to rapidly modernize the country’s army.
Instead of such massive investments, Conte said he favored coordinated investments in European defense, a policy also advocated by Draghi. Conte said it would help advance military technology, streamline resources and avoid duplication.
“I invite our [German] friends to evaluate together a coordinated European investment process, which offers the possibility of saving on national military investments,” he said.
The 5-Star movement has traditionally nurtured pro-Kremlin sentiments, pressed by a far-left fringe that distrusts US hegemony and any military intervention. And the group has in the past expressed ambiguous foreign policy positions that have caused head-scratching among NATO allies.
When Conte was in power, for example, Italy became the first Western democracy to sign on to China’s Belt and Road initiative, a global investment scheme criticized as a way for Beijing to trap countries in debt. and disseminate its surveillance technologies. The move prompted the United States to express concerns about the ability of the NATO military alliance to fully coordinate with Italy.
Conte’s first coalition government, formed in 2018 with the right-wing League and the 5Stars, also pledged to end existing Russian sanctions, saying the country did not pose “a military threat”. He also backed US President Donald Trump’s bid in 2018 to readmit Russia to the G7 group of advanced economies.
Conte defended his position in the interview.
“As prime minister, I have always renewed the sanctions against Russia” at the EU level, he said. “There was therefore a de facto continuity in Italy’s foreign policy in terms of decisions.”
And his goal with Russia and the G7 was “to create a window for discussion”, he said. “Russia is a global player and plays an important role in many crisis scenarios. Forcing him into political isolation could have negative effects.
Conte insisted that he had always tried “to cultivate a channel of dialogue to avoid risking political isolation and the creation of neo-imperialist designs, as materialized with the repression in Chechnya, the war in South Ossetia and Ukraine” – a reference to several places Moscow sent troops.
At the same time, Conte’s government increased Italy’s defense spending and reaffirmed Italy’s commitment to NATO’s 2% target. Conte reiterated in the interview that Italy’s commitment to NATO was “indisputable”.
And he said it made sense to support Draghi’s decision to send arms to Ukraine, arguing that the Ukrainian people had the right to defend themselves.
Still, Conte called the backing a “difficult decision” for his group.
“Peace”, he said, “is a North Star for us.”