BY SILVI WRITER
Embracing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will be “an opportunity” for Italy, as the Mediterranean country is set to become the first G7 member to sign a related document with China this week during President Xi Jinping’s visit.
Italy’s politicians have stressed the decision to accession to the BRI is based on protection of its own national interests, despite of objections from other western powerhouses including the US and Germany.
“We have been in touch with our American and European partners, explained to them the reasons why we sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and I think that, little by little, more and more people are beginning to see the benefits,” Michele Geraci, under-secretary of state for the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, told the Global Times over the weekend.
At the beginning there is always some uncertainty. The content of the MOU was not disclosed to the public and naturally many commentators raised doubts, Geraci said.
“I am very happy, however, that despite these difficulties we managed to clarify all issues and reach a consensus,” he added.
China considers the BRI, proposed by Xi in late 2013, as an important international public good that contributes to global cooperation for common development.
More than 150 countries, regions and international organizations have signed BRI cooperation agreements with Beijing, resulting in more than $6 trillion in cumulative trade between China and participating countries, the Xinhua News Agency reported in February.
Italy’s decision to join the BRI has sparked criticism in Western countries. White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis was quoted in earlier media reports as saying that the BRI was unlikely to help Italy economically and could significantly damage the country’s international image.
Geraci said the BRI is very important for Italy, which wants to improve trade relations with China, and local companies have expressed their desire to do more business with the world’s second-largest economy.
“We hope this MOU will lead to more business activities, both in terms of trade and investment,” he noted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay state visits to Italy, Monaco and France from Thursday to March 26, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang announced Monday, a trip that analysts said will boost China-EU investment and trade.
Agriculture, food, food machinery, the green economy and the digital economy are some sectors where China and Italy could work together more, the Italian official noted.
In addition, China could lead by example in both the digital and green economies, “another area where we lag behind but where our government is putting in a lot of effort,” he said.
Alberto 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.
“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.
“With all the necessary precautions, Italy’s accession to a new silk route represents an opportunity for our country,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told a foreign policy seminar in the northern city of Genoa.
“It won’t mean that the next day we will be forced to do anything. It will allow us to enter into this project and have a dialogue.”
Conte said he planned to attend a belt and road summit in China in April and promised to bring European Union trade standards to the ambitious project.
“This is a strategic choice for the country … and such choices need coordinating with traditional partners. Dialogue with the United States, for example, is constant,” he said.
Italy fell into recession at the end of last year for the third time in a decade and the government is eager to find ways to boost the economy and revive the stalled construction sector.
Xi will be China’s third top leader to visit the Apennine Peninsula. Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Xi’s predecessors, visited Italy respectively in 2009 and 1999.