By: John Yearwood
The often mild-mannered former Prime Minister of Italy (2013-2014) currently serves as Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po (PSIA), the largest school of international affairs in the world. No wonder Letta has lots to say, whether it’s about the turmoil in Italian politics, the chaos in Europe over Brexit, or the deteriorating relationship between Europe and the United States.
IEFA Magazine’s John Yearwood caught up with Letta between panels and meetings at the World Strategic Forum in Miami for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on Italy’s increasingly warm relationship with China, the disarray brought about by Brexit, and his new passion: reducing inequality in Europe, especially in education. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The Brookings Institution calls Italy’s foreign policy “confused and scattershot”. Do you agree?
Italy today is the product of two main crises: the economic and financial crisis and the migrant crisis. Italy was at the very centre of both. And Italy was the only country affected by both. Currently, the country is in a big internal fight, and it’s not clear what is going on politically. From abroad, you can perceive a confused kind of situation. This confused situation is because of the two main crises. The Italian society of today is full of anxieties and fears, and this is why politicians from the populist parties were successful. They were able to play on people’s fears and anxieties. This is why the situation today is so confused. I have some hopes, and the hopes are related to the fact that both crises are over.
Italy has become the first member of the G7 to officially sign on to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Were you shocked? What happened there?
It was not easy, I think, for the government to take that decision. It was the first big confrontation that this government had with the US administration. You know very well that the Italian government has a good relationship with Donald Trump’s administration because of the common populist philosophy but (Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo was very, very tough on the (Italian government’s) position. I have to say that, maybe, the US overestimates the fears or the risks of this position. The weakening of the transatlantic framework is one of the reasons for this situation. You have to know that France and Germany met Xi Jinping immediately after the Italian government and they made a lot of business deals with China. It’s clear that everyone is doing business with China. The key point is: how can Western countries come together in solidarity to create a sort of multilateral framework on how to deal with China in a correct and proper way.
I was just in Beijing and talked with many Chinese government officials who have been implementing Belt and Road. Do you share the view that the US, and even some in China, hold that this effort is aimed at involving China more deeply in the lives of the people of Italy and of other European countries?
It depends on the many ways in which we in the West are able to treat and deal with them. If we are separated, if there’s no transatlantic framework, or transatlantic tie, it’s easy to think that the outcome will be like the one you mentioned. It demonstrates the risks of a weakening transatlantic relationship, and we need to strengthen this relationship. We need to work even if it’s not easy. The relationship is very complicated today but I have to say that the Europe-US relationship is not dependent on any single person. It’s a community of values and we have to work towards this idea of a community of values. We have to, even with very complicated Chinese issues.
A final question on Italy before we move on. Silvio Berlusconi said he is running for the European Parliament in May’s elections because he wants to fight for a more united European Union that will be faithful to the vision of the bloc’s founders. Do you take him at his word?
I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him. I think we’ll have very interesting European elections. They will change the European landscape – although at this point we don’t know how – and they will also be the first elections after Brexit. Populist parties will run in these elections, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of score they will get. These European elections will change all the faces of every European institution, faces that we’re used to working with today: (EU Commission President) Jean-Claude Junker, (EU Council President) Donald Tusk – everybody will change.
Your new book is just out. It seems like you want to teach young people about getting involved in the wider Europe. Why did you think that was necessary?
For European countries, education is a factor of inequality. People with means are pushing their kids to study abroad. It’s an opportunity for rich people, not for all parts of our society, because of the cost. This is why we need a new idea of inclusiveness, of how our schools, our universities, can work to create inclusiveness. I think it’s maybe the most important challenge that we have to face and it’s a European challenge. I’m afraid of this big, rising inequality because of education. This is my personal big, big dream. It’s a way for me to continue being politically engaged in a completely different way.
You have had several meetings with young people in Italy and around Europe. What have they been telling you?
I think today’s young generation is a fantastic generation, full of goodwill and hope, without all the anxieties that maybe other generations have in our society. Through the new devices, they can invent something completely new. Take this great environmental movement that is happening around Europe. By using social media or the Internet, young people – as young as 16, or in their 20s – are able to create a big, big movement for the environment, against climate change. This is why I say it’s a very interesting generation. I bet on this generation. This is my most important point. I bet on this generation in Europe. It’s a fantastic generation. We have to help them be confident, to trust. We have to involve them. For me working with them is oxygen, fresh air.
You mentioned during your presentation at the World Strategic Forum that we’re living in a period of peace and pessimism. That’s an interesting observation for someone known for his optimism.
I think there’s pessimism because of Europe’s aging society. Too many countries have aging populations and this anxiety, this pessimism, is first of all based on this. Brexit is a case in point: Brexit happened because of nostalgia for a past that will never come again, a past where European people were at the centre of the world. But that’s all in the past. The future is completely different. The future is about Asian dominance, about the African challenge. We Europeans have to face these challenges. We can’t deal only with nostalgia for the past. The past is no more!
Why is it so difficult for people to either see or accept that?
Because change has happened so rapidly. At the same time, you had China rising and changing everything in the world, and Europe that used to be in a leadership position. It is for European people to say, “Okay, now we’re becoming marginal.” This is why there’s such nostalgia.
Brexit has created a great deal of turmoil in Europe. Do you see this crisis upending the European Union? Is the EU at risk?
I think the Brexit crisis will bring a lot of risks for Europe. The future of Brexit and the future of the European relationship with the UK are so unpredictable. I think it’s one of the main problems for people who are looking at Europe from abroad. They see all this uncertainty, all this unpredictability. How can you invest if you don’t know where the UK is, what kind of customs relationship it will have, whether there will be a single market or not, so it’s halting investment and redirecting investments to other countries. I think we’re all losing because of Brexit – Europeans, Italians and the British people. This is why I hope the situation can be clarified as soon as possible.
Many have said that the upcoming elections will determine the heart of Europe. How concerned are you that the outcome could lead to a future for Europe that goes against the values you hold?
We’re here in Miami two months before the election. I’m taking a risk, but I bet that populists will not win the European election. I also bet on a resurgence of pro-European ideas because of Brexit. People are starting to say, “Hey look, maybe we have to think again about this idea of standing alone and not being together.” I bet on new Europeanism. We have two months to see if I’m right or not.
How do you prevent a country like Russia, with a leader like Putin, from taking advantage of this crisis?
He’s already taking advantage. Our weaknesses are there and we pay for those weaknesses. They are creating opportunities for other countries, like Russia, to play a bigger role. I think we really need to consider the responsibility we have and the need to avoid the kind of mistakes that we’re making, because there is someone taking advantage of these opportunities and these mistakes.
Earlier, you mentioned the US-Europe relationship. How do you see this current relationship mending?
It’s a very negative time. It may even be the worst ever. I never saw such a negative period in US-EU relations. We have to work to stop this mess, and to rebuild trust, and to recreate a community of values because the world needs a transatlantic community of values, one that takes responsibility. We can’t allow this division and I hope that people can see this on both sides of the Atlantic.
I was fascinated by a tweet you posted recently. It said, “I am optimistic about the future. I know that those who want to build walls will clash with these fantastic young people. And they will lose.” There’s certainly enough happening in Europe and around the world to make one pessimistic. How do you stay optimistic?
I’m a lucky man. In the past four years, I’ve worked with youths and this is why I’m starting to be optimistic. Of course, it’s not a blind optimism. It’s an optimism that needs to be implemented by giving these young people real opportunities and not leaving them in the margins. We have to work with them. We have to bet on them, because they are the future.