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Italy sees close cooperation with NATO as key to Europe’s strategic defense

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With the war in Ukraine transitioning into a new phase following the dramatic liberation of Kherson by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the role of key NATO allies like Italy, who is also a major European supplier of arms to Kyiv, becomes even more acute as Russia appears to have lost a war that it started nine months ago.

With a new government in place, under the guidance of conservative Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has staunchly reiterated Italy’s commitments to the Western alliance, NE Global’s European Affairs correspondent Federico Grandesso sat down with Pasquale Ferrara, the Director General for Political Affairs and Security at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Marco Peronaci, Rome’s Representative to the Political and Security Committee in Brussels, to discuss cooperation between NATO, EU and Italy.

Federico Grandesso (FG): At present, there is close cooperation that is taking place between NATO and the European Union, as well as between Italy and the EU. Would you say that is correct? 

Pasquale Ferrara (PF): One of the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that it has not only increased Europe’s concept of unified defense, a concept that seemed inactive for quite some time, but it has also created a convergence of strategic objectives about security and defense across the whole of Europe, specifically Eastern Europe and Ukraine, as well as the role Russia plays in destabilizing the entire region. This means there is a convergence between the strategic objectives of the European Union and NATO. If you go back over the statements on February 24, when both NATO officials and the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council met, you will see that there is a crucial intersection that has taken place. What exactly does it mean and what will result from this development? If the EU’s institutions are faced with true strategic challenges, they will respond in a fundamental way. It shows that given certain grave conditions, the European Union can be proactive by using resources that in the past they have been completely reluctant to fully utilize. Right now, there is a strategic convergence between the 27 EU members. This must be a moment for all of them to lay the groundwork for structural security cooperation. They need, however, to avoid, at all costs, any form of decoupling between European defense cooperation and the transatlantic alliance. For Italy, the two absolutely go hand in hand. It is not possible to talk about European defense without considering our transatlantic relationship with our American partners. At the same time, we firmly believe that collaboration, particularly with the United States, gives Europe the much-needed resources for real strategic autonomy and self-reliance. As we have said, this does not mean working autonomously outside the umbrella of the Western alliance, but having the ability to make specific decisions about particular matters. This also would include certain assets, knowledge and technology for each individual country. That said, major global security challenges would include close collaboration with the United States in order to strengthen Europe’s strategic defense capabilities further.
Pasquale Ferrara, the Director General for Political Affairs and Security at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

FG: Which major security challenges do you think could emerge in the coming months?

PS: On the one hand, NATO will have to implement its strategic concept (to protect those it is committed to by keeping them safe and living in prosperity), which was approved at the last NATO summit in Madrid. There is a path to be taken and, interestingly, the implementation has to be done by the European Union. A month of very intense dialogue. and also consultations between the EU and NATO will take place. I repeat, the instruments, when it comes to addressing fundamental challenges, do overlap. Obviously, the European Union is not a military organization. We must not forget that the EU is first and foremost a political entity, with all the components that this implies. Any defense or security dimension, be it the transatlantic alliance or a European defence strategy, obviously has deep political ramifications. In this sense, the duty of the EU is to promote integration among all. Defense for us in Italy is part of the internal European market, but not necessarily linked directly to NATO. NATO is an organization that draws up the basic guidelines for joint action, but not cross-organizational integration, i.e. European security and transatlantic defense policy. It is absolutely essential that these two, precisely because of their various points of strength, cooperate with each other, because of the advantage there can be.

FG: Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we, in Europe, now fully understand that we need to invest more in security. Some countries are now doing this, Germany, for example. What are your thoughts on increasing defense spending?

PS: Of course, that’s the right policy. But that’s what I said in my speech 0 there must be in a truly European democratic path in the realm of defense and defense spending. This means, for example, avoiding any unnecessary redundancy with NATO or the individual armed forces of European countries. In the EU, we have 27 different militaries, many with their own defense and security doctrines. In this case, it isn’t exclusively about spending more or defense, but instead about spending effectively and efficiently. We could even spend less, but do more with what each country spends on spending less. If you think about it, this makes perfect political and economic sense.

NEG: In the years since Brexit, do you feel that Italy has a better grasp of the Franco-German power base within Europe? Does Italy now play a greater role?

PS: Italy has a new government. It seems the Rome-Paris-Berlin triangle is more fundamental to the core EU founding members than in years past. What that means is that you cannot think of doing anything in Europe without the participation of one of these three countries. And yet, bear in mind that there there are also other formats where others are becoming major players – the so-called ‘Big Five; which includes Spain and Poland. I believe that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU made many European nations take a sobered look at the situation around them. They learned they had to take their destiny into their own hands. Major issues like defense and more responsibility for individual governments needed to come to the forefront to move Europe’s development forward. It would be a huge mistake by the EU to think that the concerns of Eastern Europe are the same as those of the Mediterranean. Imbalances can be created. In fact, they often were over many years. Obviously, now we have to invest our attention and resources to Eastern Europe because of the war and refugee crisis. We can’t, however, forget that we have a Mediterranean component that includes two of the big three – Italy and France – that have their own set of problems.

FG: Under the current circumstances, where do you think Italy needs to invest more at the moment? There are various opinions about defense, but there is also cyber security and other areas of concern.

PS: All are important right now, both for Europe and Italy. Cyber security is one of them, as well as space. They are both very high-tech and are less visible than military or security issues. However, high impact if threats could come from either of these areas. In that sense, you could say they are a part of security and defense. We must understand the concept of security, holistically, because a cyber attack on infrastructure is not an attack that qualifies as a military attack, but it is capable of bringing a country to its knees. That means that any country has to be equipped for this type of attack. These two sectors, for different reasons, are the most challenging. You could say, for various reasons, that Italy is a little more behind than the others.

As a follow-up to his interview with Ferrara, NE Global’s Federico Grandesso sat with Marco Peronaci, Italy’s Representative to the Political and Security Committee in Brussels, about his views on cooperation between Europe and NATO.

FG: Regarding the collaboration between the European Union and NATO, with Europe wanting to carve out its own agenda on certain issues, what role could Italy play in helping to forge a bridge between the two?

Marco Peronaci (MP): The invasion of Ukraine was a test that showed how much the European Union and NATO can and need to be in lockstep regarding security. There is no other alternative. The war has also proven that they can play a complementary role towards each other. For example, after the invasion began, NATO could not expose itself when supplying arms to Ukraine, which allowed EU members to step in and provide military aid to Ukraine’s army. There are also institutional elements that are being addressed in Brussels. They are already working on new rules to facilitate cooperation efforts for security and the EU’s strategic autonomy.

FG: Is there any movement regarding European defense?

MP: Out of necessity, we are moving forward out of necessity, but with some limits. We need to find a solution between all the different geographical and political, as well as, social differences between the North, South, East and East of Europe. Italy is in a very advantageous position in that it has a very good relationship with non-European partners, including the US and UK in the security sector. Italy can be a bridge between those who want a common European defense policy – France and Germany – and those – most of Eastern Europe – that are very doubtful about Europe’s ability to defend itself.

Marco Peronaci, Rome’s Representative to the Political and Security Committee in Brussels.

FG: Is this an opportunity for certain Italian industries?

MP: Italy is certainly in a good position to benefit from the current situation. Large, small and medium industries could play a role in bolstering an EU defense and industrial policy. There have been meetings at the European Defense Segment Council to discuss a strategic framework. We will then have to decide on a common procurement for a potential European defense industry. This will most likely be followed by an EU-NATO declaration, which will mark a further step in the collaboration between the two organizations.

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