For Italy, Trump Represents a ‘Populist’ Opportunity

The new Italian government is taking comfort in some of Trump’s positions, especially on migration, trade and Russia, says Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus
in Milan
Special to Consortium News

During the 2016 United States election campaign, most of Italy’s political class and media adopted the standard line about how Donald Trump was a grave threat to the stability of the Western world.

Unlike previous Italian governments, which toed the pro-globalization line, the new government in Rome, supported by the anti-system Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, seems ready to view Trump as an opening, not a disaster.

For the new Italian leaders, Trump’s victory presents a number of opportunities for Italy. It has opened a way to potentially link the anti-establishment vote in both countries and across Europe by addressing the negative effects of globalization on the middle and lower classes, as well as challenge disastrous “regime change” policies that breed instability.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte began revealing his hand at the G-7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada in June, shortly after he was chosen by the two populist parties as a compromise figure to lead the government. At the summit, he was the only other leader to support Trump’s call to allow Russia to rejoin the group. Conte also refused to join with other European leaders in railing against the threat of tariffs wielded by Washington to obtain concessions on trade. During Conte’s visit to the White House on July 30, he confirmed this position, seeking ways the two countries could work more closely together.

Conte: Making friends in Washington. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The Libya Disaster

The first common issue is how to deal with the chaos in Libya. In 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy—with the help of then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—successfully convinced President Barack Obama to launch a “humanitarian intervention” that led to the ouster and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. What followed was a period of instability that persists to this day. For Italy in particular, the war has been disastrous on two fronts: it has hit its economic interests and increased human trafficking and the flow of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean.

Italy is the Western country with the strongest ties to Libya, a former Italian colony. Italy has invested heavily there, including through the construction of transport, military and housing infrastructure in the form of reparations for colonialism under a 2008 agreement with Gaddafi. Ties are strong in the energy sector as well, as the Italian conglomerate Eni manages numerous oil and gas fields there, providing about 20 percent of the company’s overall hydrocarbon production.

When NATO bombs were unleashed in 2011, the French military had included Eni infrastructure among its targets, according to then Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. The Italian oil assets were apparently never hit.  But armed groups continue to attack oil pipelines and hinder oil exports, including Eni’s. 

The targeting of Eni infrastructure has led to a belief in Italy that one goal of the Libyan war for France was to wrest control of Italy’s Libyan energy resources. Corroboration has come from the Clinton emails published first by WikiLeaks, and subsequently released in part by the State Department itself. Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal sent intelligence assessments regarding Sarkozy’s motives in attacking Libya, which included “a desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production.” Other emails show this meant cancelling existing oil concessions (such as those granted to Eni), and reassigning them to France’s Total. (Another major goal was to stop Gaddafi from creating a new pan-African currency which would supplant the CFA, the French franc used in French-speaking African countries.)

Italy also has borne the brunt of the increase in immigration passing through Libya. The north African country has become a hub for migrant and refugee passage, with ruthless traffickers exploiting and torturing people who hope to make it to Europe.

In better times. (Michel Dufour/WireImage)

The elimination of the Gaddafi regime contributed strongly to the wave of desperate humans trying to make it to Italy, with over 90 percent of them arriving from Libya. 

The political result has been strong anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy that contributed significantly to the League’s March election success. The new Italian government has sought to block all arrivals not controlled by its coast guard and force other European countries to share the burden of those who are granted entry. This has led to claims that Italy is ignoring the humanitarian needs of desperate people. The Italians counter that European neighbors are refusing to do their part, having closed their borders within Europe despite their obligations under the Schengen Agreement that guarantees free movement of peoples throughout the EU.

Not surprisingly, Trump has offered his support to Conte, praising the Italian government’s approach and suggesting that Europe as a whole should reintroduce strong borders. Trump’s support on Libya can be of most help to Italy.

France continues to seek dominance in Western policy on Libya, while Italy aims to regain its leading role in the area, despite being seen as a second-tier power in Europe. After the bilateral meeting at the White House, sources told the Italian press that Italy could count on U.S. support for the Libya conference Conte is organizing in Rome this fall. Trump said: “We recognize Italy’s leadership role in the stabilization of Libya and North Africa.”

To Russia With Love

Trump and the Italian government also see eye to eye on Russia. Few people in Italy appear to support continuing the sanctions and deploying additional military personnel and equipment toward the East. Many Italians also would seem to welcome a shift away from the New Cold War mentality, but without rupturing the Western alliance.

So far, Trump’s openness to diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t brought much actual change. In fact, last month’s NATO summit produced a series of commitments for further NATO deployments toward Russia’s borders. But Italy’s desire for better relations with Russia, without alienating the U.S., is being facilitated by Trump’s approach to Moscow.

Conte and Trump skirted the Iran nuclear deal, over which Italy and the U.S. disagree. Italy has long been a major economic partner of the Islamic Republic. Though there is debate within institutions in Rome over the best approach to Iran, there’s no question many Italian companies stand to lose from Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions.

Trade With China

On trade with Europe Trump has followed his usual method: talk tough and make threats, hoping to obtain concessions. The first shot was Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum, prompting Brussels to retaliate on a raft of American imports, including bourbon, motorcycles and numerous food items. Then Trump threatened 20 percent tariffs on European automobiles unless the EU reduced barriers to U.S. products.

The European Commission responded with a threat of over $300 billion in tariffs on American goods. Ultimately, a deal was reached in which the two sides committed to “work together towards zero tariffs.” The White House claimed victory after EU concessions in the energy and food sectors. More significantly, Europe appears to be siding with Trump over China on trade.

After his July 30 meeting with Trump, Conte agreed on the need to review the terms of China’s participation in the World Trade Organization. China still is accorded the status of a developing nation, which allows it to maintain higher tariffs and restrictions than its Western counterparts in many sectors. China has made great strides in improving living conditions for its population, but has a long way to go to deal with internal imbalances and inequality.

While the growth of the Chinese middle class represents an important opportunity for European industry, low-cost production from China and other developing nations has cost millions of jobs in developed countries, supplanting many Western industries during the process of globalization in recent decades.

Italy maintains a competitive advantage in many advanced manufacturing sectors—as do other European countries, led by Germany—but that advantage is waning as other nations reach higher levels of development. Italy must compete on quality, not quantity, overcoming the negative effects of unbalanced competition with China with its low costs and disparities in rules and regulations.

Limits of the EU

The populist Italian government is also seeking a more general challenge to the decades-old neoliberal economic system, which the Trump administration has supported.  It is premature to think that Italy and the U.S. have established a new partnership, given uncertainty on both sides. Even on rare occasions when Trump pursues reasonable goals, he is inconsistent and must do battle with many sides in the U.S.—even within his own administration. The Italian government is in a similar situation, with the European establishment putting roadblocks in the way to prevent wholesale changes in economic policy.

Seeking U.S. support outside the confines of the EU is in Italy’s interest, but raises concerns among those who look with disdain on Trump and his mistrust of supranational institutions. If EU countries act on their own, the idea of a common foreign policy loses credibility, strengthening the arguments of those who oppose further integration.

The problem is that the pro-EU forces so far have failed to address the issues leading to the populist revolt, whether economic or in foreign policy. Repeating the mantra that European nations must act as a bloc doesn’t solve the fundamental problems facing the member states. If Brussels won’t face its own failures, more conflict will be inevitable, and the alliance between populist forces will likely continue to grow.

Andrew Spannaus is a journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He was elected chairman of the Milan Foreign Press Association in March 2018. He has published the books “Perché vince Trump” (“Why Trump is Winning” – June 2016) and “La rivolta degli elettori” (“The Revolt of the Voters” – July 2017).

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20 comments for “For Italy, Trump Represents a ‘Populist’ Opportunity

  1. Rong Cao
    August 17, 2018 at 22:39

    The US has repeatedly pitted the countries old Europe against each other. And it has been working just fine. If The EU has not led the war against Libya with the US at the back seat and made Libya a failed state, there would not be an influx of refugees across the Mediterranean. Suppose the EU have not planned any exit strategy on this conceivable disaster. So if you break it, you have to own it. And since the US has been fighting the war there, not here, plus being protected by two oceans, there would be no refugee mess left for Americans to clean up at home front. And dollar will continue to be ever more superior than the Euro. So please focus on your own foreign policy problems instead of shifting to battering China for its fast developments. The US and UK’s divide and conquer strategy generally does not work so well on China as a whole

  2. August 17, 2018 at 16:50

    As I live in Conil de la Frontera in the south of Spain, with a view of North Africa from my window, I can assure Andrew Spannaus that Italy is far from alone in dealing with migrants and refugees from Libya and Africa. Well over a thousand have arrived and been dealt with in Spain just over the last few months. Not only that, I talk to a local volunteer of the Red Cross most days, he keeps me informed of what’s happening in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Only yesterday he showed me the map of rescue boats picking up migrants on his phone in real time. There were seven boats active at that moment. Volunteers are kept constantly informed, as they can be called out at any time. He hadn’t slept that night, kept busy processing new arrivals. There were seven boats active in the Atlantic at the time he showed me. Helicopters search for both boats and survivors; many don’t make it to shore alive. Refugees are being taken in by our neighboring fishing ports of Barbate and Tarifa, with more being taken in by Algeciras on the Mediterranean coast. In the north, Barcelona is taking in many. To suggest Italy is alone in taking in refugees, when in fact it has refused boats laden with refugees, is misleading and insulting to Spain and the other European nations that have taken in hundreds and thousands of refugees over the last few years.

    The role of the alternative media is to be more accurate, not as inaccurate, as the corporate media. When it spreads fake, or inaccurate, news in order to cause sensation or outrage it is no better than the corporate media. I will be taking Spannaus’ articles with a pinch of salt in the future and may not bother with them at all.

    • backwardsevolution
      August 17, 2018 at 20:47

      Bryan Hemming – “To suggest Italy is alone in taking in refugees, when in fact it has refused boats laden with refugees, is misleading and insulting to Spain and the other European nations that have taken in hundreds and thousands of refugees over the last few years.”

      I don’t think that’s what Andrew Spannaus said. He said:

      “Italy also has borne the brunt of the increase in immigration passing through Libya. The north African country has become a hub for migrant and refugee passage, with ruthless traffickers exploiting and torturing people who hope to make it to Europe.”

      One of the links directs us to one of his earlier articles, and there he says:

      “This has meant that in 2017 over 85 percent of total migrants headed towards Europe have arrived in Italy.”

      Sure, the migrants are coming to Spain now because Italy is beginning to return them or seize the boats of the NGO’s that are picking the migrants up off the coast of Libya. These are economic migrants, and the boats are full of almost exclusively young African males. They are not fleeing for their lives. They are paying the human traffickers good money to get to Europe and, because most of them are not true refugees, they will likely be sent home again.

    • Andrew Spannaus
      August 18, 2018 at 04:10

      Thank you for your comment, but indeed you seem to have misread what I wrote. In recent years Italy has definitely borne the brunt of the increased migration coming through Libya. For example, the numbers say that in 2016 about 13,000 migrants made it to Spain – although in part by land, not departing from Libya – while for Italy the number was 181,000; in 2017, it was Spain 28,000, Italy 120,000. (the statistics vary a bit, but you get the idea)
      This year there has been an increase of flows to Spain and a decrease to Italy, precisely because the new Italian government has taken a different line; on the other hand, the new Spanish government has changed its policy in the other direction, compared to the hard line of its predecessors.
      Some other European countries have taken in a lot of refugees, generally coming through channels other than Libya. The fact is that as other channels were blocked – such as Greece and the Balkans, which had previously received much more than everyone else – the Libyan route remained and increased, putting more pressure on Italy. This doesn’t mean that the new Italian government is “right”, but it reflects a shift in public opinion, and a reaction to the lack of assistance from other European countries in past years. Spain was one of them, previously taking in less than its quota, but is now calling for a better redistribution policy, just as Italy did before.
      In any event, my point is not that European countries should fight over how to reject migrants; solidarity is needed, and most of all we need to take a serious look at why people are fleeing their homelands, an issue I have discussed in previous articles on Consortium News. Greetings

      • August 30, 2018 at 11:05

        ” my point is not that European countries should fight over how to reject migrants; solidarity is needed, and most of all we need to take a serious look at why people are fleeing their homelands”…well said!

    August 17, 2018 at 15:45


  4. backwardsevolution
    August 17, 2018 at 04:45

    “Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal sent intelligence assessments regarding Sarkozy’s motives in attacking Libya, which included ‘a desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production.’ Other emails show this meant cancelling existing oil concessions (such as those granted to Eni), and reassigning them to France’s Total.”

    Right after Gaddafi was viciously murdered, I remember reading that Sarkozy and the British prime minister at the time jetted off to Libya to try to secure oil contracts with the new provisional Libyan government. I remember thinking to myself, “God, the guy is barely dead, and the vultures have already landed.” Sarkozy was there trying to set up deals for Total.

    Not only did Sarkozy stab Gaddafi in the back (side), but he was going to stab Italy in the back too.

  5. Tom Kath
    August 17, 2018 at 00:25

    Like him or not, Trump DOES provide many opportunities. The challenge and threat to “the establishment” (however you want to define that) is surely obvious even from the desperate measures adopted to get rid of him.
    I have heard of a very ambitious agenda attributed to him being to abolish ‘financial” capitalism and reinstate “productive” capitalism. This means doing trade using existing (already created) wealth, rather than our current system of trading in debt (Promised, not yet produced wealth) – Wealth (money) being the result of effort in excess of requirements.
    Admittedly there is some contention as to whether he is doing this intentionally or inadvertently. – Not that that matters much.

  6. Jeff Harrison
    August 16, 2018 at 22:17

    The Europeans are idiots and vassals. They have ceded their financial world to the United States and, at the moment, have no viable plan to wrest control of their financial future back. They have blindly supported whatever fruitcake idea the United States has dreamt up. We attacked nations across the Middle East. The nations of the EU collectively and individually either supported what we were doing or at the worst abstained. Nobody opposed the US although they could have. Now Europe is awash with refugees from those Middle Eastern countries that the US has been jacking up. If they didn’t see that coming, they’re idiots. This flood of refugees has strained the EU’s financial and political cohesion. The author of their woes is the United States. Are they going to make the US reimburse them for the cost occasioned by US stupitity? In a word, NO. Everybody (well, at least, the US and the EU) thought that it would be a neato-keeno idea to kick Libya’s ass. They thought that in 2011. Seven years later, 2018, Libya is still a failed state with no real government and producing literally millions of refugees desperately trying to get across the Med (and the subject of this article). The EU can’t honestly (making the major assumption that they are honest) blame Libya on the US alone. They bought into that unmitigated disaster wholeheartedly. Could they get around to saying “oops”? Um, no. In a similar manner, the EU, in cahoots with their neocon buddies in the Obama regime, decided to turn Ukraine away from Russia (note: the Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire for hundreds of years) and foment a coup in Ukraine. Now they have a country that is basically on the edge of being Nazi. Not Neo Nazi. There’s nothing new about Ukraine’s Nazis. They are unreconstructed Stepan Bandara Nazis. The Crimeans wanted out and said so at the ballot box. We got a puppet government installed in the Ukraine that was one we liked. The US was very unhappy because the Crimeans wanted nothing to do with the Ukrainians (they have never been part of the Ukraine. In ’57 they got put in the same Oblast as Ukraine. That doesn’t make them Ukrainian any more than being in the St. Louis Statistical Metropolitan Area makes East St. Louis a part of Missouri instead of Illinois) and that was contrary to our plans to force Russia (a country for which we have a mindless hatred) out of the Sevastopol naval base. Did the EU recognize their fuck up and try to force the US to make reasonable decisions? Surely you jest, Mr. Feynman. They went along with American sanctions. Going along with American sanctions has cost the various EU countries literally billions of dollars. You’d think that they’d take steps to stop the bleeding but you’d be wrong.

    And speaking of costs… The financial disaster in Europe was a direct result of American’s failure to control their financial centers. The Europeans paid the price, not the Americans. Europe isn’t going to get compensated for the US’s screw up any more than ordinary Americans were compensated for the banking community’s reckless behavior. The only major countries standing up to the United States are Russia and China. Don’t everybody rush to help them deal with an arrogant imperialist that’s trying to become the global hegemon because I know you don’t have the balls.

    • Realist
      August 17, 2018 at 02:59

      Beautiful piece of writing. Totally on point on every issue, each aggressively engaged. Just break up that first super-paragraph into several, and you’ve got a masterpiece. Love the reference to America’s late great “curious character.” The world could use an increased dose of clear thinking for which he was so famous.

    • Brad Owen
      August 17, 2018 at 04:14

      I’d say it’s exactly the opposite situation: US has been collared by the still-existing colonial masters of the EU to be their “foreign legion” executing their desire (and the desire of the wannabes here) to recolonize the World…which is all globalization really is. Libya was a former Italian colony, Algeria one of many French African colonies throuout “French West Africa”, Egypt was aBritish colony, the Middle East was divided up between France and Britain, USA was a British colony (still is via CityOf London’s Wall Street asset), Canada was a British colony, Australia was a British colony, New Zealand was a British colony, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos were French colonies, Myanmar, Malasia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan were British colonies, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, Phillpines was a Spanish colony for centuries until USA “won” it as a prize of war with the Spanish Empire, Brazil was a Portugese colony, Surinam was a Dutch colony, Venesuela, Colombia, Peru, Chili, Argentina, Mexico, practically all of South and Central America were Spanish colonies, as was Cuba and Puerto Rico. The problem will not get solved until the good people of the EU recognize this covert ruling class in their midst, and WE can’t liberate ourselves until YOU folks recognize this problem.

    • Dunderhead
      August 17, 2018 at 06:56

      Well said Jeff

      • Libby
        August 26, 2018 at 12:41

        The comments of Jeff and Brad have in common the goal to be achieved: submitting the world to the West. Now called ‘neoliberalism’, it represents the worst of both the EU and the US with perhaps a few differences of ‘nuance’. The ‘traditional right’ and the ‘traditional left’ have been disabled under this global gloss, and the spin off is the fragmentation and dissolution of the political system as we knew it.

    • vinnieoh
      August 17, 2018 at 11:13

      Thanks for the Feynman reference. My brother loaned me his copy of Feynman’s reflections last summer, and since I will be seeing him tomorrow I need to return it to him.

      Nice summation. With the US sponsored coup in Ukraine I too tried to enlighten myself on the question of just who are Ukrainians and Crimeans. A very old region of human civilization, and Russians have as much a claim there as any other ethnicity or nationality. Absolutely right that one of the main US goals was to cripple Russia militarily by depriving them of Sevastopol. WAS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. Which is why at every turn here in DizzyWorld the mandatory phrase “the Russian invasion of Crimea.” Can you imagine if Russia or China tried to oust the US from Okinawa? The stink of righteous indignation would be suffocating.

    • rosemerry
      August 17, 2018 at 15:26

      Great comment, Jeff!
      I live in France and well remember Sarkozy.

    • Josep
      August 17, 2018 at 21:35

      Nobody opposed the US although they could have.

      Until 2014, there used to be a blog called David’s Medienkritik ( where owner David Kaspar attempted to shine light on what he felt was anti-Americanism in the German mainstream media, especially during the Iraq War with Republican GWB in office. Not sure if the German MSM back then counted as dissent against the American war machine, but it’s something I thought I’d share.
      Otherwise, good points.

    • H.J.Schmid
      August 18, 2018 at 06:19

      As a European (Swiss) I wholeheartedly agree with your comment.

      • Josep
        August 22, 2018 at 04:10

        Since Switzerland is part of neither the EU nor NATO (and also has been neutral during both world wars), I’m interested to know what’s the Swiss politicians’ stance on all those wars launched by the US and EU. Which side is it on? Thanks.

  7. backwardsevolution
    August 16, 2018 at 21:53

    Re John Brennan’s security clearance, this is the law:

    “In the case of former CIA directors, the agency ‘holds’ their security clearance and renews it every five years for the rest of their lives. However, that requires former CIA directors to behave like current CIA employees.”

    There is no way a current CIA employee would be going on MSM and accusing the President of treason. Somebody has certainly been leaking. Was it Brennan who still had access to classified material?

    Brennan just had his sword removed.

  8. Sally Snyder
    August 16, 2018 at 21:10

    Here is an article that looks at how Russians feel about the impact of America’s anti-Putin sanctions:

    Thanks to the imbalance of reporting in the Western media, we rarely hear what Russians think about the key issues that are impacting their lives in this time of anti-Putin/anti-Russia sanctions and how they feel about their new geopolitical reality.

Comments are closed.