Italy and Turkey have built over the decades a partnership based on economic cooperation, shared international concerns, and a common vision of Turkey’s future as a member of the European Union. Italian perceptions of Turkey, however, are negatively affected by anti- Muslim sentiments among the Italian public. Negative views about Turkey’s post-Kemalist establishment have become more widespread also among Italian elites in the context of the debate on Turkey’s ‘drift from the West’. The “Arab Spring” of 2011, which has forced Ankara to appreciate the common challenges it faces in the MENA region together with the rest of the West, has partly assuaged concerns of a “de-alignment”, confirming that Turkey has specific ambitions but also broadly shares Western strategic assessments. While Rome remains committed to Turkey’s EU aspirations, the fading of the membership perspective since2005 has led Italian governments to support the accession process mainly as way to further strengthen bilateral ties. The relationship, finally, is adjusting to new power realities. Turkey’s ascent at a time of economic and political difficulties in Italy and in the EU, raises questions of influence in areas of common presence. Ongoing strategic realignments in the MENA region present opportunities for Italian- Turkish cooperation, but also highlight areas of friction.
Italy, Turkish foreign policy, Arab Spring, European integration, Mediterranean, public opinion.
Introduction: Italian Arguments about Turkey and Turkey’s EU Membership
Support for closer ties between Italy and Turkey and for Turkey’s EU bid has been historically strong and largely bipartisan in Italy. Because of its long-standing commitment to Turkey’s European integration and zealous advocacy of this goal among more skeptical EU members, Italy has been able to present itself as Turkey’s “best friend” in Europe- a characterization that has probably not been taken literally by Ankara and to which Italians themselves have not always given proper follow up in terms of bold initiatives in the EU context.
Pro-Turkey arguments made by Italian politicians of progressive or conservative orientations are similar, even though they are sometimes ranked differently or are given different emphasis.1 The central one is the “common Mediterranean identity” of Italy and Turkey. Italy still has historical legacies and interests in the Mediterranean region and has since long aspired to develop a successful “Mediterranean policy” as a third dimension of an international strategy that since World War II has been based on two main pillars: Europeanism (European integration) and Atlanticism (a firm alignment with the United States).2 In fact, the emphasis put by Italian statesmen on Italy’s and Turkey’s “Mediterraneaness” is strictly linked to broader considerations about the future of the European project and Western security. From an Italian perspective, the enlargement of the EU to Turkey would help shift the axis of European integration towards the south, thus compensating for the eastern enlargements of 2004 and 2007.3 Italy has endorsed the “reunification” of the European continent after the fall of the Berlin Wall but has not hidden its frustrations with the comparatively much less developed southern and Mediterranean dimensions of European cooperation. In a speech given at Ankara University in the fall of 2009, Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano went so far as to argue that the EU needs Turkey if it wants to become a true “European power” (“Europe puissance”).4
Italy has also a vested interest in “Mediterranean stability” broadly defined, a goal that has been challenged by several developments, most recently the uprisings in the Arab world. The Mediterranean basin provides a gateway for Italian economic interests to foreign markets, but is also the backdoor for illegal immigration and trafficking to the Italian peninsula. In this respect, Rome has been looking at Ankara as a natural and essential
interlocutor. As both first-rank regional actors and NATO allies, Italy and Turkey are seen in Rome as natural partners in “Mediterranean security”. Common security priorities include control of terrorist and criminal activities and illicit trade flows across the Mediterranean basin, but also the shared concern that developments in the conflict-ridden Middle East do not spread or spill-over and transform the Mediterranean Sea into a transmission belt for instability in Europe and Eurasia. In the context of the current uprisings and conflicts in the EU’s southern neighborhood, Italian elites have largely subscribed to the popular
view that Turkey can represent a source of inspiration for other predominantly Muslim societies engaged in a process of democratic change. Whereas until recently Turkey was mainly seen as the regional power that could talk and mediate with Arab regimes that had ambiguous or adversarial relationships with the West, now it is seen as the actor that can pressure challenged dictators to adopt reform or to step down - the case of Syria- while influencing societal and political developments in countries such as post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia in which mass forces coming from “political Islam” are faced with the choice of whether to pursue political power through democratic means in secular, multi-party political systems or by establishing non-democratic Islamist regimes.
A second common pro-Turkey argument made by Italian elites and experts has a markedly geo-economic flavor: Turkey’s geo-economic value to Europe is that of “energy hub” connecting the European mainland to the gas- and oil- rich regions in the south and east, namely the Caspian basin, Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. Energy relations are a particularly important driver of Turkish- Italian bilateral cooperation given Italy’s high level of dependency on foreign sources and the presence in the Turkish market of some of Italy’s leading energy firms, such as Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi (ENI). Because of its historically active presence in gas- and oil- rich countries of North Africa and the Middle East, some have argued that ENI has in effect been the main author of Italy’s Mediterranean policy.5 The recent crisis in Libya, a country where both Turkey and Italy have been historically deeply engaged, has displayed the role that strategic firms in both countries play in the bilateral relationship while also highlighting the potential for competition on issues such as access to natural resources.