Smoke and Mirrors Line the Fringes of the Pandemic

Luigi di Maio

Luigi di Maio

Luigi di Maio owes his rapid ascendancy in Italian politics to an almost virulent display of Euroscepticism. It propelled the former drinks vendor at the Naples San Paolo football stadium to a top spot in his country’s notoriously vicious political arena as the power behind the throne of Beppe Grillo, the clownish leader of the Five Star Movement. Though Mr Di Maio left the party in January to halt infighting and stop desertions to the far-right Northern League, he retained his position as foreign affairs minister in the coalition government of Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte.

From that perch, Mr Di Maio now emits a stream of passionate appeals for European solidarity as Italy battles to corona virus and counts its dead. He is also beside himself with anger over the refusal of Germany, The Netherlands, and a few other frugal EU member states to consider raising vast amounts of cash through the emission of Eurobonds. Minister Di Maio considers the attitude ‘deplorable, self-serving, and short-sighted’ and did not shirk from drawing parallels with post-war Germany that, he was happy to remind readers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, had part of its national debt cancelled in order to help with the rebuilding of the country.

So far, Minister Di Maio’s words have fallen on deaf ears. Berlin and The Hague have not forgotten his shenanigans during the 2018 election campaign when Mr Di Maio vowed to show Brussels his middle finger and ignore any and all budgetary restrictions imposed by the European Growth and Stability Pact – the deal that underwrites the euro. Once in power and installed as deputy prime minister, Mr Di Maio promptly cobbled together a €37 billion spending package to revive Italy’s dormant economy, tacking yet a few more points on to the country’s already worrisome 138 percent debt-to-GDP ratio, after Greece (181%) the second highest in the Eurozone.

Though considered one of the more pragmatic, and therefore least popular, leaders of the Five Star Movement, Mr Di Maio proved a master of grandiose theatrics when he dismissed the rejection of his government’s proposed budget by the European Commission as merely a minor irritant: “It doesn’t at all surprise me for this was the first Italian move that has been decided in Rome and not in Brussels.” Though a pandemic is certainly not the time to settle scores, Mr Di Maio has now perhaps fallen on his own sword.

Whilst the pandemic has clearly marked the boundaries of European solidarity, the government of Italy should perhaps not be baffled by the reluctance of some member states to fast-track the issuance of Eurobonds or scrap the conditions attached to the release of funds from the €410 billion European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Both Eurobonds and ESM-funds have become rather superfluous after the European Central Bank (ECB) last month in removed all limits from its bond-buying programme, promising to scoop up any amount of state debt issued by Eurozone member states. The surprise move was the bank’s way of bypassing national sensitivities and spreading sovereign risk without involving politicians.

Instead of showing a semblance of appreciation, the Italian government turned to Russia and China for salvation – making a public display, if not spectacle, of its undying gratitude to those two faraway countries for their token gestures of help. Sensing an opportunity, both Russia and China dispatched a few cargo planes with medical supplies to Milan. However, after unpacking, most of the kit proved to be subpar or faulty. That did not prevent the involved parties from laying on a great display of international solidarity that generated the expected headlines.

China in particular has been quick to exploit its perceived edge in containing the spread of the corona virus. Pandas have given way to facemasks as the preferred diplomatic lever of Beijing. The Chinese ministry of Foreign Affairs seems on full tilt as it seeks fill the void left on the world stage by the United States. The government of President Xi Jinping is determined to establish China as a trusted partner whilst driving a wedge in the European Union. Brussels had earlier displeased the Chinese government after it expressed reservations about the geopolitical undertones and implications of Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese diplomats eagerly play to existing vulnerabilities and have chosen Eurosceptic populists as their preferred allies in a re-enactment of the Grand Game. Mr Di Maio makes great fanfare of Chinese assistance but chose to ignore the arrival of much larger shipments of medical supplies from Germany and France.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defiantly declared that his government has so far refrained from asking for help in Brussels, “because that doesn’t work.” He did, however, use the pandemic to tighten his already strong grip on the country by donning his office with far-reaching emergency powers that include the muzzling of the media.

Prime Minister Orbán considers China a partner much better aligned with his own convictions and aspirations as a would-be strongman. Meanwhile, the Chinese top diplomat in France, ambassador Lu Shaye, was unable to curb his enthusiasm and waxed lyrical over the fact the already more than 80 countries have appealed to Beijing – ‘Not Washington’, as he wrote on his mission’s website – for assistance and expertise in fighting the corona virus.

If anything, the pandemic has stoked geopolitical rivalries. Even the French got caught up in the jockeying for a top position in the post-corona world. Last Thursday, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire urged the European Union to seize the moment and cement its ‘rightful place’ as a political and economic superpower holding the balance between the United States and China.

A key battle ground, Italy offers Russia a toehold in the European Union as the country seeks to ingratiate itself with Rome in barely veiled attempt to solicit Italian support for the relaxation of the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the EU following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war-by-proxy in Ukraine. A curious novelty ensued: whilst Italian forces in the Baltics man the border to thwart Russian aggression, Russian specialists in nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare disinfect the streets in downtown Bergamo.

The fact remains that none of the major powers has been particularly apt in dealing with the pandemic. The US was late to respond, Europe fell apart into quibbling nation states, and China seems to have grossly overstated the effectiveness of its containment policy. As a sense of normalcy slowly returns to Wuhan, the first epicentre of the disease, eyewitness reports begin to emerge that seem to indicate a far higher death toll than the one officially claimed.

China has somewhat of a reputation when it comes to spreading alt-truths – newspeak for propaganda. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, including official documents, the country’s government still denies the existence of a vast gulag of internment camps in the restive Xinjiang Region. Beijing has also come under fire over the political repression in Hong Kong.

The corona pandemic has offered China a chance to clean the slate and project the country as a humanitarian superpower. However, much like Italy’s flippant attitude towards the European Union, China’s diplomatic offensive represents but a show of smoke and mirrors at a time when nations stand in need of real solidarity. Whilst the post-corona future remains fraught with uncertainties, the great leaders waiting in the wings better not count their chickens yet.


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