Conte warns of Europe’s “armament race” – POLITICO

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ROME – Italy must not foment a European “armament race,” said former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, highlighting the emerging divisions that could shape the expected 2023 elections.

Speaking to POLITICO, Conte – who now heads the 5 Star Movement, the largest party in Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government – expressed distrust of longer-term pledges by Italy and others to increase defense spending following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I think that Europe and the EU have to keep their nerve,” Conte said at the Rome headquarters of the 5Stars, who are working to establish themselves as a more progressive force on Italy’s left. “Our response must not be an arms race. Diverting resources from our green transition to invest in the military industry would be a completely wrong stance.”

To this point, the 5Stars have supported, albeit reluctantly, Draghi’s moves to increase Italy’s defense budget and send arms to Ukraine.

But with Survey With a majority of Italians spreading against these decisions and inflation, such spending will likely be harder to justify for the 5-star voters with the upcoming elections to be held by next summer. Conte’s party is opinion poll at a two-year low and needs to distance itself from the ruling government and its allies on the left, including the Democratic Party, which is closely linked to Draghi and backs increased defense spending.

Europe should remain “clear,” Conte said, and not seek military leadership, but leadership on human rights and protecting people in financial and medical emergencies. He warned that an arms race risks throwing Europe back into the Cold War mentality: the West against Russia, China, India and the rest of the world.

“That would be a huge step backwards,” he said.

Tensions over the matter rose in March when the far-right Lega party tabled a motion obliging Italy to increase defense spending from 1.4 percent of GDP to 2 percent by 2024 – ahead of the government’s current plans for 2028 .

The 5Stars initially supported the motion but later pushed it back. The tension prompted left-wing Democrat leader Enrico Letta to warn that the government could do so collapse before an agreement was finally reached.

Conte said the 5Stars will remain a “loyal and responsible” member of Draghi’s coalition for the time being. With many 5-star lawmakers worried about losing their seats in the next election, the party leadership is not trying to overthrow Draghi.

“But it is clear that we expect to be heard and the government must have a strong progressive bias,” he said.

Draghi has led one of Italy’s most unequivocally pro-US and pro-NATO governments. In his opening speech to Parliament, the prime minister explicitly stated the government’s pro-NATO stance and reiterated the military alliance’s demands on EU countries to do more to defend their own backyards.

When war broke out in Ukraine, Draghi looked for military investments.

“Today’s threat from Russia is driving us to invest in defense more than ever before,” Draghi told parliament march.

While Conte has so far been willing to follow Draghi, he was “surprised” at how far other countries like Germany went. At the end of February, Berlin presented a 100 billion euro special fund to quickly upgrade the country’s military.

Instead of such massive investments, Conte said he prefers coordinated investment in European defenses, a policy also advocated by Draghi. Conte said it would help advance military technology, rationalize resources and avoid duplication of effort.

“I invite ours [German] Friends to jointly evaluate a process of coordinated European investment that offers the opportunity to save on national military investments,” he said.

The 5 Star Movement traditionally harbors some pro-Kremlin sentiments, beset by a far-left fringe suspicious of US hegemony and any military intervention. And the group has a history of expressing ambiguous foreign policy positions that have worried NATO allies.

For example, when Conte was in power, Italy became China’s first Western democracy to sign the Belt and Road Initiative, a global investment project criticized as a way for Beijing to trap indebted countries and spread its surveillance technologies. The move prompted the US to do so to express Fears over whether NATO military alliance could fully coordinate with Italy.

Conte’s first governing coalition, formed in 2018 with the right-wing League and the 5Stars, also pledged to end existing Russian sanctions and said the country posed “no military threat”. He also backed US President Donald Trump’s motion in 2018 to reinstate Russia to the G7 group of advanced economies.

Conte defended his position in the interview.

“As prime minister, I have always renewed the sanctions against Russia,” he said at the EU level. “So there was de facto continuity in Italian foreign policy in terms of decisions.”

And his goal with Russia and the G7 is to “create a window for discussion,” he said. “Russia is a global player and plays an important role in so many crisis scenarios. Forcing him into political isolation could have negative repercussions.”

Conte stressed that he had always tried “to cultivate a channel of dialogue in order to avoid the risk of political isolation and the creation of neo-imperialist designs such as those created by the repression in Chechnya, the war in South Ossetia and in Ukraine”. – a reference to several places in Moscow sent troops.

At the same time, Conte’s government increased Italy’s defense spending and reaffirmed Italy’s commitment to NATO’s 2 percent target. Conte repeated in the interview that Italy’s commitment to NATO was “out of the question”.

And he said it was logical to support Draghi’s move to send arms to Ukraine, arguing that the Ukrainian people have a right to self-defense.

Still, Conte called the support “a difficult decision” for his group.

“Peace,” he said, “is a North Star to us.” Conte warns of Europe's "armament race" - POLITICO

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