The new Italy-UK entente. On Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni travelled to the United Kingdom to meet with her counterpart, Rishi Sunak, in London. The two signed a Memorandum of Understanding committing their countries to privileged institutional cooperation, through a custom-based approach, on matters of foreign affairs and defence.
- The MoU is built on the understanding that Italy and the UK “are like-minded global partners who share a mutual vision on a broad range of international issues,” reads the MoU.
- Negotiations had begun in 2020 while former PMs Giuseppe Conte and Boris Johnson were in office. Since then, both countries changed their heads of government twice, with Mario Draghi and Liz Truss coming before PMs Meloni and Sunak.
The shared dossiers. In their talks, the two PMs touched upon migration, especially in light of London wanting to understand the Mattei Plan and defence (more on both below). They also discussed the Italian G-7 presidentship in 2024, the Russian war in Ukraine, Africa and the Indo-Pacific.
- All and more of these topics are matters of cooperation as framed by the MoU, which comprises “global security and defence cooperation; tackling illegal migration; enhancing energy security; tackling climate change and biodiversity loss; defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law; delivering economic growth in an open trade environment; prioritising sustainable development; expanding the frontiers of science and innovation; and fostering people-to-people links.”
Focus on: immigration. Diplomats worked until the very last moment on the MoU’s wording, especially on migratory matters. Rome’s chief concern was remaining within the European framework and avoiding giving any political cover to the British plan to deport clandestine immigrants to Rwanda, suspended by the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights.
- “This is a challenge for the whole of Europe and one that requires a whole of Europe response,” reads the MoU, stating that London and Rome “will work together to protect our borders, the lives of innocent victims of human trafficking and the security of the European Continent.”
- Italy and the UK also noted “the need for closer cooperation to improve migration management both at the bilateral and the UK-EU levels along migration routes to Europe,” including through cooperation with Frontex.
Focus on: defence. Back in February, members of the British and Italian governments held a 2+2 Foreign Defence meeting that British Defence Minister Ben Wallace described as an opportunity to “build a piece of future history together.” The parties signed a declaration of intent to launch a new “strategic dialogue” to promote bilateral exports and investment.
- This was the UK’s first bilateral agreement with an EU member State since Brexit. Customary cooperation in these sectors drove to improving the all-around bilateral relationship with Thursday’s MoU.
A raft of new standing meetings. Italy and the UK, reads the text, will hold annual 2+2 meetings on foreign and security policy at the ministerial and senior official level “between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and UK Ministry of Defence, on one side, and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Italian Ministry of Defence on the other.” They will also set up a Joint Strategic Security Committee between the Italian Interior Ministry and UK Home Office.
- Additionally, the capitals will conduct “regular meetings between Segredifesa III and UK Defence and Security Exports (UKDSE)” to improve their capability and industrial cooperation and identify common industrial defence goals and joint export strategies.
- London and Rome will also establish “a new High-Level Military Dialogue to support our common efforts to meet 21st Century challenges through the concomitant transformation of our Armed Forces, building on the annual Structured Dialogue on Defence and associated Implementation Roadmap.”
The GCAP dossier. At 10 Downing Street, the two leaders (inevitably) talked about the Global Combat Air Programme, a joint project between Japan, Italy, and the UK to develop the next-generation fighter aircraft by 2035. The plan involves combining the research conducted by Japan on the F-X jet and by Italy and the UK on the Tempest.
- The consortium must be organised as soon as possible, but there are some creases to iron. Italy does not want it to be based in the UK, while London is asking for a larger slice of the partnership – even larger than the country that will put up the most money, namely Japan, which has been Italy’s strategic partner since January.
- “We will jointly manage, in the spirit of equal partnership, the industrial, tactical and operational evolution, as well as the training aspects, required for the transition to the developing Global Combat Air Programme in close coordination with all partners,” reads the MoU.
- A trilateral meeting with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida on the matter might happen in three weeks’ time on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima. United States President Joe Biden will also attend the occasion, as Washington could become the GCAP’s biggest customer.
Bonus: Taiwan and China. The MoU reaffirms “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and encourages “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues without the threat or use of force or coercion,” as well as London and Rome’s “shared opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo.”
- “We will continue to raise concerns with China on its human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet and the continued erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy. We remain ready to work with China on global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity, global health issues and gender equality.”
Conservatives cosying up? There’s been growing harmony between PMs Meloni and Sunak since their first official meeting in November on the sidelines of the COP27 in Egypt. Above all, what unites them is their belonging to the conservative family. The two exchanged very warm words in front of the press: the latter said their values are “very aligned,” while the former praised him as a “strong and empathetic leader.”
- The British PM treated his Italian homologue to a visit to Westminster Abbey, which is seldom open to the public and is currently closed ahead of next week’s coronation of King Charles III.
- The visit has strong symbolic value, as Ms Meloni was the only head of government to see the coronation site, whose invitations are reserved for heads of State and, only secondarily, PMs.
- Also, the British government devoted over three hours to the Italian delegation – a record, said London – to highlight the attention and friendship between the two governments.
Next up. On Friday, PM Meloni will participate in a workshop on agribusiness along with Italy’s Agriculture Minister, Francesco Lollobrigida, who will be in London with a parallel agenda to promote the Made in Italy brand. It’s a chance for both to meet with representatives of the British government and the financial and business community.
- The MoU talks of establishing “an agriculture and nutrition working group to consult and exchange best practices on food security with the aim of strengthening the sustainability of our agro-food systems and reducing food loss and waste, improving production, and encouraging responsible investment.”
- PM Meloni will also receive the Grotius Prize from the Policy Exchange, a leading British think tank close to the conservatives; last year’s winner was Estonian PM, Kaja Kallas.
Stephen Booth, formerly head of Policy Exchange’s Britain in the World Project and now a researcher at the Council on Geostrategy, described PM Meloni as someone who’s shedding “the archetypal image of the European radical right, embodied by Marine Le Pen and [Matteo] Salvini,” and noting that fears that she would try to undermine the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were misplaced.