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Spain and Italy: present challenges and the European perspective

Conversation with Josep Piqué and Elisabetta Belloni
Rome, 18/01/2018, Meeting for The Aspen Junior Fellows

Aspen Institute Italia’s first event for 2018 prompted a cross-generational debate on the challenges facing Europe, examined from the Mediterranean perspective of Spain and Italy. The roundtable, which saw the participation of young members from Aspen Institute Italia and Aspen Institute España, took place eight days after the Summit of Southern European countries held in Rome. The final declaration of the Summit contained a precis of the numerous challenges to be addressed, with these also forming the subject of this debate. The matters discussed ranged from the lack of a shared response to the migratory pressures that Mediterranean countries are under to the difficulty of achieving the pervasive prosperity that lies at the heart of the European project.

It was observed that Spain and Italy, linked by great historical, cultural, and geographic affinities, share the same major problems: security, migration, and economic uncertainty (namely, poor growth and unemployment). Of late, the traditional cooperation between the two countries seems to have been yoked to more competitive approaches. On the other hand, it is notable that relations between European countries are increasingly being shaped by internal national divisions, a shift away from the longstanding cohesion generated by the bloc politics of the Cold War. The participants thus posed the question of how greater collaboration and cohesion might be restored, so that, for instance, Italy and Spain might arrive at a united position, vis-a-vis the European Union, in support of the relocations ordered by the European Council in 2015 to help Italy and Greece cope with the massive influx of migrants. It was specified that this issue turns not on refugees, but on economic migrants, a proportion of whom are illegal arrivals.

Indeed, sixty years on from the signing of the Treaty of Rome, 27-member Europe can find no consensus on the measures to adopt to resolve fundamental problems. One solution to this stalemate is a two-speed Europe, with a select vanguard of countries capable of agreeing on how to proceed to provide responses, "without waiting for everyone around the table to agree", as Macron stated at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. In particular, Italy, Spain, Germany, and France would form part of this vanguard. Questions were raised, however, as to whether this “variable geometry” Europe would not instead amount to a Franco-German axis, fueling further potential divergences, rather than a platform for rebuilding consensus without exclusions.

In a world that some have defined as post-Western, in which the center of gravity is shifting rapidly towards the Pacific, every single European country (Spain and Italy included) is relatively "small" as an economic, geographic, and demographic entity. It was suggested, however, that the importance of culture and education in enhancing the potential of individual countries on the international stage remains underestimated. It was accordingly felt that one option to pursue would be to share the best intellectual resources and skills available in the private sector within Italy and Spain. This entails creating partnerships between Italian and Spanish firms throughout the world, drawing inspiration from the great successes of European consortia, such as Airbus, and supporting a European energy market, with the aim of achieving energy independence, cost-effectiveness, and environmental sustainability. It also means enhancing and strengthening collaboration and exchanges between Europe and Latin America, in respect of which Spain and Italy could serve as natural catalysts and key players.

Other areas of collaboration between Spain and Italy that were the subject of debate included education and health, as well as security (PESCO), the latter with a view to creating a European Defense Union, increased integration of armed forces, and the establishment of rapid response units. It was submitted that such efforts could have a positive impact on the perceptions of EU citizens, signaling a return to the founding values of Europe: security, border defense, and more effective collaboration within the NATO sphere. In the context of security and the protection of democratic processes, the participants also emphasized the risk of cyberattacks and the need for greater information exchange, together with the standardization across Europe of products and procedures to combat this threat.

Lastly, the case of Catalonia was viewed as warranting careful consideration, as the Spanish crisis was also considered to be one for Europe as well. Indeed, the ability of leaders to strike a balance between adhering to constitutional laws, adapting them to changed circumstances, and the numerical split of a society in two, will be measured against the handling of this crisis.