Will Europe’s Boot Point East or West?


TRIESTE, Italy — I love this place. I don’t know why. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t raised here, I’ve never lived or run away from here. I didn’t even fall in love here, strolling of an evening in the breathtaking Piazza Unità, one of its four sides gazing out to sea.

I think I like Trieste because it’s a boundary of geography, the mind and more. Tucked in Italy’s northeastern corner, it’s Latin, Germanic, Slavic. It’s Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish. It’s a place of literature and trade. The south stops here: The Adriatic Sea laps Europe’s shore, then decides it can’t go any further. The north stops here: The Karst plateau is a terrace for the Continent, and over the centuries the people of Vienna visited to enjoy the view. The east stops here: The sighs of Russia have never gone any farther. The west stops here: NATO bases ready to beat back invaders from the Warsaw Pact remain scattered around.

Trieste was created by the Hapsburg Empire, which owned little coast. In the early 1700s it was just a large village of fishermen, salters, market gardeners. The empire made it into a port, with a monopoly on imports and exports, privileged levies, soft railway tariffs — a world that wilted to a close a century ago. Since then, Trieste has been through an awful lot. It was won back by Italy in 1918, then chosen as Fascism’s iconic city. It was occupied by the Nazis in 1943, then taken by the Yugoslav Communists in 1945. In 1947, Trieste was put under Anglo-American military government; only in 1954 was it restored to the Italian state.

Today, at long last, it is a prosperous, peaceful European city. The seaport, shipbuilding, coffee and insurance companies and scientific research institutions provide employment for all. But it is a city forever shifting politically, sitting at the sliding fault line of European power.

More than anywhere else, Trieste reflects the choices before Italy now, under its new nationalist government. Consisting of two euro-skeptic parties, Lega and M5S, and unlike its predecessors, it appears firmly oriented to the East.

Trieste has always seen itself as a Western outpost and helped ferry people from borderlands like Istria and Dalmatia (now part of Croatia but where many Italians lived for centuries) to Italy and other European Union nations. The city has always been proud of that role and now struggles to keep up with developments.

Is the Italian government justlookingeastward, or is that where it’s heading?

On Aug. 28, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, was in Milan to welcome Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, who proclaimed his host “my hero.” A few days later, Lega deputies voted to support Budapest in the European Parliament, which was about to take measures against the Hungarian government’s anti-democratic activities.

The Italian government’s verbal support of Vladimir Putin of Russia has been frequent and without criticism. In May, Mr. Salvini called Mr. Putin “a leading statesman.” Contacts between Lega and United Russia, Mr. Putin’s party, are intense and continuous: conferences, congresses, meetings. Italy’s European affairs minister, Paolo Savona, is not only a renowned euro-skeptic, he is also anti-German and pro-Russian. In an interview before being appointed, he said: “Putin is a realist. He’s against a Europe that would damage him. And this Europe does.”

The new chairman of the Italian state television company RAI, the journalist Marcello Foa, like all his predecessors, was appointed by the ruling majority. He openly supports Mr. Putin and has often been a guest on RT, the Kremlin-financed television channel, where he defends Moscow on its Ukraine policies and other questions. On TV talk shows, intellectuals who side with the Italian government mention “Italy’s affinity with Russia” and demand the closing of American military bases. And there is no lack of support for Moscow among the opposition’s ranks. Silvio Berlusconi and the Russian president go back a long way, with Mr. Berlusconi often visiting Mr. Putin as well as having Mr. Putin over to his place in Sardinia.

For the moment, none of this has been followed up with major foreign policy shifts. Still, Italy’s traditional allies worry. A delegation from the American State Department is expected to pay a quiet visit soon to Rome to find out where Italy will stand in December, when the European Council must decide whether to continue sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. As things stand now, Eastern Europe’s authoritarians and Russia are mentioned, esteemed, admired and defended by Italy’s leaders at every turn.

Over the centuries, Trieste has learned to fear history’s watersheds, intuiting when uncertain times lie ahead. Does the East harbor ancient adversaries or newfound friends? For now, the new nationalist Italy is leaving neither the European Union nor the West, but if any steps have been taken to prepare for the future, they are in the direction of estrangement. The European elections in 2019 could cut Italy off at the pass — or bring in the cavalry.

At which point who knows where we will end up?


ByBeppe Severgnini

The New York Times

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