Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni leads a country facing a deluge of migrants from northern Africa, as well as an economy plagued by low growth and high youth unemployment. Meanwhile, Rome’s tumultuous political environment has led to a constant turnover of prime ministers — Gentiloni became the fifth in five years. Just before departing for the White House, where Gentiloni hoped (but failed) to win U.S. military assistance in Libya from President Trump, he spoke with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in Washington. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: What do you want from your meeting with the president?
A: It is very important to have good relations with the United States. We will also discuss how we can best use the meeting we will host of the G-7 in Sicily [in May]. Finally, we need to come up with a joint initiative on Libya.
Q: Are you worried about the protectionist aspect of the Trump administration and the talk of a proposed border tax on imports?
A: We are in favor of free trade. We are not particularly worried at the moment about the decisions that are being discussed in the U.S. But we will see.
Q: Will you talk about trade with the president?
A: It is more a cultural discussion for the moment than a discussion of specific measures we are worried about.
Q: In Libya, Russia is supporting Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is fighting the U.N.-backed coalition government based in Tripoli. The U.N. coalition seems to be weak.
A: It is very clear that we should avoid the division of Libya [so it does not become] a tool of external powers.
Q: Do you mean Russia?
A: Not only Russia but others. The Sunni world is very divided on the future of Libya, and many powers would not accept a Libyan government under the rule of Gen. Hifter.
Q: Who wouldn’t accept it?
A: For sure, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. Our way forward is to support the government in Tripoli and broker discussions with those that oppose it.
Q: So you don’t see Gen. Hifter as the next ruler of Libya?
A: Hifter should play a role, but he will not be the ruler of Libya.
Q: Some say Russia and ISIS are using Libya to push migrants into Europe. Do you believe that?
A: There was an attempt to build a stronghold of Daesh [the Arabic name for the Islamic State] in Libya, particularly in Sirte. Tripoli, supported by the U.S., defeated this. Now there is a genuine risk of instability and a failed state, [which would enable] traffickers and smugglers. They are the main reason for the migration route towards Italy and Europe. With the Tripoli authorities, we are trying to defeat them — training and assisting Libya’s newborn coast guard. We will deliver, this weekend, the first patrol boats to the Libyan coast guard, which is trained by our navy.
Q: Last year, 180,000 migrants arrived in Italy. In the first quarter of this year, the flow increased by at least 25 percent. It seems like the volume is rising. What are you going to do about this?
A: We need an alternative strategy. We are working on policies to return the refugees who come to Libya to the African countries from which they fled.
Q: I understand that 75 percent of the migrants from Libya are actually not citizens of Libya but are refugees from other countries.
A: Yes. You need the United Nations working to guarantee humanitarian conditions and [creating] return policies. We signed an agreement with Niger financing this operation with 50 million euros. The majority of the migrants from Libya trying to cross the sea come [through] Niger. It was difficult to reduce the flows in the Balkan routes, but the E.U. spent something like 6 billion euros. The E.U. commitment in North Africa is incomparable.
Q: Do you feel that the E.U. is not sharing the burden but leaving it all to Italy and Greece?
A: In a sense, yes. If you look at what the European migration policy was until two years ago, it was nothing, so something has been done. But if you look at the dimensions of the problem, very little has been done. The idea of sharing the burden is not yet accepted by many European countries.
Q: Should Italy stay in the E.U.?
A: We are staying in the E.U., but many things have to change.
Q: Germany is doing well, and many Europeans believe that Italy and other southern European countries are getting the short end of the stick.
A: We also have to get away from Europe’s current economic policies, which are anti-growth. Now is a positive moment because the European economy is recovering. We have a decent growth rate all over the E.U., and we need pro-growth measures.
Q: What do you mean by pro-growth measures? Stimulus?
A: Stimulus and budget rules that are more adequate to the necessity of stronger growth.
Q: Should Italy undertake deregulation?
A: No. We have some rules under discussion in the E.U. connected with the ratio of deficit to GDP.
Q: The 3 percent rule?
A: Yes. If you have decent growth and you squeeze it with severe [austerity] measures, the consequence will be that you will not have a positive result for jobs and for the middle class.
Q: So are you saying ease up on austerity?
A: We are doing reforms. . . . Italy has had a primary surplus for the last 15 years, and I think we are the only European economy with such a primary surplus. But we have the burden of our debt. To cope with the situation, we need some flexibility.
Q: What did you think of President Trump’s strikes on Syria and Afghanistan?
A: Our assessment of the situation in Syria was that it was a motivated decision after the use of chemical weapons. This was a war crime, and the message to President Bashar al-Assad was a positive one. But from our point of view, this does not mean you will get a military solution to the conflict in Syria.
Q: Does Assad have to go?
A: The issue is when. You can have a military solution to the Daesh presence in Raqqa but not to the Syrian crisis. You can react — correctly, as President Trump did — to horrible things like the use of chemical weapons. But then you have to have political negotiations and a transition. Some of our friends and allies say no negotiations before Assad has left power. We say, look, the Assad regime is there, and we have to negotiate with the regime. Assad is stronger than he was two years ago.
Q: Thanks to the Russians?
A: Thanks to the Russians, that is true.
Q: Are you worried about the rise of the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment political party, and of populism in Italy?
A: If I say that this is not a serious challenge, I would be wrong. But I am not worried that these kinds of movements can really win in my country. They will not win in any other European country. This is my opinion. In the last weeks and months, we had some risks in Austria and the Netherlands. Then reality showed that we have a pro-Europe majority. But this majority is under stress because Europe is failing to deliver on two main issues — migration policy and economic growth. If we don’t deliver on these two issues, I am not saying we will lose the government, because they are minority movements, but they will be stronger.
Q: Italy has very high youth unemployment — 35 percent.
A: Yes, especially the youth in the southern part of Italy.
Q: How do you encourage more growth when the U.S. is demanding that Italy spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense? Will you ask President Trump to let you increase defense spending slowly as your economy improves?
Q: But the new administration is saying: Increase your defense spending now.
A: We will gradually reach the goal.
Q: So will you say to President Trump that Italy will do it by 2024 but not now?
A: I am saying that we have a commitment and will respect the commitment gradually, with the timing that was decided at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014 . [Let’s not forget that] Italy is the fifth-largest contributor to NATO.
Q: Aren’t there 33,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Italy, and doesn’t the U.S. use five of Italy’s military bases for key operations?
A: Yes, and we are happy and proud to host them. It is part of the American strategy and presence in the southern part of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Q: Your president, Sergio Mattarella, just went to Moscow. What did Russian President Vladimir Putin tell him? What do you expect from the Italian-Russian relationship?
A: With Russia, [Europe needs] to maintain our unity. It is not always easy for us, because our economy and the German economy were the most affected by these sanctions against Russia [after the Ukraine invasion].
Q: Will Italy vote to renew sanctions in July?
A: We will maintain a common decision and not disrupt our unity. We have to show, if needed, that we are not weak.
Q: Former prime minister Matteo Renzi is reported to be staging a comeback. He is running for your party’s leadership in a contest to be decided April 30. Clearly he is thinking of becoming prime minister in the future. Do you have similar aspirations?
A: It is not up to me to decide this kind of thing. We will have elections next year, and the president of the republic is the one to make this decision. I am committed in these months to help my country in a moment that could be very productive for growth.