Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta contemplates a post-Covid-19 multilateral future

Pope Francis talks with Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta before boarding a plane at Fiumicino airport in Rome in July 2013 to join more than 300,000 young people for World Youth Day in Brazil. (CNS photo/Giampiero Spo sito, ReutersPope Francis talks with Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta before boarding a plane at Fiumicino airport in Rome in July 2013 to join more than 300,000 young people for World Youth Day in Brazil. (CNS photo/Giampiero Spo sito, Reuters)

“I believe the world needs a new trans-Atlantic relationship. The pandemic has shown this very clearly and has highlighted the great importance of the Nov. 3 election in the United States,” a former Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, said in a wide-ranging interview with America.

He spoke with optimism about Italy as it prepares to ease the lockdown caused by the pandemic and discussed the role of Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia today in the building of the post-Covid-19 world. He sees a great need to rebuild multilateralism at a global level.

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Mr. Letta, 53, is married to an Italian journalist with whom he has three sons. He has held various ministerial posts in the Italian government, including that of prime minister (2013 to 2014), and also served as an elected member of the European Parliament. He is currently dean of the School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris and the first non-American president of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.

We began by talking about Italy, a nation of 60 million people and the European country that has suffered the most from the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 200,000 people infected and 27,000 dead. Notwithstanding this suffering and Italy’s grave socioeconomic situation, Mr. Letta sees three “signs of optimism and hope” as the country begins to exit its lockdown on May 4.

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The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated how important it is “to give power to the supra-national institutions,” he said, suggesting that E.U. member states “take a step back in favor of the multilateral institutions.”

He believes the government made “an excellent choice” in nominating Vittorio Colao, 58, former C.E.O. of the Vodafone Group, as head of the task force for restarting the country, and he is impressed by “the demonstration of great seriousness with which the Italians have respected the lockdown rules, staying closed in their homes, respecting this complicated relation between generations that the virus has created, seeking to protect as far as possible the weakest persons.”

Indeed, he said, “I have seen an Italy where people show that they respect much more the rules than the image Italians normally tend to give, and this bodes well for the reopening.”

He finds a third “key factor for optimism” in the role played by the European Union, “which has given important, positive signs” by proposing a recovery fund for member states most affected by the pandemic. But, he cautioned, “we have to wait until May 6 when the Recovery Fund package is presented” to see whether the E.U.’s collective response will be better than it was during the economic crisis of 2008 and the debt shock of 2012.

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Pope Francis, in his “Urbi et Orbi” message at Easter, emphasized the need for E.U. member states to rediscover the spirit of solidarity that marked Western Europe at the end of World War II. Asked why it is so difficult to recover that solidarity today, Mr. Letta explained that post-war Europe was composed of a small collective of nations. The contemporary union is much bigger, with 27 member states that have “many differences, many cleavages—East and West, North [and] South.” Moreover, the European Union has become “too much an intergovernmental Europe,” leaving little room for communitarianism, he said.

“The member states have become too important in the leadership of Europe and the communitarian institutions have lost ground, especially the European Commission.”

Mr. Letta sees this as “the key to the E.U.’s institutional crisis because institutions count” and institutional advocates can lead reform. “Europe has become too much in the hands of the [governments of the] member states,” he said, describing that as a problem “at a time when great solidarity is needed” because “when all are in difficulty, each one thinks of their own citizens, their own electors.”

Enrico Letta: The pandemic has highlighted the need for a new trans-Atlantic relationship and “shown the great importance of the November election in the United States.”

The current crisis has demonstrated how important it is “to give power to the supra-national institutions,” he said, suggesting that E.U. member states “take a step back in favor of the multilateral institutions and in particular the [European] Commission and the Central European Bank.”

Rarely has the world needed solid global leadership as much as it does now, but many find it lacking at precisely this moment. Mr. Letta recognizes this as a problem. “Pope Francis is perhaps the only real leader in the world today,” he said, “and he’s doing a great deal.” Indeed, “I think his leadership has grown a lot in this period in the sense that his great capacity for empathy and communication has been exalted at this moment of confinement, lockdown and great difficulty for people.”

Mr. Letta suggested that the power of the images of Pope Francis on the steps of St. Peter’s on March 27 will remain in history, “as will the force of the messages he launched, uniting the image of solitude, the empty square, with a message which could hardly be more powerful than that ‘no one is saved alone.’ This was an exceptional message! And this has given rise to the necessity to reflect on these things.”

He added, “Pope Francis, who is a great communicator, has been able to live this entire moment intensely and, in part, that has enabled him in the background to overcome somewhat the negative image that was constructed in these last years due to a wave of scandals linked to pedophilia and church finances. This is greatly fortunate for the church and has brought it back to its moral leadership [role] and that seems to me something positive.”

Less positive has been the role of political leaders, Mr. Letta acknowledged, “struggling today” across the world, but he defended European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and prime ministers Giuseppe Conte of Italy, Pedro Sanchez of Spain and Antonio Costa of Portugal. He claimed they “are working much better than those of many other countries,” including Presidents Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom.

“One of the lessons that comes out from this crisis is that political leaders must trust the technicians and the scientists,” Letta said, “but at the same time the decisions have to be political ones.”

Mr. Letta emphasized, however, that “politics has been weakened because competence has not been the principal characteristic with which political leaders are chosen, and today we pay heavily the consequences of this.” He underlined the need for a rethinking of the importance of political leadership and for much greater preparation for leadership roles.

“One of the lessons that comes out from this crisis is that political leaders must trust the technicians and the scientists,” he said, “but at the same time the decisions have to be political ones. One cannot throw all the responsibility on the technicians or the scientists.”

He noted that while “the decision about the closure seemed to be difficult, the decision about re-opening is showing itself to be much more difficult. Closing is a decision of responsibility to protect people, save lives.” But reopening, he said, would be a question of preventing the collapse of national economies, a political catastrophe that would drag down the health care sector with it at a time when it is most needed.

Reflecting on the kind of world he sees emerging from this global crisis, Mr. Letta identified three important requisites: the need to build a new trans-Atlantic relationship, re-establish multilateralism at a global level and rethink the current structure of globalization.

He believes a new transatlantic alliance is warranted because of the breakdown in collaboration between the European Union, Great Britain and the United States in recent years, culminating in the fact that collaboration was “non-existent” when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, allowing China and Russia to step in.

National borders “do not exist for the pandemic, no more than they exist for corruption and the other challenges we face.”

“This crisis poses a significant challenge: how to reshape the trans-Atlantic community,” he said, “how to bring together the three protagonists of the trans-Atlantic relationship—Brussels, London, Washington—because I believe the world needs a new trans-Atlantic relationship. The pandemic has highlighted this clearly and has shown the great importance of the Nov. 3 election in the United States.”

In this context too, he emphasized, “the need to rethink the relationship with Great Britain because, frankly, this is very complex and very difficult.”

Mr. Letta emphasized the importance of rebuilding the multilateralism that has declined so much in recent years, pointing out that despite the European Union’s many critics, “The only multilateralism that functions today is that of the European Union...linked to a large extent to the Italian situation.”

“The inadequacy of the role of the United Nations and of all the other multilateral subjects has emerged clearly,” during the crisis, he said, adding that “while they have to take some of the blame for this,” the fact is they have been “hard hit by the rise of nationalism that has taken root everywhere and has become particularly insistent.”

Mr. Letta identified a third requisite for the building the post-Covid-19 world in the need “to rethink our future in relation to globalization.” He recalled that the present crisis has touched everyone and provoked “gut reactions” from politicians with calls “to close the frontiers, build walls, return to the nation, have less exchanges,” and “as a result globalization is in crisis.”

Enrico Letta: “Another four years of Trump could lead Europe into a marriage with China.”

But these “gut reactions” have given rise to “all the wrong responses” in places like Hungary, Austria and even the European Union, he said, because “this is a crisis that has accelerated globalization. It is a crisis that has risen from the fact that frontiers do not exist for the pandemic, no more than they exist for corruption and the other challenges we face.”

Mr. Letta labeled these reactions as “responses for frightened, weakened people rather than [rational] responses to what’s happening.

“Globalization is not dead,” he said, adding that national borders “exist much more in our heads but much less in reality.”

Mr. Letta confessed that he’s “deeply concerned by the growth of Euro-skepticism in Italian polls,” citing a recent poll that from the European Post that found that respondents listed China, Russia and the United States “in that order” as the countries that are “friends of Italy,” while naming Germany and France as “enemy countries” because they have been perceived as not helping during the crisis. He argued that such reactions are “not justified because Europe is doing so much for Italy.”

China has been criticized by Mr. Trump and some politicians in Europe who blame it for covering up the initial coronavirus crisis then taking advantage of its arrival in other countries for its own political goals. But Mr. Letta valued China’s commitment to multilateralism, calling its role “essential for the future of the world.”

He noted that China supports the Paris Accord on the climate, “which is so important and from which the U.S. has exited.”

“I consider it fundamental and important to keep China within this system of multilateral relations,” he said.

Mr. Letta acknowledged that “one has to be very attentive of Chinese politics because their politics are so different to ours,” but he insisted, “I do not think we should make China the scapegoat and mount a new Cold War narrative with China, which substitutes for that of the Soviet Union.”

At the same time, he thinks “another four years of Trump could lead Europe into a marriage with China.”

Mr. Letta is not so concerned about Russia’s role today because that country “is in very great difficulty because of decarbonization,” and this difficulty “will be accelerated” by the decline in the use of fossil fuels. He believes this “will cause a great drama for a country that did not make the economic transformation of its economy when it had the money to do so and which today is living with a demographic collapse and an economy that is totally based on income from resources that will collapse too.”

He views Russia as “very weak, fragile and full of difficulties that will gradually emerge.”

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