Unlike the French, Italy backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; it has troops in Afghanistan and, unlike Germany, it supported – though with some foot-dragging – military intervention in Libya in 2011. Italy’s foreign policy has long been founded on supporting its western allies in times of need.
But electoral considerations have trumped solidarity with France over Mali, forcing an embarrassing u-turn.
Mario Monti’s foreign and defence ministers last month pledged logistical help in the form of transport planes and refuelling for the French. “We are beside you, Paris,” newspapers proclaimed. But on Sunday, in Paris, Italy’s technocrat prime minister had to explain to François Hollande that no such support would be forthcoming after all.
Franco Frattini, former foreign minister and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party, is particularly disappointed, having passed a resolution in parliament on January 22 – with support from members of the centre-left Democrats and the centrist UDC – that backed Italian logistical intervention.
“Because of the election campaign we run the risk of not fulfilling our European duties of solidarity,” Mr Frattini told the FT.
Mr Frattini does not blame Mr Monti as such, pointing out that the appointed technocrat government – which depends on the support of the main parties – would have had to pass another resolution in parliament to commit help to France, and that it appeared that Mr Frattini’s own party, the People of Liberty (PDL), was in the end reluctant to do so.
“When I presented my resolution the PDL did not raise objections. I suspect someone warned Monti ‘You will pay the price,’” Mr Frattini added.
But the suspicion remains – among Italian and foreign diplomats – that Mr Monti might have taken a more resolute stance if he were not also campaigning for election. Asked if that were so, Mr Frattini replied: “I think so”, then added it would still have been difficult to get parliamentary support.
For his part Mr Monti, in a television interview last week before flying to Paris, blamed his change of course on the political parties. “They said ‘no’, or expressed great caution,” he said, adding that he was sure that president Hollande would understand the “political rhythms” of Italy’s election context.
The centre-left Democrats testily replied that they had indeed given their backing to limited and defined logistical support. Officials of Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty did not respond to questions on the subject.
Meanwhile the election campaign moves on, dominated by Mr Berlusconi’s promises of tax cuts and a limited tax amnesty. Foreign policy, it appears, is not an issue.