In the crucial years 1989–1990, the Italian diplomacy backed two major initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe: the previously mentioned “Adriatic Initiative”, focused on environmental issues and infrastructure development like the Pan-European Corridor No.
5 through a motorway network and fast train connection to Hungary and Yugoslavia, and the already discussed “Quadrangular Initiative”, focused on economic and diplomatic cooperation among member states. According to Antonio Varsori, the vaguely conceived
“Adriatic Initiative” was only aimed at calming down Belgrade and the Serbian leadership in Yugoslavia. From 1990 onwards, the attention of the Italian Government was diverted from Central and Eastern Europe to other crisis flashpoints (Iraq; the German reunification and the new European architecture; the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the final crisis of the Soviet Union). The Adriatic Cooperation disappeared from the diplomatic schedule in 1991, while the Yugoslav crisis started to escalate and the Italian stakeholders showed disagreement over how to handle a conflict that triggered the Italian border area.
On the contrary, the Quadrangular Initiative started as a great success and became
“Pentagonal” in 1990 with the inclusion of Czechoslovakia, and “Exagonal” in 1991 with the adhesion of Poland. As De Michelis explicitly admitted in a later interview, the Italian plan was to become a regional player in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe, taking the lead from Germany. The Quadrangular Initiative aimed at helping the Euro Atlantic integration of Central European post-communist countries; linking the Danube region with Northern Italy and the Alps; and last but not least favouring Italian investments and the Italian economic leadership in the region. The political structure followed the model of “soft power” or soft institutionalisation as defined by Joseph Nye (Nye 1990). In 1992, Quadrangolare became a “Central European Initiative” (CEI), with the inclusion of Slovenia,
14 AGA, Serie Europa, Busta 382. Vertici Europei 1989–1990. Telegramma da Segretario generale Ministero degli Esteri. Urgentissimo, Roma 16 novembre 1989. Oggetto: Collaborazione quadrangolare.
Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. The initial focus on economy and infrastructures shifted towards political cooperation and minority rights issues (on Hungarian initiative). Its declared aim became the implementation of the third priority of the post-Cold War Italian foreign policy: NATO, Mediterranean area, and Central-Eastern Europe from the Adriatic See to the Carpathians. A former Italian diplomat called the CEI a “useful instrument of foreign policy” (Ferraris 2001). At that time, however, the appeal of this Italian diplomatic initiative had radically decreased, contributing to downgrade it to a not more than formal multilateral forum. What might have been the reasons for such a failure? Even if the systematic analysis of the evolution of the Italian political system and of the path of the European integration from 1989 to the early 2000s goes beyond the scope of this paper, I would like to close my contribution with some tentative answers and research hypotheses.
To start with, the Italian Ostpolitik formulated in the late 1980s very ambitious and comprehensive goals, and was left soon out of soft power and financial resources to be successfully implemented. After a promising start in 1989–1990, Italy failed to consistently put into effect its soft power in the region, and ultimately lost competitiveness to Germany even in those countries, like Hungary, where Italy enjoyed wide sympathy, and the Italian businessmen held strong position on the eve of the privatisation process. The Italian lack of capacity to manage and coordinate the economic Drang nach Osten of the early 1990s was coupled with Germany’s international and regional comeback after the successful reunification in 1990. Germany’s economic hegemony over Europe has been “unintended”
and probably “unwanted”, as Wolfgang Streek has recently claimed, but it happened indeed and represents today a common burden for the European people (Streek 2015). Italy was the most affected country by this change of leadership originated from the 1992–1993 internal crisis and anti-corruption campaign. From a systemic perspective, this largely self-inducted collapse has brought to a creative destruction but also left the country unprotected vis-à-vis the European competitors. From that moment on, Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe as a whole have almost disappeared from the map of the Italian geopolitical priorities. It is high time to start a pragmatic reset of this interrupted albeit essential relationship.
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