Rome’s EUR neighbourhood takes centre stage at the G20 summit in the city this weekend, almost 80 years after its original intention as the home of the 1942 edition of the world Expo.
That never took place because of the Second World War.
Now, leaders will meet in the district, created by Benito Mussolini to glorify his fascist regime and its links with ancient Rome.
Like the EUR, the summit is an opportunity for the Italian government led by former ECB chief Mario Draghi to promote itself internationally.
Mr Draghi wants Rome and the EUR to become the stage to tell the world that Italy is back.
Before he became prime minister last February, Italy’s foreign policy was out of step with much of western Europe.
The 2018 elections gave a majority of seats in Parliament to two populist parties: the Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian and Sinophile Beppe Grillo, and the League led by nationalist Matteo Salvini, an admirer of Vladimir Putin who, in a 2018 tweet, called the Russian President “one of the best politicians of our time”.
In March 2019, Italy signed a deal on the Belt and Road Initiative with China, and in the darkest moments of the Covid-19 pandemic, it gratefully welcomed help from Beijing and Moscow.
But things have changed since Mr Draghi has been in charge, with Rome now firmly back in the West’s camp.
An analyst working for companies in northern Italy said: “The Italian economic elite is pro-West, and Draghi is an expression of that elite. I remember the astonishment of an Italian bank’s board member in the fall of 2018 when I told him that the populist government included forces favourable to a repositioning of Italy on the geopolitical chessboard.”
Today the M5S – or Five Star Movement party – is led by Giuseppe Conte, who has become openly pro-EU and cooler towards China. In February, Mr Salvini said, “We must look at democracy and the West and the liberties of the West.”
The transformation of the two populist parties is at least partly due to Mr Draghi, who has excellent relations with US leaders and is adamantly pro-EU – the European Central Bank is one of the few organisations on the continent for which May 9, the little-known EU holiday, is a holiday.
“Draghi realises that Europeanism and Atlanticism are part of an investment that Italy must support and renew,” said Marco Follini, former deputy prime minister. “In recent years, part of the political class showed nearsightedness imagining Italy projected out of the EU and Nato area; another part believed that belonging to that area was in itself a guarantee that needed no nurturing.”
Andrea Ceron, professor of political science at the University of Milan, said, “the traditional pillars of Italy’s foreign policy are prevailing with the Draghi-led government, ie, the preferential relationship with the USA, and the usual good relations with the Middle East, starting from Egypt”.
Mr Draghi knows that the West can no longer dictate the world’s agenda and that Rome has to deal with Turkey and Russia in the Mediterranean, and with China at the global level. As former prime minister Romano Prodi did in 2006, Mr Draghi bets on multilateralism, adding two adjectives that speak volumes: strong and pragmatic. A multilateralism that, rather than looking at the UN, focuses on the dialogue between the global and regional players, such as the US, the EU, China, Russia and India, and addresses internationally relevant issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, the situation in Libya and Afghanistan.
“With Draghi Italy is back, although our country still lacks a vision and a strategy to play a leading role in some dossiers on the Mediterranean and the Middle East,” says Silvia Colombo, a senior fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. On Mr Draghi’s recent phone call with Mr Putin about Libya, she says: “Today you cannot think of closing the doors to Russia, it would mean cutting off a fundamental counterpart. The same goes for China, a key player in the Gulf.”
Rome has also been more active in the EU in recent months. “Draghi enjoys great credibility in Europe and he is playing a role of substitute leadership in an EU that has lost Angela Merkel, becoming a figure of reference,” says Riccardo Brizzi, professor of contemporary history at the University of Bologna. “He proved it at the European Council of October 22 when he raised his voice on the migrant issue, closing to the hypothesis of funding walls on the EU’s external borders and to changes to Schengen Agreement.”
Whether this will be enough for Italy to be stronger in the global arena is another matter.
The summit – the first in-person gathering of leaders of the world’s biggest economies since the Covid-19 pandemic started – is not business as usual. That is especially true because as soon as the event ends, a bigger UN summit devoted to climate change begins in Glasgow, Scotland.
The leaders of Russia and China are not coming. Turkey nearly set off a diplomatic incident on the eve of the meeting. And the US, Australia and France will be at the same table for the first time since Washington pulled the rug out from under Paris’ $66 billion submarine deal with the Australians.
In many ways, the two-day G20 meeting is serving as a Roman holiday preamble to the 12-day Glasgow summit.
While economic recovery is a top agenda item, setting a shared, mid-century deadline to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and explore a commitment to reduce methane emissions will be vital.
Mr Draghi, who helped save the euro with his now-famous promise to do “whatever it takes’,’ will have his hands full trying to steer the meeting to nudge some solid climate commitments before Glasgow while negotiating a new era for European multilateralism.
G20 meets in the shadow of Mussolini’s palaces
The summit of the world’s major economies will be held away from Rome’s city centre, home to the Colosseum and the Pantheon, where the tourists, historic buildings and tiny streets pose a nightmare for security and access.
Instead, leaders will gather in a futuristic convention centre known as the Nuvola, meaning “cloud”, featuring a suspended structure inside a glass and steel box, in a southern suburb called EUR with more easily policed boulevards and its own unique charm.
Military personnel on the city’s streets have been increased by 500 and additional measures, such as increased airspace surveillance and defence have been introduced.
EUR, which stands for Esposizione Universale Romana, or Rome World Expo, was conceived in the 1930s as a showcase for modernist architecture and as the home of the 1942 expo.
The event, which would have coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fascist regime, never took place due to the outbreak of war. The conflict also forced Mussolini’s architects to leave EUR half-finished.
Located in the southern outskirts of Rome, between the centre and the seaside suburb of Ostia, EUR is characterised by monumental buildings in white marble and travertine stone, typical of the fascist era.
Its best-known landmark is the so-called Square Colosseum, a white cube with arches originally meant to host the Palace of Italian Civilisation, and now the headquarters of Italian fashion house Fendi.
On its four sides, the building bears an inscription taken from a 1935 Mussolini speech celebrating Italians as “a people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, navigators and transmigrants”.
Fascist propaganda is also on display at the Palazzo Uffici, which has at its entrance a giant bas-relief of the history of Rome that starts with Romulus and Remus and ends with Mussolini on horseback, his right arm raised in a fascist salute.
Today, EUR is a residential and business area hosting the headquarters of the ENI energy group and of several other public and private institutions, plus museums, concert halls and an artificial lake popular with locals in the summer.
But in the immediate post-war years, it resembled a ghost town, with abandoned buildings occupied by refugees.
Construction was completed in the 1950s and 1960s after Roman authorities decided to turn the area into an edge-of-town business district that became a model for London’s Docklands and La Defense in Paris.
The Nuvola, which was recently used as a coronavirus vaccination centre, added a flavour of contemporary architecture to its modernist surroundings when it was inaugurated in 2016, after years of delays and overrunning costs.
It was designed by Italian architect couple Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas. The former is one of the giants of contemporary Italian architecture, with projects including the Shenzhen Bao’an airport in China and Ferrari’s ultra-modern headquarters.Internet Explorer Channel Network