Isabelle Younane reports from this year’s Pontignano Conference on the latest evidence of the views of young Italians and how Italy and the UK can cooperate in the future.
Next Generation Italy
Young Italians appear to be dissatisfied, but willing to push for change. The British Council’s upcoming Next Generation Italy research, due to be launched in January 2020, has not yet been fully analysed, but preliminary findings shows strong similarities with the views of young Britons and suggest an appetite for cooperation with the UK.
Italy’s young people, as demonstrated in the British Council’s recent Powers of Attraction report, are open to cross-border collaboration – with ‘cooperation and tolerance’ emerging as the second most important value among young people – and they are attracted to the UK. In terms of issues the world is facing, they highlighted many cross-border problems including extremism, migration, and climate change. Again, these concerns were very similar to those expressed by young people from the UK.
Young Italians like and trust the UK, which ranks as the major European country they find most attractive, well above France and Germany. This attraction is reciprocal. In turn, young people in the UK identified Italy as the most attractive non-English speaking country amongst the G20, again above France and Germany.
This suggests that international cooperation between Italy and the UK to help address major shared and global challenges is likely to continue to be popular, in spite of what some have perceived as a growing nativist reaction to globalisation, manifested in Italy by the recent electoral success of non-traditional political parties which many have described as ‘populist’.
There is a real appetite for continued close engagement on global issues between Italy and the UK after Brexit
This finding may be important, given the cross-border nature of those challenges. It also suggests there is a real appetite for continued close engagement on global issues between Italy and the UK after Brexit.
Meanwhile, the Next Generation Italy research suggests that only 56.8% of young Italians report satisfaction with their personal wellbeing – 27% points fewer than their EU peers. Faith in the EU and the Media is relatively low, on 54%, and 47% respectively, starting higher but steeply declining as people start to get older. Young people from Italy appear to be less trusting in formal national institutions and more likely to protest or sign a petition than those in other countries. Over twice as many have joined a public demonstration as their EU peers.
Similar distrust and dissatisfaction is evident amongst young people in the UK, according to the British Council's recent, though not directly comparable, Next Generation UK report.
Everything has to change so that everything can remain the same
Against this backdrop, this year’s Pontignano – a flagship bilateral conference in Siena co-hosted by the British Council and the UK Embassy – looked at some of the strategic issues facing the two countries, covering a range of cross-border issues such as migration and climate change. But underlining this was a broader question: what does the future hold for the rules-based international system, and the liberal values that underpin it?
High-level delegates from both countries, including Parliamentarians and senior diplomats, discussed whether the liberal system is really in some cases slowly deteriorating, to be replaced by rising nationalist sentiment, the growing appeal of populist leaders, and more inward-looking policies. The concept of a multilateral order appears to many to be losing popularity, with Western elites failing to respond imaginatively to the pace of change that globalisation has produced.
Specifically, it was suggested that states have failed to: (1) anticipate and swiftly respond to the rapid rise in China’s economic power, and (2) ensured fair wealth distribution within Western societies and curb the unfair behaviours of multinational corporations – cultivating a growing belief that globalisation works for the few, not the many.
Democracy suddenly looks a lot less appealing when prosperous societies seem to be managing just fine (or even better) without it. Faced with this apparent public loss of faith in the rules-based international system, the question becomes: should we prop up this system, or try to create something new from the ashes?
Delegates argued that the perceived absence of a coherent set of values among Western nations opens up a vacuum of influence for others to fill. Democracy suddenly looks a lot less appealing when prosperous societies seem to be managing just fine (or even better) without it.
Faced with this apparent public loss of faith in the rules-based international system, the question becomes: should we prop up this system, or try to create something new from the ashes?
A number of delegates agreed that our fragmented world is likely to move away from multilateralism and towards a ‘partnerships’ approach to international relations, with medium-sized states like the UK and Italy building temporary coalitions around shared interests. The two countries’ collaboration on next year’s Climate Summit (COP26) is an example of how this might work.
For this ‘partnerships’ approach to succeed, it was suggested, economies like the UK and Italy need to play to their strengths, rather than getting embroiled what many perceived to be the increasingly transactional approach to international relations adopted by major world powers. Focusing foreign policy purely on defence and trade could, it was argued, put the UK and Italy on the defensive, when they are both world-leaders for attractiveness and the projection of their cultural strengths.
European countries, many felt, have the potential to provide a ‘third pillar’ between North America and rising Asia, but only if they can coalesce around the values that unite this cluster of disparate nations and promote them effectively abroad, including through softer approaches such as cultural relations and international standard-setting – positioning themselves as trusted partners with which to do business and visit.
A form of rules-based international order, it was agreed, will be essential to avoid major conflict between traditional and emerging powers. The ability of European nations to work together to preserve the ‘values community’ – whether via existing mechanisms or through new partnerships – will be essential to both the preservation of a rules-based international system, and to the continuation of those European countries’ influence in the world.
Italian and British delegates agreed that people in both countries should look beyond Brexit and internal political turmoil, and identify the long-term values that unite the two countries. Cooperation at the COP26 climate summit is a valuable first step, but leaders must look for further opportunities to reinvigorate young people’s trust in institutions and in the rules-based order at large.
If they can do that, the latest evidence on the enthusiasm of young people in both countries to cooperate on such issues is a positive foundation. And the mutual sense of attraction between the UK and Italy is an excellent sign for the future.
Isabelle Younane, Policy and External Relations Office, British Council