The NATO member may not spend much on defense, but it’s nonetheless pulling a lot of the EU’s weight. It’s time we gave the Italian’s some respect.
On the face of it, Italy is a woeful member of NATO, spending just 1.11 percent of GDP on defense — far below the alliance’s 2 percent benchmark. Only seven NATO countries spend less. But take a close look at the country’s contribution to European security and a rather different picture emerges.
Between January and June of this year, Italy’s coast guard rescued 21,540 migrants from 188 vessels, while the Italian navy brought 3,344 migrants to safety and its financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, saved nearly 400.
Add to that Italian troops serving on NATO and U.N. missions in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as well as the country’s participation in Operation Sophia, an EU naval mission that has rescued 5,676 migrants since the beginning of the year, and it becomes clear that Italy has become Europe’s policeman.
“Yes, you can measure defense spending, but it can’t be the only metric,” said Stefano Stefanini, an Italian former ambassador to NATO. “In providing security, deployability and operations matter more than budgets.”
Italy’s coast guard conducts migrant rescue missions that often take its vessels far beyond waters normally considered coast guard territory. So does the Italian navy, even though search and rescue are not part of a navy’s normal tasks. The Guardia di Finanza’s mission is to intercept smugglers of drugs and money, not save asylum seekers.
But with people-smugglers callously overfilling their leaky vessels with people desperate to reach Italy, and with the Libyan government only now starting to assist, it would be unethical to do nothing. So the Italian armed forces rescue the migrants.
In the waters of the Mediterranean, human decency gives the Italians little choice. But their troops participate in many other missions from which Italy could reasonably ask to be excused. According to figures assembled by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), a Rome-based think tank, last year a total of 6,092 Italian troops served on international missions in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan. Some 600 Italians serve in Kosovo; another 1,100 in Lebanon. Italian troops are stationed in Libya and Somalia, too.
Counting Italian officers embedded with other countries’ armed forces, the figure exceeds 7,000. This year, another 140 Italians deployed to Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative. With deployment rotations — each foreign deployment position is typically filled by four service members in rotation — that means more than 28,000 Italian troops are involved in international operations.
“Today’s situation is more complicated than war or peace,” said a high-ranking official in the Italian Ministry of Defense. “We’re stabilizing an entire region.”
Last year, the international missions cost the Italian government more than €1 billion, according to IAI. And that doesn’t count the cost of the navy, coast guard and Guardia di Finanza search and rescue missions.
But here’s the paradox: all of these efforts don’t show up in NATO statistics. As a result, a country such as Greece looks like a star member of the alliance thanks to its annual defense expenditure of 2.4 percent of GDP. Though Greece rescues migrants off its coasts, it is not participating in any current EU or NATO military missions.
NATO’s statistics measure how much a member spends on defense, how much is spent in personnel and how much on equipment. But they don’t show how much a country spends on NATO-related activities.
“In addition, some countries put everything they can into the defense budget in order to approach the 2 percent target,” said Stefanini. “But Italy doesn’t; in fact, it plays down what it does in defense for domestic policy reasons.” A large part of the Italian electorate supports the political left and would be unhappy with increased defense spending.
It’s high time Italy’s allies — particularly in the EU — recognize the country’s contributions to regional security.
Many countries are, in fact, getting away with doing close to nothing to shore up Europe’s south in the knowledge that the Italians will take care of it
To be sure, it is in Italy’s interest to stabilize not only the waters surrounding it but the countries too: another exodus of Kosovars would be difficult to handle, not to mention an even larger influx of asylum seekers travelling via Libya. Lebanon faces a potentially explosive situation involving, among other things, spillover from Syria.
But the issues to which Italy devotes manpower and resources — stability in the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa — have implications that spread far beyond the country’s borders. And migration in particular has EU-wide consequences as few of those crossing the Mediterranean do so intending to stay in Italy.
“We’re trying to make allies aware of the threats coming from the southern flank,” said the Ministry of Defense official. “These threats are moving towards all of Europe.”
“No country can guarantee European security alone,” the official added.
Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, does conduct migrant response operations in the Mediterranean, and NATO’s Sea Guardian mission polices the sea. But so far most of Italy’s allies have been content to leave the country to bear the bulk of the southern flank responsibilities — and the costs of doing so.
Many countries are, in fact, getting away with doing close to nothing to shore up Europe’s south in the knowledge that the Italians will take care of it.
By Elisabeth Braw, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.