Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella address a joint press conference following their meeting on March 22, 2019 at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, as part of Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Italy. (AFP)
Updated 24 March 2019

Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

ROME: Italy endorsed China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan on Saturday, becoming the first major Western power to back the initiative to help revive the struggling Italian economy.
Saturday’s signing ceremony was the highlight of a three-day trip to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two nations boosting their ties at a time when the United States is locked in a trade war with China.
The rapprochement has angered Washington and alarmed some European Union allies, who fear it could see Beijing gain access to sensitive technologies and critical transport hubs.
Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio played down such concerns, telling reporters that although Rome remained fully committed to its Western partners, it had to put Italy first when it came to commercial ties.
“This is a very important day for us, a day when Made-in-Italy has won, Italy has won and Italian companies have won,” said Di Maio, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the Italian government in a Renaissance villa.
Taking advantage of Xi’s visit, Italian firms inked deals with Chinese counterparts worth an initial 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion). Di Maio said these contracts had a potential, future value of 20 billion euros.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.
The United States worries that it is designed to strengthen China’s military influence and could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.
WARM WELCOME
Italy’s populist government, anxious to lift the economy out of its third recession in a decade, dismissed calls from Washington to shun the BRI and gave Xi the sort of red-carpet welcome normally reserved for its closest allies.
Some EU leaders also cautioned Italy this week against rushing into the arms of China, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on Friday that relations with Beijing must not be based primarily on trade.
There was not even universal backing for the BRI agreement within Italy’s ruling coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League, warning against the risk of China “colonialising” Italian markets.
Salvini did not meet Xi and declined to attend a state dinner held in honor of the visiting leader on Friday.
Di Maio, who leads the 5-Star Movement, says Italy is merely playing catch up, pointing to the fact that it exports significantly less to China than either Germany or France.
Italy registered a trade deficit with China of 17.6 billion euros last year and Di Maio said the aim was to eliminate the deficit as soon as possible.
After talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Di Maio in the morning, Xi flew to the Sicilian city Palermo for a private visit on Saturday afternoon.
He is due to head to Monte Carlo on Sunday before finishing his brief tour of Europe in France, where he is due to hold talks with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


EU ‘has upper hand in Brexit trade talks with UK’

Updated 8 min 54 sec ago

EU ‘has upper hand in Brexit trade talks with UK’

PLACE: Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the EU will have the upper hand in trade talks with the UK as the bloc’s chief negotiator warned of the risk of a disruptive cliff-edge Brexit for business at the end of the year.

Britain leaves the EU on Friday and the two sides will formally begin trade talks in the coming weeks during a “business as usual” transition period that ends in December.

Varadkar, in an interview with the BBC, compared the two sides to soccer teams and suggested that the EU would have the “stronger team” due to its larger population and market. 

He also questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s timetable of striking a deal by the end of the year, the BBC reported.

“The European Union is a union of 27 member states. The UK is only one country. And we have a population and a market of 450 million people,” he told the BBC. 

When asked about Johnson’s aim of getting a deal by the end of 2020, he said: “It will be difficult to do this.”

To get a trade deal, the UK would have to give legal assurances it would not undercut the EU, Varadkar said.

Varadkar met EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Dublin. 

Barnier stressed that the level of access UK products can continue to enjoy will be proportionate to the commitments London makes on EU rules, particularly in relation to state aid.

“It is Britain’s choice,” Barnier told a joint news conference with Varadkar. 

“If we have no agreement, it will not be business as usual and the status quo, we have to face the risk of a cliff edge, in particular for trade.”

Varadkar said there will be have to be some checks on goods going from Britain into Northern Ireland, despite Johnson’s repeated insistence that these will not be needed.

Johnson’s willingness to allow some EU regulations to apply in British-ruled Northern Ireland to prevent the need for a border on the island was the crucial concession he offered last year to obtain a withdrawal deal with the bloc. After agreeing that deal, he called an election and won a strong majority.

Barnier said the EU will “very carefully” watch over the implementation of the agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol. EU officials also expressed concern.

“Trade talks is one thing but there is also the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. If the latter doesn’t go well, how could we trust them to meet their obligations under any future FTA (free trade agreement)?” said a senior EU diplomat.

Varadkar himself faces voters in an election on Feb. 8. Polls have shown his Fine Gael party trailing its main rivals, Fianna Fail.