Pope Francis talks with Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta before boarding a plane at Fiumicino airport in Rome in July 2013 to join more than 300,000 young people for World Youth Day in Brazil. (CNS photo/Giampiero Spo sito, Reuters)
“I believe the world needs a new trans-Atlantic relationship. The pandemic has shown this very clearly and has highlighted the great importance of the Nov. 3 election in the United States,” a former Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, said in a wide-ranging interview with America
He spoke with optimism about Italy as it prepares to ease the lockdown caused by the pandemic and discussed the role of Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Russia today in the building of the post-Covid-19 world. He sees a great need to rebuild multilateralism at a global level.
Mr. Letta, 53, is married to an Italian journalist with whom he has three sons. He has held various ministerial posts in the Italian government, including that of prime minister (2013 to 2014), and also served as an elected member of the European Parliament. He is currently dean of the School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris
and the first non-American president of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.
We began by talking about Italy, a nation of 60 million people and the European country that has suffered the most from the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 200,000 people infected and 27,000 dead. Notwithstanding this suffering and Italy’s grave socioeconomic situation, Mr. Letta sees three “signs of optimism and hope” as the country begins to exit its lockdown on May 4.
He finds a third “key factor for optimism” in the role played by the European Un𝗂on, “which has given important, positive signs” by proposing a recovery fund for member states most affected by the pandemic. But, he cautioned, “we have to wait until May 6 when the Recovery Fund package is presented” to see whether the E.U.’s collective response will be better than it was during the economic crisis of 2008 and the debt shock of 2012.
Pope Francis, in his “Urbi et Orbi” message at Easter, emphasized the need for E.U. member states to rediscover the spirit of solidarity that marked Western Europe at the end of World War II. Asked why it is so difficult to recover that solidarity today, Mr. Letta explained that post-war Europe was composed of a small collective of nations. The contemporary un𝗂on is much bigger, with 27 member states that have “many differences, many cleavages — East and West, North [and] South.” Moreover, the European Un𝗂on has become “too much an intergovernmental Europe,” leaving little room for communitarianism, he said.
The current crisis has demonstrated how important it is “to give power to the supra-national institutions,” he said, suggesting that E.U. member states “take a step back in favor of the multilateral institutions and in particular the [European] Commission and the Central European Bank.”
Rarely has the world needed solid global leadership as much as it does now, but many find it lacking at precisely this moment. Mr. Letta recognizes this as a problem. “Pope Francis is perhaps the only real leader in the world today,” he said, “and he’s doing a great deal.” Indeed, “I think his leadership has grown a lot in this period in the sense that his great capacity for empathy and communication has been exalted at this moment of confinement, lockdown and great difficulty for people.”
He added, “Pope Francis, who is a great communicator, has been able to live this entire moment intensely and, in part, that has enabled him in the background to overcome somewhat the negative image that was constructed in these last years due to a wave of scandals linked to pedophilia and church finances. This is greatly fortunate for the church and has brought it back to its moral leadership [role] and that seems to me something positive.”
Reflecting on the kind of world he sees emerging from this global crisis, Mr. Letta identified three important requisites: the need to build a new trans-Atlantic relationship, re-establish multilateralism at a global level and rethink the current structure of globalization.
He believes a new transatlantic alliance is warranted because of the breakdown in collaboration between the European Un𝗂on, Great Britain and the United States in recent years, culminating in the fact that collaboration was “non-existent” when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, allowing China and Russia to step in.
“This crisis poses a significant challenge: how to reshape the trans-Atlantic community,” he said, “how to bring together the three protagonists of the trans-Atlantic relationship — Brussels, London, Washington — because I believe the world needs a new trans-Atlantic relationship. The pandemic has highlighted this clearly and has shown the great importance of the Nov. 3 election in the United States.”
Mr. Letta identified a third requisite for the building the post-Covid-19 world in the need “to rethink our future in relation to globalization.” He recalled that the present crisis has touched everyone and provoked “gut reactions” from politicians with calls “to close the frontiers, build walls, return to the nation, have less exchanges,” and “as a result globalization is in crisis.”
But these “gut reactions” have given rise to “all the wrong responses” in places like Hungary, Austria and even the European Un𝗂on, he said, because “this is a crisis that has accelerated globalization. It is a crisis that has risen from the fact that frontiers do not exist for the pandemic, no more than they exist for corruption and the other challenges we face.”
Mr. Letta labeled these reactions as “responses for frightened, weakened people rather than [rational] responses to what’s happening.
“Globalization is not dead,” he said, adding that national borders “exist much more in our heads but much less in reality.”