Giuseppe Conte (Volturara Appula, 57 years old) was a semi-unknown lawyer in March 2018. A former Democratic Party (PD) voter, he joined an anti-system party, the 5 Star Movement (M5S), which sought to end the establishment and abolish poverty. But the diabolical Italian political system ended up giving him the chance of a lifetime when the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, proposed that he become prime minister and form a government. He accepted, of course. And she embarked on one of the most eventful and fascinating periods in the history of the Italian Republic.
Conte led two radically opposed Executives in two and a half years. One with Matteo Salvini’s La Liga: uncomfortable, suspicious of Europe, belligerent against immigration and extremely populist. Another, with the PD, the quintessence of establishment social democrat. He faced the pandemic, grew up, learned to move in Europe and led, together with Pedro Sánchez, a historic fundraising to get out of the crisis. Shortly after, a parliamentary operation liquidated his mandate and gave rise to the current government of Mario Draghi. Conte, who receives EL PAÍS at the new headquarters of the M5S, today rebuilt the party. He has one year left for the elections. The war in Ukraine and the refusal to send more weapons in the name of a bid for diplomacy are now his battle horse.
Ask. Opposes sending weapons to Ukraine and calls for a vote in Parliament. Why?
Response. We agree in condemning the aggressor and in supporting Ukraine. But Italy, with Spain, France or Germany, must be in the front row to change the course of the negotiations. More than continuing to send weapons to a country that is sufficiently armed. The United States has announced an aid plan of 39,000 million dollars [finalmente elevado a 40.000 millones y aprobado este jueves] and the UK continues to arm Ukraine. So European countries should distinguish themselves by working with maximum intensity in diplomatic efforts.
P. In other words, leave military support in the hands of the United States and the United Kingdom.
R. It is legitimate that in a framework of alliances, some countries that are in Europe and that have a greater capacity for dialogue, are characterized by this change. Without that weakening the bond of the alliance.
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P. It does not seem that until now that route has been very useful. How do you think one should negotiate with Putin?
R. The experience of diplomacy teaches that negotiations must be pursued with perseverance and determination. There is no time for negotiation, an effort and then war. You have to do it permanently. And Russia is the most interested.
P. In what sense?
R. Because they had planned a military aggression that should lead to a victory in a short time. But the Ukrainian resistance is complicating it.
P. Well, it is that they have resisted thanks to the weapons sent.
R. The Ukrainian armed resistance, of course. And also the penalties.
P. The shipment of weapons and the position of the Draghi Executive are in tune with the EU. Don’t you think that if Italy positions itself towards that more pacifist side, it could be isolated in the European context?
R. The M5S has declared itself in favor of helping Ukraine militarily from the beginning. But it was a very difficult decision. All the elements of self-defense on the part of Ukraine are present. But after three arms shipments, Italy has already made its contribution. It must now be characterized by more intense diplomatic efforts. We must avoid a military escalation that opens an uncontrollable dimension.
P. You have a very different view from that of the Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, an important member of your party. Shouldn’t he ask you to step down from the Executive?
R. No, the Foreign Minister is working in this direction and is convinced of the diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire.
“Spain is indispensable in the negotiation of the Ukrainian conflict”
P. But Di Maio defends Draghi’s vision, favorable to sending weapons.
R. We also defended it. But after three months of war I say that Italy must interpret this new phase by pushing towards that change.
P. Will this Executive reach the end of the legislature if it depends on you?
R. We work so that the Government activates the Recovery Plan so that the Government is given strength and courage to obtain something similar with energy, which is completely necessary now. If we do not block this war, among other things, there will be a recession of which we are already seeing the effects.
P. Let me insist. The M5S is the majority party in the Executive and its voice is supposed to be heard. If the vision on the Ukrainian issue is not taken into consideration, could they leave the Executive?
R. I am confident. M5S raises political questions, not instrumental ones. We advocate negotiation, we do not embrace rearmament. These are questions of common sense and I don’t see how they won’t listen to us.
The Democratic Party must understand that we do not accept any position of subordinate
P. You and the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, led a rapprochement that led to the historic pact reached for the European pandemic recovery funds. It seems that Draghi is betting again on the Franco-German axis.
R. It would be a historical mistake for Italy to return to the old suggestion of a triad with France and Germany. I fought to relaunch the friendly relationship between Italy and Spain, considering that it is strategic to strengthen Italy’s role in Europe and that of the EU itself. And we should not go back to the past. Italy must be a protagonist in Europe with Spain. Our peoples have great affinity and have shown an enormous capacity for collaboration. The Recovery Fund was the maximum expression of that synergy.
P. Why is Spain important in this diplomatic negotiation?
R. Some think that being further away from Ukraine is somewhat marginal in this prospect. But I look at the political role. And if Europe wants to relaunch its leadership, it must do so now. And for that Spain is indispensable.
P. He has been fighting Draghi for weeks about the war. What relationship do they have after he replaced him at the Chigi Palace?
R. We have a very loyal relationship. When I put political issues on the table, I do not use instrumental polemics. And yes, we talk regularly.
“It would be a historical mistake if Italy wanted to think again about being part of a triad with Germany and France”
P. They also do not agree with the PD on the issue of weapons. And in so many other things. Do you think they will end up going in coalition to the next elections?
R. It must be a strategic collaboration. This journey together should strengthen us. But the PD must understand that we do not accept any position of subordinates. And since there are serious political differences, the PD must accept the debate, a synthesis and that the best decisions for the citizens prevail.
P. What is the M5S today after so many mutations?
R. A political force that has completed a phase of internal reorganization, we have a new statute and a charter of principles. And our progressive characterization is more intense.
P. Will you be the candidate?
R. The important thing is that the next elections are won by progressive forces to prevent the country from being governed by a right wing that invokes Europe only when it wants solidarity.
P. You know it well. He got them into the government.
R. I worked with La Liga and I had a lot of difficulties, precisely, on the European front. And I am more and more convinced that no sovereignism offers effective recipes to face the global challenges of Italy and the EU.
P. If you could go back, would you form a government with La Liga?
R. I don’t reason that way. But at that time the PD was not available to form a government with us. The Executive was constituted after three months of negotiation. And if I did not accept being prime minister, the risk was to repeat the elections.
P. He was at the head of Italy in one of the most difficult moments in history. How did he feel when he was forced to resign to be replaced by Draghi?
R. You will remember that I left with a smile. The one who has worked until the last day to carry out the task with discipline and honor, as written in the Constitution.
P. Seen over time, why do you think they overthrew your government?
R. People stop me on the street and repeatedly tell me that there were strong interests that wanted to manage the billions from the Recovery Fund. He left it to historians to delve into this.
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