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Il Corriere della Sera - November 14, 2013

During an hour and a half-long conversation, Emma Bonino smokes “only” - by her standards - two cigarettes and answers one brief phone call: “They tell me the four marines’ hearing is over. We’re well on the way to wrapping up the incident with India”. Yesterday 65-year-old Ms Bonino met with Corriere della Sera reporters to answer questions on outstanding issues, such as Iran, Syria, Europe and the East. “I sometimes wonder whether it’s me that attracts every possible crisis”.

Italy’s role often appears marginal. On Iranian nuclear energy, to mention the highest-profile issue, we are little more than spectators.

“We were among the first to realise the significance of the election of the new president Rouhani in May. I recall that even several months ago, various European colleagues looked at me askance when I said Iran had to be invited to the negotiating table with Syria. At the end of August, after the massacre of civilians with chemical weapons, I made several calls to Iran’s foreign minister Zarif to get him to convince Assad to give UN inspectors a free hand. And at the UN assembly on 26 September, they were queuing up to speak to Zarif and Rouhani. You had to get a ticket, just like the MoMA”.

But Italy isn’t one of the five-plus-one group negotiating with Iran. This means we could be left behind if sanctions against Iran were eased.

“We know very well that if sanctions were eased, there would be a stampede in the direction of Iran. It doesn’t say ‘stupid’ on our foreheads. The meeting with foreign minister Zarif scheduled for Thursday has only been postponed. We are developing an exchange and cooperation plan that goes beyond energy”.

Do you think that Iran will abandon the atomic bomb?

“I don’t know but it is prudent and reasonable to take a look at the papers. And it’s worth waiting more than a week if need be, after waiting for thirty years, if we can clinch a good agreement. There’s all the time in the world to explain it to Israel and other concerned nations”.

From Iran, we have to go on to Syria. Negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the civil war are even more challenging, if that is possible. The opposition wants Assad to go and Saudi Arabia is making moves to recruit a parallel army of 50,000 rebels to set against the jihadists. What is your forecast?

“To start with, we can call this is a proxy war. It’s being fought on Syrian territory but with strong links to regional powers and battle lines that split the Sunni world. Qatar and Turkey are on one side, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates on the other. The rebel front is fragmented. There are forty-three independent groups that want no truck with Idris’s rebel army, to say nothing of the Al Nusra groups and the jihadists. But that’s what peace conferences are for, otherwise we’d just be sending each other text messages”.

Fine, but will Assad go in the end?

“In the end yes, but we don’t know when the moment for the end will come”.

The Americans don’t appear to have been best pleased by your stance against military intervention in Syria.

“Is that so? It’s not my information. Someone is trying to make me look anti-American. Me anti-American? Come on! I express my opinions. Regarding Egypt, for example, I’m not convinced by the international sigh of relief at the army-imposed ‘return to law and order’. I don’t like seeing three thousand people jailed without trial. Law and order is not enough. After all, even cemeteries are orderly”.

The war in Syria means refugees pressing at Europe’s southern borders. There have been proposals to give Italian embassies in migrants’ countries of origin the task of processing asylum applications.

“I’m not convinced. What would happen if crowds started queuing outside the Italian embassy in Tripoli? I think they would make a very easy target for bombers”.

What about the Italian embassy in Sudan, one of the countries migrants leave from?

“That doesn’t seem to me to be a good solution either. By and large, dictatorships don’t like to see people queuing outside embassies for a visa”.

Over the past two months, immigration has been the litmus issue showing how urgent the revitalisation of the European Union is. There will be elections in 2014 and then Italy will take over the presidency in the second semester. [Italian PM Enrico - Ed.] Letta has proposed appointing a single president for the European Commission and the Council of Europe. Do you agree?

“In broad terms, yes. But let’s remember that the new Commission will take office in January 2015. That means the Italian presidency will be first and foremost political. On foreign affairs, we will be striving in particular to Europeanise positions and proposals that usually come from the France-Germany axis, as was the case with the secret electronic eavesdropping conducted by the Americans”.

But France and Germany play the big games on their own. In China and India. What about Italy?

“We are paying the price for the delays, mistakes and misjudgements of the past. And for our lack of resources. I can understand budget cuts but the Italian foreign ministry has only half the diplomatic network of France, the United Kingdom or Germany. We need to re-establish relations with Russia, an unavoidable global player, and move on from the recent period of personal relationships accompanied by episodes that were somewhat unseemly. Then there’s China. I’ll be going there next February to prepare Letta’s visit, which is scheduled for the first half of 2014”.

The shadow of the marines affair still hangs over India. Yesterday, there was a video-hearing of the four soldiers from Italy. Will this be enough to overcome the impasse?

“It took us months to arrive at this long-distance hearing. The trial should now pass to the special court. We are looking to wrap up the incident soon and boost our commercial relations with India, a country we cannot lose”.

In the meantime, Indian PM Manmohan Singh amuses international meetings with stories of Italy’s diplomatic bloopers.

“I have no intention of making a fuss over the way a case we inherited was handled until the marines are back in Italy. And the Indian government also wants to close the incident quickly”.

Talking about bloopers, what lessons have you drawn from the Shalabayeva affair, the Kazakh woman wrongfully expelled from Italy?

“I realised how little consideration is given in government to the foreign ministry over incidents involving foreign nationals in Italy. We continue to follow Ms Shalabayeva. And let me say that the foreign ministry looks after a large number of individual cases. We are assisting 10,000 Italians in difficulty abroad. Of these, 3,120 are in prison”.

But do you ever speak to our interior minister?

“Oh yes. We do speak now. It’s an ongoing pre-consultation”.

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