ROME (Reuters) – Italy made an “improvised and atrocious” decision when it joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) four years ago as it did little to boost exports, Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto said in an interview published on Sunday.
Italy signed up to the BRI under a previous government, becoming the only major Western country to have taken such a step. Crosetto is part of an administration that is considering how to break free of the agreement.
The BRI scheme envisions rebuilding the old Silk Road to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond with large infrastructure spending. Critics see it as a tool for China to spread its geopolitical and economic influence.
“The decision to join the (new) Silk Road was an improvised and atrocious act” that multiplied China’s exports to Italy but did not have the same effect on Italian exports to China, Crosetto told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“The issue today is: how to walk back (from the BRI) without damaging relations (with Beijing). Because it is true that China is a competitor, but it is also a partner,” the defence minister added.
After a White House meeting U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said her government had until December to make a decision on the BRI, and also announced she would soon travel to Beijing.
In an interview on Saturday with the TG5 Italian news programme, Meloni said it was a “paradox” that even if Italy is part of the BRI, it is not the G7 country with the strongest trading links to China.
“This shows that you can have good relations and trading partnerships” even outside of the BRI, she added.
(Reporting by Alvise Armellini, editing by David Evans)