Why did Italy decide to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) when other European countries were initially against it? Was there an official reason given by the Italian government? What does Italy stand to benefit from the BRI project and do the benefits outweigh the consequences?
The official statement was along the lines of
Mr Di Maio told a news conference: "Italy has arrived first on the Silk Road and therefore other European countries at this moment have taken a stance on our trade decisions.
"They have taken a critical view and they have the right to this opinion."
"We do not want to override our European partners. We firmly remain in the Euro-Atlantic alliance and we remain allies of the United States in Nato," he added.
Di Maio is the leader of the (Eurosceptic) Five Star Movement and Deputy Prime Minister; the other Deputy Prime Minister from its coalition partner (the League, which is pro-Russia) did not attend, and is fairly skeptical of the BRI deal.
Italy, which is in a pretty difficult economic situation presently (recession + high sovereign debt) did get some concrete advantages, not from the BRI memorandum itself, which is symbolic, but from the associated deals, which are more concrete:
Ministers then signed deals over energy, finance, and agricultural produce, followed by the heads of big Italian gas and energy, and engineering firms - which will be offered entry into the Chinese market.
It's hard to tell at this point if the benefits outweigh the consequences. A number of Western commentators (from France, Germany, US etc.) said that Italy is taking a lot of political risk with this move, e.g.:
Lucrezia Poggetti of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think-tank, suggests Italy is taking a “big political risk for little economic gain”.
“The danger is not Italy’s agreement with China itself,” Francesco Sisci, an Italian sinologist, author and commentator who lives in Beijing, said in an interview. “It’s that this new Italian government doesn’t know the alphabet of politics. It didn’t manage its allies before it jumped into this.”
[...] Italy could not have picked a worse time to jump on board Mr. Xi’s infrastructure bandwagon, notes Francesco Galietti, chief executive of the Rome political and economics consultancy Policy Sonar. “This is happening at a time of peak U.S.-China tension,” Mr. Galietti said. “Italy is breaking ranks with the West. The U.S. is furious by this symbolic break.”
[...] Even the Italian government is divided on Italy’s BRI membership. Matteo Salvini, deputy Prime Minister and powerful head of the populist League party, which rules Italy in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), has expressed his reservations about cozying up to China, although he’s shown no sign that he will kibosh the deal. “We don’t have any prejudices, but we are very cautious,” he told Italy’s Ansa news agency this week. “We wouldn’t like to become a [Chinese] colony.”
One of the BRI routes is intended to upgrade the cargo transportation capacity through Trieste. It will reduce the cargo transportation time from China to and from places in the center of Europe. If Trieste creates value then it will capture some of the income.