Silvio Berlusconi, in his capacity as MEP, submitted an interrogation to the European Commission, led by Ursula Von der Leyen. His request: to curb the penetration of Chinese investments in Europe and Italy.
The Italian political veteran and former prime minister, who heads the centre-right party Forza Italia, brought up a report by the Italian Parliamentary Security Commission (COPASIR) detailing the amount and spread of foreign investments in Italy – and the strategic threat they pose to industries and public life.
Out of all, the Chinese market penetration is by far the most concerning, given its sheer breadth, the blurred lines between the Chinese State and its private companies, and the fact that Beijing is, to all intents and purposes, a strategic and systemic rival to the EU.
“In Italy, Chinese investments went from €573 million in 2015 to €4.9 billion in 2018,” cited Mr Berlusconi in his interrogation. “The Chinese multinational State Grid alone retains 35% of CDP Reti, which controls energy networks. Moreover, 50.797 entrepreneurs born in the PRC operate in Italy.”
The leader went on to explain how this phenomenon was a part of China’s plan of expansion in Europe, pointing at the string of European seaports being invested in by Beijing among other strategic assets.
The pandemic and the China-US commercial rivalry underscored Europe’s dependence on the Dragon on several key areas. Accordingly, Ms Von der Leyen has vowed to pursue a “strategic autonomy” line for the EU.
This is what Mr Berlusconi is striving towards. In his interrogation he pressed the Commission, asking it what initiatives it intended to adopt to tighten the measures on extra-European direct investments in European strategic sectors.
The political leader has been cautioning Italians against Chinese investments for years now. He made his voice heard in 2019, when Italy signed the memorandum of understanding to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was supported by his own ally in the centre-right coalition, Matteo Salvini.
However, Mr Berlusconi himself did not shy away from dealing with the Chinese in the past.In 2016, the mogul sold off his AC Milan football club to Chinese investors. And, as recently as May, his media company Mediaset signed a deal with Huawei, the Chinese tech behemoth accused of espionage by the US.
In December 2019, COPASIR had produced a report detailing the risks associated with allowing Chinese companies such as Huawei in national telecommunication infrastructures, de facto anticipating the same reckoning elsewhere in the West.
The number of European countries who are excluding Chinese tech from 5G over similar concerns is on the rise. Last month, a group of MEPs labelled Huawei and ZTE (another Chinese tech company) as “high risk” vendors.
The EU has so far refrained from an all-out ban on Huawei, going against the US’ wishes. It has, however, approved a “5G Security Toolbox” that urges countries to curb their technological dependence from China.