29 January 2021

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Renzi in Saudi Arabia: A parliamentarian or a disguised lobbyist?

Can a Senator of the Italian Republic (and former Prime Minister) travel on a private jet offered by the sovereign wealth fund of another country? Should he receive regular remuneration as a trustee from an event platform that aims to promote the international interests of that same state?

by Federico Anghelé, Director of The Good Lobby Italy

The recent participation of Matteo Renzi in a conference of the Future Investment Initiative controlled by the Sovereign Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, one of the most criticized countries for the systematic violation of human and civil rights, is being discussed extensively. The leader of Italia Viva, confirmed that he had received regular compensation (as well as other tokens for taking part in various conferences in the Arab monarchy) and travel expenses coverage, as a member of the board of trustees of the Future Investment Initiative.

 

All this has come after the political drama that took place in Italy two weeks ago when Matteo Renzi pulled his ministers out of the coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte, citing the government’s lack of an effective pandemic strategy and a reliance on the EU to aid Italy’s economic recovery.

 

Nevertheless, this new crisis surrounding Renzi further feeds Italian’s mistrust in its leaders. How can Italians be sure that Renzi and the leaders of Italia Viva, the former majority party he leads, act in full autonomy when they are called upon to deal with Italy’s relations with Saudi Arabia? And is it appropriate for a senator in full office to offer paid advice to another country?

 

This story brings to light a serious lack of legislation already highlighted by international institutions: since 1997 the Council of Europe has been asking Italy to introduce a code of conduct for parliamentarians. While the Chamber approved its code in 2016, modelling it on that of the European Parliament, the Senate has fallen behind. Moreover, despite the negative judgments expressed by the Anti-Corruption Group (GRECO) of the Council of Europe in its fourth round of evaluating the integrity of Italian institutions (2018) – it has never caught up.

 

GRECO had also recommended for Italy to implement robust and effective regulations on donations, gifts, hospitality and other favors received by parliamentarians during their mandate. The evaluation of the rules (not) introduced by Italy has cost them a rejection by the Council of Europe.

 

Since that time, little or nothing has been done: the Senate has not yet introduced a code of conduct that regulates (and limits) the extra-parliamentary activities of the senators, to prevent any conflicts of interest. The Italian anti-corruption law establishes the “ban on receiving contributions, services or other forms of support from governments or public bodies of foreign states and from legal persons based in a foreign state not subject to tax obligations in Italy”. But it applies to political parties and not to elected members of those same political forces too. 

 

Renzi therefore acted in the absence of precise rules capable of sanctioning conduct, which could undermine the integrity of Italian institutions and feed further mistrust in the political class. Nevertheless, his position of authority should have instilled a greater sense of responsibility and caution, to avoid compromising Italy’s credibility. And to avoid having to justify himself on the accusation of being a (parliamentarian) lobbyist being paid by a foreign power. An activity considered illegal in many countries, and exactly what makes him unfit to hold public office.