ITDiMaio2019ROME -- Italy’s youngest-ever minister of foreign affairs did not take a traditional path to one of the Italian government’s most high-profile jobs. But barely more than a week into his job, 33-year-old Luigi Di Maio may be surprising a few of his critics.

Di Maio, head of Italy’s populist Five-Star Movement, was deputy prime minister for nearly 15 months under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. In the new government, sworn in Sept. 5, Di Maio was tapped as foreign minister – a choice that raised eyebrows in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Most of Conte’s early appointments have earned praise from political analysts and Italy watchers: a respected former prime minister selected as Italy’s representative on the European Commission; a pro-European economist as finance minister; an experienced technocrat to oversee Italy’s immigration policies; and a popular former culture minister returning to the job he held for four years.

Di Maio was the exception to that trend: The choice was criticized by Italian news sites and panned on social media.

In Italy, the foreign minister job usually goes to a former diplomat, or to someone who has cultivated relationship with foreign leaders through work with multilateral organizations or a European Union entity. Going back decades, Italy’s previous foreign ministers have traditionally been highly educated, and able to communicate in multiple languages.

Di Maio, in contrast, dropped out of university and he struggles with foreign languages. The native of Naples lived with his parents until a few years ago, while hawking drinks at hometown soccer games.

Di Maio’s most high-profile foray into foreign policy as an official in the previous government was to side with anti-government “yellow vest” campaigners in Paris, a move that prompted the French government to withdraw its ambassador to Rome for the first time since the countries were on opposite sides of World War II.

When he was sworn in, Di Maio was about a month younger than Galeazzo Ciano, an Italian aristocrat, war hero, former ambassador, and son-in-law to then-Italian leader Benito Mussolini. In 1936, Mussolini named Ciano Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, a job he held until 1943, when he met his end in front of a firing squad. Before Di Maio, Ciano had been the youngest Foreign Minister since Italy was unified in 1861.

But despite Di Maio’s atypical pedigree, sources said there are reasons for optimism about his upcoming tenure.

“Di Maio is part of a new generation of political figures,” said Andrea Carteny, an international relations professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “He doesn’t have a typical background, but he makes up for a lack of experience with savvy and enthusiasm.”

Carteny noted that Di Maio skillfully guided the Five-Star Movement through the baffling government crisis sparked by its former coalition partner, the nationalist, anti-migrant League, which engineered a government collapse in August.

His lack of experience on the foreign stage means he can go into geopolitical situations without the political baggage and pre-conceived ideas others might have, Carteny said.

Matteo Bressan, an international relations specialist at Lumsa University in Rome, said in an interview that Di Maio’s first move as Conte’s choice for his top advisor at the Minister of Foreign Affairs bodes well.

“Di Maio selected Ettore Francesco Sequi as his top advisor, which was a very smart move,” Bressan said. Sequi was Italy’s most recent ambassador to China, who also has diplomatic experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Remember that being foreign minister does not mean a person has to know everything about everything,” Bressan said. “It means they have to be able to surround themselves with the right people and make good judgment calls. So far at least, Di Maio has proved he can do that.”

The next summit of European Union foreign ministers on Oct. 14 in Luxembourg will likely be Di Maio’s coming out party in his new role. Ministry sources say Di Maio will be ready to represent Italy’s foreign policy priorities -- even if it is with the help of a translator.

Photo: September 6, 2019 - Rome, Italy - Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Italian President Sergio Mattarella greeting Liberia's new Ambassador in Italy Andrew W. Kronyahn.
Credit: Courtesy of Luigi Di Maio's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 09/15/19
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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