Susanna Agnelli’s political career culminated in 1995 with her appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She is the first woman ever to hold this post in Italy. Click here for her “Life in Pictures”.
As foreign minister of the technocratic government, Susanna Agnelli certainly doesn’t look like a temporary worker. Six months. Nine months. A year. Who knows?
“If I allowed myself to be affected by the inevitable question of ‘How long is it going to last?’ – which I’m asked wherever I go in the world – I would end up being paralysed,” she says. “I am just trying to do my best, however long it lasts.”
With her suitcase always “at the ready” to be able to jump on a military plane and stacks of documents “this high” to bring home every night to stay updated on current events, her six children are constantly (if cordially) griping that they can’t send the grandchildren to visit during the holidays. More than anything, she has an unshakeable sense of pride. “Because this is a great country that isn’t inferior to anyone. If only we Italians could convince ourselves of that…”
She has already been a mayor, a member of parliament, an undersecretary, and a senator. Now, at the age of seventy-two, she has rushed headlong into this back-breaking endeavour, very much out of a sense of doing her duty as well as “for pleasure.” She is incredibly determined, be it a temporary role or not, to bring back the lustre and the importance of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ms. Agnelli, is there a word that you think would define the role of a foreign minister at the end of the second millennium?
I would say dialogue, negotiation. But not in terms of seeking compromise as much as in terms of choosing responsibility. Diplomacy must prevail over muscle. I strongly believe this, though when I think about the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and all of the failed attempts to end it, I have a distressing feeling of impotence…
Do you think you are the right person at the right time?
Yes. I believe so. I am not presumptuous enough to believe that I do things better than others. But I am also convinced that there’s no reason why I should do things worse than anyone else. I have a great desire to do good things for my country.
Minister, where does this sense of political and social commitment come from? Was it your grandfather – Senator Agnelli, the founder of Fiat – who pointed you in this direction?
To be honest, I wouldn’t say that. Because my grandfather was – like all members of the Agnelli family, including the current ones – an absolute chauvinist and therefore it was inconceivable that a woman could do something other than be a nurse or perhaps a cook. But I got my start as a very young girl…
Weren’t you a Red Cross volunteer during the war?
No. No. I started a few years before that. I was fifteen years old. When I was fifteen, some girlfriends and I started an after-school programme for kids in the area where I lived in Turin. I had gotten a flat from my mother on the ground floor of our house in Corso Oporto, and every day fifty or sixty kids would come. We would help them with their homework, give them something to eat, and play with them. You could say that was the first community work I did.
Why did you do it?
First and foremost, I would say it was out of boredom because the normal life that women lead is boring – incredibly boring, in my opinion. And then I have always thought it was a mistake to complain about certain things and then not do anything to change them. In any case, organising all of that was fun for me.
Was it also this sense of commitment that led to your decision to become a war nurse at age twenty?
It was perhaps a bit of an irresponsible decision. I was too young to be a Red Cross nurse so I became a volunteer. To be able to take the course, I really had to coerce my mother so she would find a way for me to be accepted. However, it was an exciting experience. And very trying.
You made your debut in public life with your nomination as mayor of Porto Santo Stefano in 1975.
Indeed. There was a long interval in there with a husband and six kids in the middle.
In your book “Addio, Addio, Mio Ultimo Amore” (“Farewell, Farewell, My Last Love”), which came out in 1985, you talk about your decade working as a public administrator as a battle. And a defeat.
Because it was truly a battle. It was ten years in which anything that could have happened, did – from fires to fighting over the town-planning act to every kind of boycott. The fact that I wasn’t a communist mayor but that I was in a communist region already made my life difficult. But it was also a very fun and interesting battle.
Were there any successes?
I think the most important one was taking on unauthorised building and stopping the Monte Argentario area from being destroyed like so much of Italy’s coastline. Those were important years of apprenticeship. It is there, for example, that I learned the burden and power of bureaucracy. Frankly, it’s the same in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where it’s not like the minister decides everything freely on her own.
Are you saying that you can’t become a minister if you haven’t paid your dues?
You can, but from my perspective, if I had taken on this role without having been a mayor, a member of parliament, and especially after having worked eight years as an undersecretary, I would have had a horrible time. Of course being a minister is different because I have the responsibility, but I had to learn all the rest. I have negotiated political, economic, and cooperation agreements. I’ve worked on joint commissions. I have met ambassadors and foreign ministers. I have even learned that there are very well defined jobs – that your chief of staff establishes the priorities in your agenda, and that the secretary general has a fundamental role.
Was Giulio Andreotti a mentor for you?
Yes, absolutely. First and foremost because he was a minister who was extremely attentive to everything. For example, if I had to leave for Colombia, I would ask him for instructions, and after an hour, he’d send back a little note saying, “Do this and that.” That’s not all that usual, you know? De Michelis, for example, with whom I had an excellent relationship, never once responded to me. Andreotti taught me to deal with people, to never underestimate the person with whom you are talking, to receive those that ask for a meeting, and to listen to everyone’s reasons.
During this long journey, have there been heads of state that have made a particular impression on you?
More than anybody else Frederik De Klerk, the former president of South Africa who is now vice president. I consider him to be one of the most intelligent and illuminated men at the end of this century.
What kind of objectives did you set for yourself as minister?
My greatest ambition is to make people once again think of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a very important ministry with a central role for the country. There are six thousand five hundred of us here and abroad working for Italy.
Italians aren’t so convinced. The overall impression is that our foreign policy isn’t all that great.
I, on the other hand, firmly believe the exact opposite to be true. Perhaps in this moment with cooperation stalled, it’s more difficult, but our voice counts in the world.
We aren’t a country that can influence the world’s destiny.
That’s true only up to a certain point. In Europe, for example, Italy has influence. And not just because it is one of the driving forces of the European Union. Italian civilisation, history, and culture are all things that have an impact on our partners. And then Europe – if we want to consider it a club – is truly a club of friends.
Is there any risk of being cut out of the Paris-Bonn axis?
There’s no risk. We won’t be cut out. In any case, at various points, all member countries have had difficult financial moments. It’s not just Italy. Of course a lot depends on the relationships that the minister has with foreign colleagues. Currently those relationships are excellent.
And what about the lifting of the veto (put in place by the previous government) to allowing Slovenia to enter Europe…?
That was a gesture of confidence toward Ljubljana. But good relationships depend on a lot of things – knowing how to speak frankly as well as being prudent and having the desire to mediate.
Does having a name like Agnelli help as well?
This is a question I was asked a lot in the past when I was mayor and when I was elected to parliament, and my response was always “fifty fifty.” Meaning that it helps me in some ways, but it penalises me in others. Today as foreign minister, I answer with a resounding “yes.” There is respect and fondness for the Agnelli name around the world. And then it helps to have a certain education that you don’t get in three days. For example, the fact that I know English, French, and Spanish helps me immensely. Speaking with foreign colleagues without an interpreter is a great advantage. Regardless of the pomposity of official obligations, it allows you to create a human relationship, which helps your mission.
What does your brother Gianni say?
He seems incredibly interested in what is happening in my life. On the telephone he’s constantly asking,”Who did you see today?” “How did it go?” or, “Tomorrow where are you going?” And not because – as has been insinuated maliciously – that he expects me to be a minister who serves Fiat. But because he is incredibly curious, and it’s fun for him.
In this club of friends, with whom do you have the best relationship?
With Javier Solana, my Spanish colleague, and with Alain Juppé who has now become prime minister in France. He was an excellent foreign minister who is respected by everyone and who shows great equilibrium and political intelligence. My friendship with Solana was solidified in Naples during the recent bilateral meeting between Spain and Italy. He is a very immediate person, and a great diplomat.
They say that diplomacy is going through a crisis today.
I don’t believe that at all. Of course the role of diplomats has changed a great deal. News is sent via fax, and in the ministries everyone knows everything about everybody in real time – what they are thinking in Washington and what they are considering doing in Moscow or Brussels. We live on the phone. In the embassies, economic and commercial interests have taken a central role even before political interests.
So more services and more marketing.
Certainly. These things are essential in today’s world.
Italians abroad accuse our embassies of being too disconnected from their problems.
We are trying to repair this disconnect. One of the priorities I’ve given myself as minister is to negotiate with foreign governments for measures that benefit our community around the world. My trip to South Africa, for example, had this as part of its scope.
Has your arrival brought something new to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
I think so. I hope so, and I believe in the idea that one can work and do serious things and, at the same time, be in a good mood and laugh. The ministers that came before me frustrated the diplomatic corps and employees of the ministry a bit perhaps because they were – I suspect – not considered to be up to the task. Again, it’s a question of relationships.
Working for fun. This could be a Calvinist credo.
That’s true. Taking a serious stance certainly doesn’t help one to work better.
And the fact that you are a woman has also helped change things.
Naturally! I insisted on changing certain things. If I invite someone to lunch, I would like him or her to have a good meal, for example.
Your office has undergone a transformation as well. It seems more like being in an Agnelli home than in a ministry office.
I didn’t do it right away. I waited a few months. When secretary general Ferdinando Salleo saw it, he fainted.
White and sky blue fabrics on the walls, sky blue armchairs, white flowers…
I thought that was just the right look. Giving my office a happy, cosy feel so that people would want to stay here and could feel at ease. I picked out the colours and fabrics myself. I went to choose the paintings – gorgeous paintings – at Palazzo Barberini. Working in a beautiful atmosphere completely changes your life.