The “continuing history” of Italian emigration to Europe, North and South America and Oceania has formed large Italian diaspora communities around the world. The Italian diaspora has developed according to a “spontaneous and independent process” driven by personal, political and economic reasons, resulting in an every-increasing number of Italians citizens living abroad – approximately 5,4 million Italian citizens according to recent figures.
In the last decades, the Italian government has integrated the diasporic communities as part of the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” and the overall public diplomacy strategy.
One of the peculiarity of the Italian diaspora diplomacy is that, unlike many countries, expatriate Italians nominate their own representatives in both houses of Parliament. Since 2003 when the law enabling this ability was passed, the Italian government has demonstrated strong commitment towards maintaining ties with Italians abroad.
The Italian government has also constituted institutions that encourage political participation among Italians abroad. Besides the traditional network of consulates and embassies, Italian law has established the election of the Committees of Italians Abroad (Com.It.Es) for each consular jurisdiction in the world. This has produced vibrant communities that still engage with Italian domestic politics.
By creating the Ministry of Italians Abroad in 2005, the diaspora communities “were transformed from a history of loss and exile into a source of pride and economic power”, increasingly conceived as “business communities”. In other words, Italians abroad were integrated into the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” strategy, both as a policy justification for domestic political debate largely driven by the conservative party Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), and incorporating the diasporic communities into Italian economic diplomacy.
From a public diplomacy point of view, the “Italians abroad” policy framework is also reflected in the peculiarities of Italian international broadcasting, conceived as a “conduit between Italy and Italians abroad”, especially in the last three decades . Indeed, since 1940, Italy has been providing discontinuous international broadcasting in regions such as Europe, the Americas and North Africa, with news programs and entrainment provided in Italian and other languages. In particular, the agreements between the Italian government and Italian public broadcaster RAI included a certain amount of non-Italian language contents. These activities were conducted through the transmission of Italian programs by other local broadcasters. Videotapes were usually distributed thought the consular network and transmitted by local broadcasters.
It was only in the 1990’s that RAI received a mandate from the Italian government to directly broadcast internationally using satellite technology under the name RAI International. The channel currently broadcasts only in Italian a mix “of what are believed to be the most important Italian assets: religion, soccer, music, food, and general entertainment” . This decision has transformed Italian international broadcasting from a public diplomacy instrument to a public service to Italians abroad. Indeed, the choice of broadcasting in Italian indicated an imaginary audience, which is to say Italian expatriates only.
Since the Italian diaspora is considered by the Italian government as a resource for promoting the “Italian Economic System”, Italian broadcasting and the encouragement of political participation among expatriates aim to cultivate national identity. The Italianità (Italianness) thus becomes a prerequisite for Italians abroad becoming a central and “authoritative” asset for the promotion of economic diplomacy abroad. The international broadcasting service aims to bridge the differences that inevitably emerge between the governmental projection of Italian culture and spontaneous articulations produced by the Italian diasporic cultures. For example, linguists have studied the evolution of the Italian language and dialects by Italians abroad and the creative mix of dialect, Italian and English in Australia which creates new linguistic entities that differ from the evolution of the language at home.
This approach to diaspora diplomacy risks to simplistically represents the Italian communities abroad as homogeneous, “fostering unequivocal notions of national identity”. The Italian case can be considered an example of what Ien Ang defines “an attempt to capitalise on the history of mobility of populations across national borders for national purposes” in the contemporary globalised world. The incorporation of the Italian diasporic communities within the “Promotion of the Italian Economic System” ignores the permanent “tension between freedom and belonging, embrace of the new and fidelity to the old” that expatriates experience. This risks creating an “illusion of community” when the Italian government considers expatriates as an homogeneous “state category” and an “illusion of continuity” of the nation state – when the Italian abroad policy is justified at home.
Perhaps the introduction of social media in public diplomacy represents an opportunity for the Italian government to enhance new forms of dialog with diasporic communities and reconsider the current policy. Satellite broadcasting is only one way to reach expatriates. The internet affords a variety of channel to access content in their mother tongue and enables dialogic forms of communication. New technologies and a renewed policy framework could include the variety of expatriates’ experience, of their old and new identities, and could become an innovative tool for public diplomacy.