ITALY has always been most present in international affairs when conditions allowed it to be simultaneously active to its west, to its east, and to its south. That is the theory of the country's foreign minister, Gianni de Michelis, who says those conditions are present today.
Italy will be ``a more forceful and influential international presence'' in the integration of Western Europe, in helping Eastern Europe rejoin the rest of the continent, and in steering Europe to address the dangers brewing in the southern Mediterranean region, he says.
Foreign minister for the past year, Mr. Michelis has guided Italy toward its own Ostpolitik that has strengthened its financial, commercial, and cultural ties to East European neighbors.
With its southern tip less than 100 miles from the African continent, Italy also has become more active in North Africa, notably through industrial joint ventures. It backs a proposal for a Mediterranean forum similar to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. ``A sort of CSCM,'' Michelis says.
In addition, he plans to ask the European Community to earmark 1 percent of its gross national product (GNP) - about $50 billion annually - for development assistance. Of that amount, 25 percent would be reserved for the Mediterranean region.
This month Italy has assumed the six-month presidency of the EC, a tenure which will culminate in December in two intergovernmental conferences that will set the stage for the Community's post-1992 economic, monetary, and political integration. During the same period the Community will tackle the question of economic assistance to the Soviet Union, while preparing for a fall CSCE meeting and maintaining construction of its single market.
Michelis says it is important that Italy play a more active international role ``to give the new Europe a multipolar architecture.''
He does not think the construction of Europe should be left to the EC's traditional German-French axis. Given the memory of the Nazi era that still makes some of Germany's neighbors jittery, he says, ``a more assertive Italy is better for the European scene. It is stabilizing.''
Another important factor, says Michelis, is that Italy now is able to assume such a role. The terrorism that plagued the country for so long is ``gone,'' he says. Productivity is high, and last year Italy surpassed Britain as the world's fifth-largest economy.
It is from that stable base that the country has begun to move outward. Italy now carries on more activity - trade, joint ventures, loans - with Eastern European countries than does France. Last year the government launched a regional accord with Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Austria, which since then has been extended to Czechoslovakia.
The accord was greeted in some other European capitals with some skepticism, but Michelis says he is ``always surprised at the surprise'' over Italy's initiative. ``West Germany and Italy are the two [EC] countries with borders with Eastern Europe,'' he says, ``so it is natural for us to have an Ostpolitik as well.''
How Italy's other initiatives will be received by the EC will be tested during the six-month presidency. Officials in Brussels say that while none of the 12 members is likely to criticize the ``1 percent'' aid proposal publicly, behind closed doors it will get the cold shoulder - especially from the poorer members whose contribution to external aid is well below 1 percent of GNP. And Britain takes a ``practice-what-you-preach'' tone toward Italy's activism, noting that Italy is one of the lowest implementers of 1992 single-market directives.
Yet Michelis says there will be ``very dangerous consequences'' if Western Europe fails to address the tension-building issues that face the Mediterranean region. He cites old and new conflicts, failing economies, and explosive demographics among the issues that could cause the major threat to European security to ``shift from East-West to North-South.''
Italy wants the role of reminding its partners that their East-West agenda must also go south.