ROME — Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni must have known the question about defense spending was coming when he entered the White House on Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly called on NATO partners like Italy to boost defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product that the transatlantic organization requires, and he has threatened to cut U.S. commitments to those countries' security if they do not.
Italy's spending currently stands at about 1.1 percent of its GDP, just more than half of what NATO, and Trump, wants it to spend.
When the question about Italy's shortfall came from a journalist during Gentiloni and Trump's news conference, the president smiled and said he would be asking the Italian prime minister the same thing.
Responding, Gentiloni clearly had his answer ready, claiming Italy fully intended to meet the commitment, despite budget limitations.
"We know that this will be a gradual process. It has already begun," he said.
That view, however, contrasts with the reality of an Italian defense budget that has not shifted in recent years and looks unlikely to rise this year, one analyst said.
"There is no trend towards an increase — it's flat," said Alessandro Marrone, a senior fellow at the IAI think tank in Rome. "There has been no big cut since the 2008 crisis, but no increase introduced by the three different governments we have had in the last four years," he added.
Although the definitive defense budget for 2017 has yet to be published, Marrone said the numbers looked to be flat this year, too.
Nor will spending likely rise next year, he said, noting that Italy's political party the Five Star Movement, which has appeared hostile to rearmament, is currently topping the polls ahead of elections due this year or next.
"France has a momentum for defense spending as a reaction to terror attacks, while the Baltic states are fearful of Russia, but there is no will in Italy on the part of voters or politicians to increase spending," he said.
"Even Obama couldn't get Italy to spend, and he was loved, so Trump will have no impact," he added.
Marrone said he calculated last year's spending at €17.1 billion euros (which today is U.S. $18.4 billion adjusted for inflation) including €1 billion voted through by Parliament for spending on overseas missions.
Italy has tried with little success in recent years to whittle down its aging military ranks, meaning that wage bills remain constantly high, reducing funds for maintenance and operations, or M&O, as well as procurement as the overall budget flatlines.
To keep maintenance and training up, the Italian military has increasingly dipped into the mission budget voted through by Parliament, making it a key element of funding.
"M&O budgeting has been the Cinderella of funding, an easy target for cuts," Marrone said. "Since we have 1,100 personnel in Lebanon, 600 in Kosovo and 1,000 in Afghanistan, commanders have used the missions for 'training while operating,' with more rotations in order to maintain readiness."
The hefty wage bill has also squeezed procurement funding, leading to reliance on the Italian industry ministry for top-up funding, which last year ran to €2.5 billion, a figure Marrone said he included in his €17.1 billion total.
Italy's 1.1 percent of GDP spending on defense means it is lagging behind other western European nations, according to a study of 2015 budgets by think tank Sipri.
France spent 2.1 percent, and the U.K. spent 2 percent that year, while Germany and Spain each spent 1.2 percent of GDP.
Italy does not share the fear of Russian aggression that its Eastern European neighbors experience, and it has not suffered a major terror attack by Islamic militants or those loyal to their movements. But it is extremely concerned about the militia-fueled anarchy in Libya, across the Mediterranean, not least because 181,000 migrants set sail last year from the North African nation and made land fall in Italy.
"Gentiloni wants U.S. help to create stability in Libya, something which is of concern to the Italian public," Marrone said.
The problem is Trump made it clear at the White House that Gentiloni would not get it, which Marrone said "reduces leverage [Trump] has on Italy to spend more on defense"
"I do not see a role in Libya," Trump said at the joint news conference. "I think the United States has right now enough roles. We're in a role everywhere. So I do not see that.
"I do see a role in getting rid of [the Islamic State group], we're very effective in that regard. ... I see that as a primary role and that's what we're going to do, whether it's in Iraq, or Libya or anywhere else."