View from Rome: A step in the right direction but…

Italy wants to look outward to tackle refugee crisis, but domestic criticism over Turkey’s role

The EU-Turkey summit on migration has generated a quite lively political debate in Italy.

PM Renzi has welcomed the agreement as an important step in the right direction and called for similar initiatives with Lebanon and Jordan. Italy is convinced that, to tackle the refugee issue, it’s time for Europe to look beyond its member states, institutions, internal procedures and borders and finally fully engage with neighbours who are the most involved in the migration crisis, including Turkey.

Practically speaking, according to preliminary estimations, Italy will contribute to the pledged €3 billion fund with €281 million, being the fourth highest contributor to the fund. Renzi immediately pointed out that it is still too early to say whether the funds will be kept out of the Growth and Stability Pact. However, he has already clear in mind that it will be the Italian parliament that will take this decision, not the European Council.

The Italian view on Turkey is interesting in the context of Italy’s traditional relations with its main economic-political partners. Renzi, when talking about Turkey’s role in the migration issue, also mentioned the delicate problem of freedom of press, with regard to the detention of two journalists from the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, accused of espionage. He explicitly warned the Turkish government about the respect for human rights when he said that “Of course we have high standards in terms of human rights. None of us intends to ignore it and I think that my friend, Prime Minister Davutoğlu, knows perfectly well that this relationship with the EU holds together the question of an open dialogue, which cannot disappoint on the issue of human rights”. Renzi used thesame approach when recently visiting Saudi Arabia: during his official meetings, he openly mentioned the case of the blogger Raif Badawi.

In contrast to the government line, the Italian political opposition has looked at the agreement as a political disaster. The Five Stars Movement called the agreement “a terrible mistake”. According to the Movement, Erdoğan has an interest in oil business with ISIS, and as a result, the EU is indirectly financing Islamic State instead of supporting the strengthening of democracy and governance or promoting the rule of law, growth and competitiveness.

With the same very critical vein, Matteo Salvini, MEP and leader of the Northern League, defined the agreement as a “crazy gift” to Ankara. He also warned the EU against moving forwards with Turkey on the accession process adding that “If Turkey joins the EU, Italy will leave!”

As is also the case with Russia, Turkey is a crucial dossier for Italy. Historically, Italy has advocated for both closer relations with Moscow and Turkish accession, an approach which has quite often brought about political clashes with other European partners. Now, given what is going on in our closest neighbourhood, at the East as well as at the South, Italy has been “forced” to reframe and rethink, at least publicly, its approach towards Moscow and Ankara: they are vital for our economy and important features of our political vision on international relations but, at the same time, they are required to respect international standards and practices.  For Moscow, this means the respect of Minsk protocol; for Ankara, the human rights and freedom dossier.

Realism is now needed, for Italy as well as for other member states. We need and want Turkey to help resolve the migration crisis, and indeed we cannot deal with it without Turkish direct involvement. However, at the same time, we know Turkey’s position on human rights and freedoms, its domestic political landscape and is current approach to key international dossiers like Syria and Cyprus.

After the Turkey-EU summit, we will have find a short-term compromise. The next challenge for Europe is to find a real medium to long term political solution. And, the next challenge for Italy, as for other member states, is to reframe its approach towards Turkey accordingly: what do we want Turkey to be for us?


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Rome Office

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