Draghi race: Italian voters and Russia’s war on Ukraine

Draghi’s approach to Italian and EU policy on Russia is at odds with the public mood in Italy. He will need to act quickly if he is to convince voters at home to support his foreign policy choices.

Prime Minister Draghi greeting President Zelenskyy

French President Emmanuel Macron’s parliamentary election woes may have overshadowed his recent visit to Kyiv. But for his travel companions – Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis – the quick yet politically intense trip remains important. Draghi has returned to Italy and to the European Union as a leader of the push to grant Ukraine EU candidate status. He is now likely to play a key role, alongside Scholz and Macron, in convincing leaders in the other 24 member states to go along.

However, Draghi’s prominent military and political support for Ukraine may upset the balance of power in Italy. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and around 60 other MPs decided on 21 June to leave the Five Star Movement. They did so because Giuseppe Conte – who led the party and is a member of the ruling coalition – strongly opposed the supply of military support to Ukraine. With Di Maio still supporting Draghi’s government and Conte opposing its stance on Russia, the split could signal further fragmentation within other parties.

As this author argued shortly after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine: Rome’s divorce from Moscow is a messy one. And Draghi’s strong opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime would have been unimaginable before 24 February. EU leaders recognise this fact, as do the Italian public.

In Italy, the political and economic challenges of the war – as well as those related to energy dependence on Russia – are evolving. This is changing the mood and expectations of the Italian public and civil society organisations, especially given that the country is still dealing with the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.

Draghi’s prominent military and political support for Ukraine may upset the balance of power in Italy

As Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev argue, while Europeans feel great solidarity with Ukraine and support EU sanctions on Russia, they are split on how they see the war ending – with slightly more of them preferring peace as soon as possible (even if this requires Ukraine to make concessions) to the punishment of Russia. This largely stems from concerns about the cost of economic sanctions on Russia and the threat of nuclear escalation. So, unless something changes, most Europeans will oppose a long and protracted war. Therefore, European governments need to find a way to allay their citizens’ fears and avoid polarisation between and within countries. The ECFR poll Leonard and Krastev draw on indicates that the Italian government could be under the most urgent pressure to do so.

Although 56 per cent of Italians hold Russia responsible for the war, 27 per cent of them think that Ukraine, the EU, or the United States is to blame for it. Compared to, for example, Finland – where 90 per cent say Russia is responsible and just 5 per cent blame the EU, US, or Ukraine – Italians have a substantially different view of Russia.

Like French, Romanian, and German citizens, Italians tend to have a relatively positive attitude towards Russia. When asked which country constitutes the biggest obstacle to peace between Russia and Ukraine, 35 per cent of Italians chose Ukraine, the EU, or the US – which is the largest proportion of all polled countries. Again, for comparison, just 5 per cent of Finnish citizens hold the same opinion.

Of course, there are considerable historical, economic, and political differences between Finland and Italy. The findings from Italy may reflect the consequences of the country’s foreign, economic, and energy policies in the last three decades, combined with some Italian political parties’ Euroscepticism and anti-Western attitudes, as well as their special relationships with authoritarian regimes. For instance, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi prioritised energy and economic relations with Moscow (albeit not to the same extent that German chancellors did). But the trend towards partnership with authoritarians peaked under the first government of another ex-prime minister, Conte, when a political orientation towards Russia and China became dominant, at the cost of Euro-Atlantic relations.

Economics, energy, and politics dominated Italy’s relationship with Russia. However, culture is also important. Italy’s communist party, founded in 1921 and dissolved in 1991, was the largest of its kind in western Europe. The party shaped Italian politics, priorities, culture, and society for 70 years. And, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had strong ties with Moscow. This period of Italian history still influences the public debate today. Many prominent Italian commentators, analysts, journalists, and experts come from that political background – as they were members, affiliates, or supporters of the party – even if they have adapted their thinking over the years in line with changes in domestic politics.

This closeness to Russia may help explain another finding of ECFR’s poll related to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The poll shows that Italians are the most likely of all respondents to want peace as soon as possible, even if this requires Ukraine to make concessions. Fifty-two per cent of Italians are in this “peace camp”, compared to only 16 per cent in Poland. This can be explained by Italians’ greatest fears about the impact of the war: increased energy prices, an economic downturn, and an influx of Ukrainian refugees into Italy.

But the historical sympathies towards Russia discussed above may also be at play here, as may be widespread anti-Americanism in Italy – which is closer to anti-militarism than a genuine desire for peace. Aside from a few populists, Italian politicians are broadly pro-US. But the Italian public has been deeply critical of major US foreign policy issues such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Guantanamo Bay, the American military presence in Italy since the end of the second world war, and US support for Israel.

Therefore, ECFR’s poll reveals how Draghi’s approach to Italian and EU policy on Russia is at odds with the public mood in Italy. Indeed, 48 per cent of Italians think their government dedicates too much attention to the war in Ukraine compared to other problems they face. This is the perfect narrative for populists to exploit – especially in Italy, which is already politically fragile. Moreover, the country is already in campaign mode ahead of the 2023 general election, which could see an anti-EU government gain power.

Draghi will need to work harder than any of his companions on the trip to Kyiv to gain public support for his Russia policy. Unless he can address Italians’ fears about the war, Italy will likely become more polarised. Some of his strong foreign policy choices may still be difficult for the Italian public to accept, particularly in the aftermath of the covid-19 pandemic. This may be especially the case for policies involving Russia, the US, and China.

Although Draghi does not belong to any political party, his position depends on the support of a broad coalition – and it may prove impossible to please everyone. With a general election looming, the big questions concern how long the coalition will last, and how his political stance on the invasion of Ukraine will develop in the coming months.

All this means that foreign policy is now more important to the public debate than at any other point in the last decade. The issue of how to deal with Russia could reshape Italian politics by causing further polarisation between opponents and supporters of military aid for Ukraine. The war may finally force the leaders of Italy’s parties to decide which side of history they want to be on.

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

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Author

Programme Manager, ECFR Rome

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