Given the ongoing tragic events in the near Mediterranean, the attention of the Italian government is now mainly focused on the southern neighbourhood. In Rome’s opinion, political instability in some of our southern neighbours, such as Libya, could have immediate political, economic, and migration consequences on Italy and Europe. Therefore, a comprehensive approach that shares the burden among European Union member states is sorely needed. According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 25,703 migrants reached Italian shores between January and April 2015; 1,780 people died and 170,000 people were saved by the Italian Navy. So, Italy’s current foreign policy priority should come as no surprise to foreign policy observers.
However, even as Italy tries to convince Brussels of the absolute need for a new European approach towards the south, the eastern neighbourhood has not lost importance in Italian eyes. Of course, there are some important differences between the two neighbourhoods: in the south, a crisis resolution plan is needed, whereas in the east, the objective must be the consolidation of already existing, although sometimes weak, democratic transition processes. This vision is reflected in the 2014-2020 Italian budget for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP): one-third of the funds are earmarked for the east and two-thirds for the south.
In considering the east, “the element” that always influences Italian eastern strategy should be remembered: its relations with Russia, a traditional economic, energy, and political partner with whom Italy has had and will always have to deal. However, whereas in the past Rome promoted its unique and privileged partnership with Moscow, it is now looking beyond bilateral relations. The Ukraine crisis has shifted the Italian position on Russia: the country is still a partner, but we cannot ignore what it has done in Ukraine. However, Moscowis still important for Italy, and like it or not, that remains the reality. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently wrote an op-ed in which he contends that it was a mistake on the part of European and Western leaders not to attend the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of World War II in Moscow – Western leaders can be easily replaced by leaders from China and India. The absence of the West was not a reflection of strength – rather, it showed weakness and myopia. Today’s challenges cannot be addressed without engaging Russia, he wrote.
In an interview with La Stampa on 5 May, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni reiterated Italy’s support for Kyiv and its commitment to the resolution of the Ukraine crisis, which can only come about through a political solution. Sovereignty, territorial integrity, the Minsk Agreements, institutional and economic reforms: these are the key words used by Italian diplomats when talking about Ukraine. Italy also recognises the importance of Ukraine for the Italian economy: Italy is Ukraine’s third most important economic partner in the EU and seventh most important in the world. The immigration issue also plays a role: according to 2014 data, about 10 percent of the non-EU foreign population living in Italy comes from Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, mainly from Ukraine and Moldova.
At the same time, Gentiloni said that we should not “close the door to Russia”, a recurrent formula in the Italian approach to the ongoing crisis. Any effort to reach an agreement must not leave out dialogue with Moscow, which is not only an interlocutor for Italy, but also for the majority of EU member states. We need to find a stable, politic, and balanced compromise between Moscow’s arguments and those of Kyiv’s.
Italy is trying to balance between preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty on the one hand and maintaining a constructive dialogue with Russia on the other, with a view towards a rapprochement between Moscow and Brussels. A new Cold War scenario would be the worst possible outcome, given the inevitable economic and political consequences that it would have. Italy is already paying a high economic price because of the sanctions regime, and in political terms, Russia must be considered as a key interlocutor in solving some of the hot dossiers, especially in the MENA region, from Libya to Syria to the Iranian nuclear deal. Of course, the Italian position has been widely criticised, especially by Kyiv and Washington.
For Italy, the EaP is not exclusively related to Ukraine. Belarus is also important. Italy, although fully aware that Belarus is a long way from being a well-established democracy, believes that Europe should channel the cautious opening signals from Minsk into a more European structured strategy. This might be also due to the relatively strong economic ties between Italy and Minsk: Italy is one of Belarus’s top ten commercial partners, with exchanges in 2014 amounting to $105 million. Azerbaijan also deserves mention: commercial and energy relations are at the heart of Italy-Azerbaijan relations, which, in the last four years, have grown from €200 million to €600 million and have been mainly focused on infrastructure, energy, environment, and health technologies.
Italy recognises that the Ukraine crisis has partially eclipsed some of the successes that have to date been achieved with some EaP partners. But at the same time, Rome sees the Riga Summit as an opportunity to continue the dialogue and to implement economic and political integration as well as freedom of movement. Italy believes it is vital to support the EaP countries who have already signed Association Agreements, that is, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, without forgetting to guide the neighbours who are not yet ready to make such a commitment, such as Azerbaijan and Armenia, but who have expressed their will to instate more European-oriented relations.
Silvia Francescon is the head of ECFR’s Rome office. Before joining ECFR, Silvia was deputy head of the G8-G20 Sherpa office at the Italian Prime Minister’s Office.
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 Rosie Scammell and Alessandra Bonomolo, “Italy rescues thousands of migrants in Med in huge weekend operation”, The Guardian, 3 May 2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/03/thousands-migrants-rescue-med-weekend-operations-libya-italy-mediterranean.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.