The October European Council agenda deals with some sensitive issues for Italy: migration, relations with Russia, and growth vs austerity measures. Italy will be especially guarded in the wake of the substantial rift between Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Merkel-Hollande duo that emerged in Bratislava
Although EU officials state that the Russia discussion will not be limited to economic sanctions, Renzi is aware that this is the heart of the matter. During the days leading up to the Council, the Italian government has reaffirmed its position on several occasions: it is against the automatic renewal of the sanctions, arguing instead for extension to be conditional on a careful assessment of the Minsk Process.
Italy sees its role as providing a reality check for EU policy on Russia. It believes that, given Moscow’s strategic centrality in the neighborhood, the EU must move towards a more constructive, pragmatic dialogue. However, Russia’s role in the Syrian tragedy – and especially its barbaric attacks on Aleppo’s civilians – have made it more difficult for Italy to maintain this stance. Indeed, Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni recently wrote that the time has come to draw red lines for Putin.
Still, Italy sees the European Council as a forum for policy and political discussion, where measures should be debated instead of simply adopted. As Bratislava demonstrates, Renzi is intent on proper discussion. Most likely he will reiterate that sanctions are a classical political topic that cannot be addressed on technical terms and automatically renewed: it deserves a more comprehensive, political assessment.
With Britain, the most powerful among the “hawks”, out of the game, and with other uncompromising countries like Poland weakened by their troubles with Brussels, Renzi may now find that there is more room for negotiation. There is also a “do ut des” dimension in the picture. Italy is not keen to continue to provide support to the eastern bloc on Russia if it does not receive solidarity on the migration front in return.
Other factros underpinning Italy’s increasingly vocal opposition to automatic renewal are to be found in domestic economics and politics. Opposition parties Lega Nord and M5S have been tough on the government’s approval of sanctions, which they see as contradictory given the impact on Italian businesses. According to market analysts, Italian exporters lost €3.6 billion (a loss in earnings of 34%) during the first year after the EU-Russia embargo. Thus, with the Italian business sector lobbying hard – particularly in the key electoral regions of Lombardia and Emilia Romagna – Renzi is less inclined to let automatic renewal happen easily.