Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Renzi plays games with EU-Russia sanctions

  • Renzi (l) wrong-footed France, Germany, and the UK at last week's summit (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

It is hardly surprising that Italy, an old friend of Russia, led the successful charge to soften conclusions at last week’s EU summit.

It removed threats to tighten sanctions on Moscow a in response to the Kremlin’s support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign in Aleppo.

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  • The Italian prime minister (second from the right) has to stay on the right side of Italian public opinion (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Prime minister Matteo Renzi’s diplomatic coup wrong-footed his more hawkish French, German, and British counterparts, but it may have been influenced by domestic politics as much as by geopolitical concerns.

Renzi, who visited the White House ahead of the summit, reassured Western leaders that he was on their side in strategic terms.

“You know what our foreign policy is. You know on which side of history and also geography we are on,” he said in Brussels on Friday (21 October).

He said Italy also wanted friendly relations with Russia, however.

He said he was “trying to keep dialogue open with everybody, especially with those who … can help in resolving big international issues, as Russia certainly can do and is doing on some fronts, as it has done on Iran”.

He also said there would have been “no point in adding” a sanctions threat.

The move would “have perhaps been a good alibi” for EU leaders trying to show they were doing something on Syria, he said, “but certainly not a deterrent” to Russia and Syria’s Aleppo campaign.

“You only need to look at reality,” Renzi said, in remarks that went down well in Italy.

Domestic scene

Corriere della Sera, the Italian establishment’s newspaper of record, said in a Saturday editorial that new EU sanctions “would have ended up strengthening [Russian leader] Putin on the domestic front” and, “above all, they would have further damaged Italy’s economic and commercial interests.”

The EU already imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 due to its actions in Ukraine.

Italy’s is the second-largest EU exporter to Russia after Germany.

The existing EU measures, and Russia’s retaliations, have, according to Sace, the Italian Export Credit Agency, seen Italian exports to Russia fall by 30 percent over the past two years to a projected €6.5 billion this year.

Against this backdrop, and amid Italy’s broader struggle to emerge from recession, Renzi has, for months, faced calls from business lobbies and opposition parties to dismantle the EU sanctions regime.

The right-wing Northern League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) have piled on the pressure.

Renzi’s own Democratic Party (PD) also questioned the logic of restrictive measures at a pre-EU summit debate in the Italian parliament held two weeks ago.

“The war in Syria today, and previously the war in Ukraine have led to Russia’s international estrangement from international politics through reciprocal sanctions between Russia and the EU. Has this helped rebalance the international situation? I do not think so,” Silvia Fragolent, a PD deputy, said on 10 October.

Warpath

If the Italian leader had come back from the EU summit with a prospect of new sanctions, he would have handed his critics fresh ammunition.

“Matteo Renzi knows very well that our farmers and our businessmen are on the warpath about those outrageous sanctions”, a leading M5S deputy, Luigi Di Maio, told the SkyTG24 news channel on Sunday.

Di Maio, who is seen as a potential prime ministerial candidate, said EU sanctions had already “caused multi-billion euros’ worth of damages” to Italy.

Keeping on the right side of public opinion is a priority for Renzi, amid a looming referendum on constitutional reforms due on 4 December.

Renzi is the chief sponsor of the reforms, but his flagship project is struggling to win voters’ support.

A poll published on Saturday by Corriere della Sera had the No vote surging to 54 percent, up from 52 percent in early October, and 49 percent in July.

The prime minister had promised to step down if he lost, but even if he walked away from the pledge, he would be unlikely to keep his post in the event of a defeat.

He is resorting to all the tricks in the book to avoid that scenario.

His tactics include ever more vocal EU bashing on migration and on austerity.

Russia aside, Renzi is heading for a clash with the European Commission on Italy’s 2017 budget.

He aims to introduce EU-deficit busting pension and tax giveaways, while justifying his overspend by citing Italy’s costs in the migration crisis and its costs in the August earthquake in central Italy.

Better the devil you know

Renzi’s antics have already grated with some people, such as commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, but EU leaders might have to grin and bear it for fear of worse alternatives.

As the EU tries to salvage credibility following the UK’s vote to leave the bloc, the last thing it needs is a risky election in Italy.

Renzi’s main rivals, the M5S, have anti-euro, anti-free trade, and pro-Russia policies that fall far outside the EU mainstream.

In June, M5S deputy Manlio Di Stefano boasted about being the only Italian to have been invited to the congress of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia.

“Clearly, if they give us all this importance, the Russians have already understood that we are close to government and they appreciate our honest and sincere work over the past two years against the sanctions imposed by the EU”, Di Stefano said on the M5S’ official blog.

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