9th Aug 2022

Does Draghi have a Russia problem?

  • Mario Draghi's Italy was one of three countries singled out by Donald Tusk for having 'disgraced' itself over Russia sanctions (Photo: European Parliament)
Listen to article

Italy is among EU member states facing the opprobrium of central and eastern Europeans in the aftermath of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And no wonder.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Photos of The League's Matteo Salvini wearing a T-shirt with Putin's face circulate on social media (Photo: Twitter)

Italy was among the handful of countries at a summit in Brussels on Thursday night (24 February) that opposed booting Russia out of the SWIFT international banking payments system.

On Friday morning, Italy was specifically named by former president of the European Council and ex-Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, as among three countries that "disgraced themselves" at the summit for blocking more forceful sanctions against Russia.

Rome has long enjoyed something of a special friendship with Moscow, not least because of the presence of historically pro-Russian political forces in the Italian parliament.

And while much of the infatuation with Russia among some Italians may be hard to explain, it's still a factor that its leaders, like prime minister Mario Draghi, must contend with.

The leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, has been praising Vladimir Putin for years. Photos of Salvini wearing a T-shirt with Putin's face circulate on social media.

And in 2016, a leading member of the League in the northeastern Veneto region traveled to Crimea calling for an end to the embargo with Russia.

There's also been a measure of hostility on the far-left toward Ukraine in the lead up to the war. Some academics repeated on social media the trope that Ukraine is a Nazi country — the very language used by Putin himself.

The Italian media, too, often has a Russian flavour.

"In the Italian news the voice of Ukraine is missing — there is an authentic void," said Yaryna Grusha, a professor of Ukrainian language and literature at the University Statale of Milan, who has been living in Italy for seven years.

"The vast majority of news talk about Russia, not Ukraine," she said, adding that television reporters in particular use "typical Russian narratives" in their reports.

Luxury goods

Then there's the economy. Italy is known for its export-driven small and medium-sized businesses.

And while there is a perception that these firms — and not just the luxury fashion brands — would suffer from loss of the Russian market, the evidence may not quite back that up.

Italian companies exported food, clothing, luxury goods and furniture to Russia totalling €7.1bn 2020 — far less than to tiny Belgium.

Even so, most most business lobbies representing these SMEs are extremely hostile to international sanctions against Moscow

Alessandro Vitale, associate professor of economic and political geography at the University Statale of Milan, says Italian exports to Russia have been in decline over the past three years and now represent a mere 1.5 percent of their overall sales.

What is undeniable, however, is that Russia is a crucial energy partner for Italy.

The country is heavily dependent on gas for electricity production, and with 40 percent of that gas coming from Russia, according to Davide Tabarelli, president of the research center Nomisma Energia

Increasing energy prices already are striking many businesses hard with many foregoing investment and hiring.

Low-income south Italy

Ordinary Italians were already worried about high energy bills, and now low-income families, especially in southern Italy, are finding it extremely difficult to pay for electricity and gas.

To make matters worse, Italian media have amplified the fears many Italians have of a gas supply disruption.

By Friday morning, Draghi was eager to say Italy would be in tougher on Russia in future if needed.

Europe, including Italy, is ready "to take even harsher measures if these do not prove sufficient," Draghi told the Chamber of Deputies.

That stance was backed up by undersecretary Giorgio Mulè, of the pro-Nato, pro-EU Forza Italia party.

"If diplomacy fails any option must be on the table and must be examined," said Mulè, who also noted that "sanctions can hit a country like Russia very hard."

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


Why Draghi could be a two-term prime-minister

Brussels is feeling the Mario Draghi effect, too. After the German elections, this former president of the European Central Bank will become the European Council's most institutionally-experienced member.

Tusk turns on former partners over Ukraine 'disgrace'

Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the EU Council until 2019 and current chair of the European People's Party broke with normal diplomatic niceties to lambast Germany, Hungary and Italy as having "disgraced themselves."


Has the EU gone far enough on sanctions?

This is how sanctions work: to be credible, those who put these measures in place must be willing to accept negative effects on both sides. To make a difference, EU countries will have to be ready to bear the costs.


Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter

Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium, responds to EUobserver op-ed on Taiwan by the Chinese ambassador to Belgium. "Taiwan is an 'island of resilience'. That will continue to be the case."


Supporting Taiwan 'like carrying water in a sieve'

China's ambassador to Belgium, Cao Zhongming, says the US has been distorting, obscuring and hollowing out the 'one-China' principle and unscrupulously undermining China's core interests. This is sheer double standards and a shameful act of bad faith.

News in Brief

  1. Rhine river on the brink of closure for shipping
  2. Moldova sees 'prelude to war' with Russia-backed forces
  3. Taliban preventing Afghan evacuations to Germany
  4. Amnesty regrets 'distress' caused by Ukraine report
  5. Energy companies warn UK gas exports to EU are contaminated
  6. EU set for clash over rules on political adverts
  7. Three grain ships due to leave Ukraine on Friday
  8. EU on track to reach gas-storage November target

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Latest News

  1. Italy poised to elect far-right rulers
  2. UN chief demands access to nuclear plant after new attack
  3. Greek PM embroiled in spyware scandal
  4. How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army
  5. 'We must take back institutions', Orban tells US conservatives
  6. Putin must lose Ukraine war, Nato chief says
  7. Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter
  8. Droughts prompt calls to cut water use amid harvest fears

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us