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Italy PM: Events in Syria will define EU-Russia relations

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Italy PM: Events in Syria will define EU-Russia relations
Paolo Gentiloni, Italy's new prime minister. Photo: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP
14:53 CET+01:00
Italy's new prime minister sees EU relations with Russia being "defined" by unfolding events in Syria and a Donald Trump-led United States as his top ally on the global stage.

Paolo Gentiloni, the successor to Matteo Renzi, told parliament on Tuesday that this week's summit of European Union leaders in Brussels would focus on Syria, where Russian-backed pro-government forces are reportedly executing civilians in the final stages of the battle for control of Aleppo.

"A crisis that is defining relations between the EU and Russia will be discussed at a time of transition for the American administration," the former foreign minister said ahead of Thursday's summit, which he is expected to attend.

Gentiloni, 62, added: "I take the opportunity to say that we stand ready to collaborate with the country that has always been our principal partner, the United States, on the basis of our principles."

The remarks on Russia could be seen as significant because Italy has lately been amongst the most dovish of EU countries on relations with Moscow. Rome notably aired reservations about the utility of sanctions imposed over the Kremlin's conduct in Ukraine, although it has never broken ranks from the common EU position.

Business as usual

Gentiloni was speaking at the opening of a parliamentary debate prior to a required vote of confidence in his new government line-up.

With the exception of some minor tweaks, he signalled little change of direction from close ally Renzi, who resigned last week after suffering a crushing defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform.

That means that Italy will continue to seek leeway on the application of the European Union's budget rules to be able to pursue an expansionary economic policy.

And Gentiloni will, like Renzi, bang on the table in Brussels for other EU member states to help Italy cope with the record numbers of migrants arriving on its southern shores.

"We have a very clear position. We cannot accept as a done deal that the EU is too strict on certain aspects of austerity and too indulgent towards countries that do not agree to share common responsibilities (on migrants)," the new premier said.

Domestically, Gentiloni confirmed the government stood ready to intervene to rescue Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the country's troubled third largest bank, if necessary.

Ministry for south

He said the economy was strong but acknowledged the government had to address the disaffection that led to Renzi's proposals being rejected by a near 60-40 majority of voters.

"The problems facing the sections of our middle classes that are suffering the most, whether they are employees or self-employed, have to be at the heart of our efforts to restart the economy," he said.

One change Gentiloni has made is in creating a ministry dedicated to Italy's underdeveloped south, where the anti-Renzi vote was stronger and voter turnout lower than in the more prosperous north.

"We have to do much more for the south," Gentiloni said.

The new premier also vowed to accelerate discussions on a defence review. Italy has said Britain's June vote to leave the EU is an opportunity for continental powers to press ahead with the development of a European defence capacity, long blocked by London.

Also an advocate of faster and deeper European integration in other areas, Gentiloni said next year's celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU-founding Treaty of Rome would be "not just a celebration, but also an opportunity to bet on the future" of the Union.

The new premier will have limited time to put his stamp on the country. An election is due by February 2018 but widely expected at some point next year with Renzi predicted to be the Democratic Party's candidate for premier.

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