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

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.

Italy PM: Events in Syria will define EU-Russia relations
Paolo Gentiloni, Italy's new prime minister. Photo: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP

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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Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came top in Italian elections on Sunday, exit polls suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.

Exit polls published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 22 and 26 percent of the vote.

BLOG: Italian election exit polls suggest victory for Giorgia Meloni

Her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, lagged behind but between them appear to have enough seats to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.

The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.

Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, has abandoned her calls for one of Europe’s biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.

“Today you can participate in writing history,” the 45-year-old tweeted before the polls closed.

Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections.

Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.

Hers was the only party not to join Draghi’s coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

For many voters, Meloni was “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP before the election.

But the self-declared “Christian mother” – whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi’s 2008 government – has huge challenges ahead.

Like much of Europe, Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.

‘Limited room for manoeuvre’

Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.

She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four percent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday’s triumph.

Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy’s nationalist interests abroad.

They want to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.

But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums”, political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for manoeuvre”.

The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Draghi.

 Ukraine support

Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.

Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.

It is only one area in which Meloni and her allies do not see eye to eye, leading some analysts to predict that their coalition may not last long.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Italian politics is historically unstable, with almost 70 governments since 1946.

A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”, “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam”.

She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.

The centre-left Democratic Party claimed her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.