1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia

A largely shared view that dialogue with Russia should be kept open

Italy has aligned with the EU and NATO in con­demn­ing Russia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea and its desta­bil­is­ing role in East­ern Ukraine. Indeed, Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Ren­zi recent­ly aligned with the EU deci­sion to extend the sanc­tions until the end of Jan­u­ary 2016.

How­ev­er, the gov­ern­ment rejects the idea of a new Cold War and has been rather vocal in advo­cat­ing a diplo­mat­ic solu­tion to the Ukrain­ian cri­sis, as well as the con­tin­u­a­tion of a crit­i­cal dia­logue with Rus­sia. Indeed, Italy is try­ing to devel­op a dis­tinc­tive approach towards the issue, com­bin­ing res­olute­ness on the Ukrain­ian dossier with stress­ing the impor­tance for the EU as a whole to keep the dia­logue with Rus­sia open. For these rea­sons, Italy oppos­es any esca­la­tions in the sanc­tions and oppos­es the sup­ply of arms to Kyiv.

As for the main oppo­si­tion par­ties, For­ward Italy calls for the lift­ing of sanc­tions and the Five-Star Move­ment large­ly shares this view, where­as the left-wing par­ty Left Ecol­o­gy Free­dom rather calls for their mit­i­ga­tion. Final­ly, the North­ern League holds the most extreme posi­tion, by call­ing for the inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion of the Repub­lic of Crimea. After the EU deci­sion to extend the restric­tions, six motions were pre­sent­ed in the low­er Cham­ber of the Par­lia­ment (by both left-wing and right-wing oppo­si­tion par­ties) advo­cat­ing for the lift­ing of the sanctions.

The need to keep coop­er­a­tion with Rus­sia alive is felt par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Ital­ian busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty and some rep­re­sen­ta­tives there­of expressed con­cerns about the cur­rent sanc­tions regime. For instance, Ital­ian ener­gy giant ENI has impor­tant inter­ests in coop­er­a­tion with Rus­sia in the ener­gy sec­tor. After the can­cel­la­tion of the South Stream project, in which ENI had a con­tract with Gazprom for the con­struc­tion of the off­shore sec­tion, Ital­ian SAIPEM (owned by ENI) will be par­tic­i­pat­ing in the con­struc­tion of the new Russ­ian-led project Turk­ish Stream.

As for the atti­tude of the Ital­ian pub­lic, a recent sur­vey has shown that 41 per­cent dis­agrees with the sanc­tions towards Rus­sia, where­as 23 per­cent strong­ly agrees, 28 per­cent some­what agrees, and 8 per­cent nei­ther agrees nor disagrees.


Relations with the Eastern Neighbourhood: Italy’s commitment despite prioritisation of the Mediterranean area

Although the cri­sis in Ukraine has brought the East­ern Neigh­bour­hood into the spot­light, EU rela­tions with Rus­sia, rather than with the East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries, con­tin­ue to dom­i­nate the debate in Italy. More­over, when it comes to the EU neigh­bour­hood, Italy tends to focus main­ly on the Mediter­ranean region rather than on the East.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to work for the real­i­sa­tion of the long-term objec­tives of the East­ern Part­ner­ship, name­ly eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion, polit­i­cal asso­ci­a­tion, and free­dom of move­ment between the EU and its East­ern part­ners. In the first half of 2015, the Ital­ian Sen­ate pro­vid­ed a con­tri­bu­tion on the ongo­ing Euro­pean Neigh­bour­hood Pol­i­cy review, call­ing for, among oth­er things, a pol­i­cy more inte­grat­ed with CFSP/CSDP and migra­tion poli­cies, a mit­i­ga­tion of the “more for more mod­el”, and the pro­vi­sion of oth­er forms of asso­ci­a­tion and dia­logue than asso­ci­a­tion agree­ments and free trade agreements.

Among the east­ern neigh­bours, the focus of pub­lic atten­tion has unsur­pris­ing­ly been on Ukraine. Indeed, Italy is com­mit­ted to main­tain a con­sis­tent pol­i­cy with the EU on the issue, based on the respect for Ukraine’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty, on non-recog­ni­tion of the de fac­to author­i­ties in Don­bass on the imple­men­ta­tion of the Min­sk agree­ment, and on the pro­mo­tion of a direct dia­logue between Moscow and Kyiv. In addi­tion, Italy has a rather crit­i­cal stance on the poten­tial for Ukrain­ian mem­ber­ship in NATO, and believes that it would be a mis­take. Italy urges the Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment to pro­vide the Don­bass region with auton­o­my, and Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs Pao­lo Gen­tiloni recent­ly advo­cat­ed the cre­ation of an autonomous region mod­elled on Ital­ian South Tyrol.

Final­ly, the recent­ly launched joint Italy-Ukraine eco­nom­ic com­mis­sion will focus on sec­tors of pri­or­i­ty inter­est such as ener­gy, agri­cul­ture, and food production.

Regard­ing Geor­gia and Moldo­va, the imple­men­ta­tion of the Asso­ci­a­tion Agree­ments and Deep and Com­pre­hen­sive Free Trade Areas was list­ed among the pri­or­i­ties of the Ital­ian Pres­i­den­cy of the Coun­cil of the EU in 2014.

As for coun­tries which are not in the posi­tion to engage in deep nego­ti­a­tions with the EU (such as Arme­nia or Azer­bai­jan), Italy sup­ports the idea of offer­ing them ad hoc forms of coop­er­a­tion in spe­cif­ic areas. Final­ly, the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment shows will­ing­ness to encour­age and pro­mote the cau­tious sig­nals of open­ness com­ing recent­ly from Belarus, in order to build more struc­tured rela­tions with this country.

Hence, in the light of the events in Ukraine, Italy is seek­ing to achieve a del­i­cate bal­ance in the region: on the one hand, fos­ter­ing its eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal ties with these coun­tries, and on the oth­er hand pre­serv­ing its rela­tion­ship with Russia.


A largely overlooked Eastern Partnership Riga Summit

The annu­al paper out­lin­ing Italy’s imple­men­ta­tion of EU poli­cies in 2015 (pre­sent­ed some months before the event in Riga) stressed Italy’s com­mit­ment to ensure the full suc­cess of the sum­mit. How­ev­er, the Riga Sum­mit was large­ly over­looked by the major Ital­ian news­pa­pers, as well as by gov­ern­men­tal sources, and no press releas­es con­cern­ing the sum­mit were pub­lished by the Ital­ian Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs or by the Depart­ment for EU Poli­cies. Only a very con­cise press release was issued by the gov­ern­ment, stat­ing that Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Ren­zi attend­ed the sum­mit. As for the media, despite very few excep­tions, it was acknowl­edged mere­ly as one of the many EU sum­mits rather than a sum­mit gath­er­ing the EU mem­ber states and their East­ern part­ners. More­over, it was only men­tioned in report­ing about the lit­tle quip between Jean-Claude Junck­er and Hungary’s Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Orbán – when Junck­er greet­ed Orbán with “Hel­lo, dic­ta­tor” – or about dis­cus­sions on the migra­tion issue.


A staunch supporter of CSDP, but not specifically against Russia

Italy is tra­di­tion­al­ly a staunch sup­port­er of inte­gra­tion in the field of secu­ri­ty and defence, which is regard­ed as a key part of the Euro­pean project. How­ev­er, this is not intend­ed to be at the expense of the NATO-EU strate­gic part­ner­ship, which is con­sid­ered essential.

Min­is­ter of Defence Rober­ta Pinot­ti recent­ly called for fur­ther inte­gra­tion in this field, which should in her view be real­ized through grad­ual steps and start with a nucle­us of few EU states.

As for Ital­ian pub­lic opin­ion, 73 per­cent sup­ports the idea of a Euro­pean com­mon secu­ri­ty and defence pol­i­cy (Stan­dard Euro­barom­e­ter n°82).

Despite this gen­er­al favourable atti­tude towards Euro­pean secu­ri­ty and defence, Juncker’s recent pro­pos­al for a Euro­pean army did not have much res­o­nance in Italy. Still, some oppo­si­tion par­ties such as the Five-Star Move­ment expressed their con­cerns for the lack of a legit­i­mate polit­i­cal author­i­ty to con­trol such a poten­tial army.

How­ev­er, Italy’s sup­port for the devel­op­ment of a Euro­pean defence is not linked to the per­ceived need to face up to Rus­sia, and the gov­ern­ment dis­agrees with adopt­ing a con­fronta­tion­al atti­tude towards this country.


2. EU Enlargement

Italy’s views on EU enlargement to the Eastern Partnership countries

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, inter­nal con­cerns (eco­nom­ic cri­sis, Greece, ter­ror­ism) seem to dom­i­nate the debate on Euro­pean issues in Italy, rather than the ques­tion of fur­ther East­ern enlarge­ments. No par­tic­u­lar evi­dence was found of an ongo­ing pub­lic debate on this top­ic, which made it dif­fi­cult to assess the var­i­ous actors’ (gov­ern­ment, oppo­si­tion, media, cit­i­zens) opin­ions. How­ev­er, a recent sur­vey con­duct­ed in April 2014 — thus after the erup­tion of the Ukrain­ian cri­sis — shows that 41 per­cent of the sam­ple (made up of Ital­ian adults between 16 and 64 years old) would not agree with giv­ing Ukraine the per­spec­tive of becom­ing a mem­ber of the Euro­pean Union. In this respect, it must be not­ed that more gen­er­al­ly, the Ital­ian pub­lic opin­ion seems rather scep­ti­cal about fur­ther EU enlarge­ments: accord­ing to the lat­est Stan­dard Euro­barom­e­ter, 52 per­cent of the sam­ple oppos­es new EU enlarge­ments in the next years (where­as in a sur­vey con­duct­ed only some months before the fig­ure was 44 percent).


A mixed attitude towards EU enlargement to the Western Balkans and Turkey

At the offi­cial lev­el, Italy sup­ports the ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions for the future EU acces­sions (Alba­nia, the For­mer Yugoslav Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia, Mon­tene­gro, Ser­bia, Turkey). In par­tic­u­lar, Italy sup­ports the EU enlarge­ment strat­e­gy as a key tool for ensur­ing the con­sol­i­da­tion of democ­ra­cy, secu­ri­ty, and polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty at the bor­ders of the EU, and under­lines the need to strength­en the EU Instru­ment for pre-acces­sion assis­tance. Indeed, in the pro­gramme of the Ital­ian Pres­i­den­cy of the Coun­cil of the EU in the sec­ond semes­ter of 2014, enlarge­ment pol­i­cy is con­sid­ered as a strate­gic pri­or­i­ty and a fun­da­men­tal tool for pro­mot­ing peace, democ­ra­cy, and secu­ri­ty in Europe.

Con­cern­ing Jean Claude Juncker’s dec­la­ra­tion that there will be no fur­ther EU enlarge­ments in the next 5 years, the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment called on the EU to con­firm its com­mit­ment to the ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions, in order to avoid that this be inter­pret­ed by can­di­date states as a sign of a decreased EU interest.

As far as the West­ern Balka­ns are con­cerned, Italy strong­ly sup­ports their progress towards the Euro­pean Union. More­over, it stress­es the role of the Adri­at­ic-Ion­ian macro-region (an ini­tia­tive for region­al coop­er­a­tion launched in 2000) in fos­ter­ing these coun­tries’ progress towards EU stan­dards. In this respect, Ital­ian Pres­i­dent Ser­gio Mattarel­la recent­ly stat­ed that the com­ple­tion of the Euro­pean Union with the acces­sion of the Balka­ns is a key goal, and that the exist­ing dif­fi­cul­ties must not induce any recoil.

More specif­i­cal­ly, Italy sup­ports the open­ing of the first chap­ters in the acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with Ser­bia, as well as the sign­ing of the Sta­bil­i­sa­tion and Asso­ci­a­tion Agree­ment between the EU and Koso­vo. Sec­ond­ly, it wel­comes the deci­sion tak­en in June 2014 to pro­vide Alba­nia with the sta­tus of can­di­date state. More­over, Italy regards Mon­tene­gro as a pos­i­tive exam­ple for the whole region in its acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions with the EU. Final­ly, it stress­es the need for the EU to assist Bosnia-Herze­gov­ina in the process of inter­nal reform.

Con­cern­ing Turkey, the state’s acces­sion is regard­ed by the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment (as stat­ed in the pro­gram­mat­ic paper out­lin­ing Italy’s imple­men­ta­tion of EU poli­cies in 2015) as a strate­gic objec­tive and as the key lever­age for the EU to fos­ter Ankara’s com­pli­ance with EU val­ues. In par­tic­u­lar, Italy invites the EU to address the nego­ti­at­ing chap­ters con­cern­ing fun­da­men­tal rights, jus­tice, and home affairs in order to con­tribute to the con­sol­i­da­tion of demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions and of the rule of law in Turkey. It is also impor­tant to note that, in the pro­gramme of the Ital­ian Pres­i­den­cy in 2014, one of the pri­or­i­ties iden­ti­fied was pre­cise­ly to rein­vig­o­rate the ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions with Turkey.

The pic­ture is quite dif­fer­ent as the focus shifts from the gov­ern­ment to pub­lic opin­ion. Indeed, accord­ing to a recent Euro­barom­e­ter sur­vey, 52 per­cent of Ital­ian inter­vie­wees oppose new EU enlarge­ments in the next years. More specif­i­cal­ly, oth­er stud­ies show that 50 per­cent of the Ital­ian sam­ple oppos­es EU enlarge­ment to Turkey, where­as 26 per­cent sup­ports it and 24 per­cent nei­ther oppos­es nor sup­ports it.

Sim­i­lar­ly, some Ital­ian par­ties do not share the government’s views on EU enlarge­ment. For instance, the Five-Star Move­ment denounces the lack of a pub­lic debate among EU cit­i­zens about the deci­sion to enlarge to new states and calls for a ref­er­en­dum about Italy’s rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the acces­sion of new coun­tries to the EU. More specif­i­cal­ly, the Move­ment argues that the shift of EU’s cen­tre of grav­i­ty towards the East may under­mine Italy’s inter­ests, which are focused more on the Mediter­ranean region.

The North­ern League’s vehe­ment oppo­si­tion to fur­ther EU enlarge­ments is main­ly direct­ed against Turkey. Indeed, this par­ty fre­quent­ly ques­tions Turkey’s “Euro­pean­ness” in terms of his­to­ry, cul­ture, and religion.


This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘East­ern Neigh­bours and Rus­sia: Close links with EU cit­i­zens’ (ENURC) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TEPSA (Trans Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion). The project focus­es on devel­op­ing EU cit­i­zens’ under­stand­ing of the top­ic of the East­ern Neigh­bour­hood and Rus­sia and aims at encour­ag­ing their inter­est and involve­ment in this pol­i­cy which has an impact on their dai­ly lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is map­ping out the dis­cours­es on these issues in Euro­pean poli­cies all over Europe. Research insti­tutes from all 28 mem­ber states are invit­ed to give overviews on the dis­cours­es in their respec­tive countries.

This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2015. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2015. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the recent­ly relaunched EU-28 Watch web­site:

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained therein.