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.