Italy’s incoming populist Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has fired the first salvo in what could escalate into a major rift with Brussels after called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia in his first speech to the parliament since being given the mandate to form a government earlier in the week.
“We’ll be the main advocates for establishing an opening with Russia, “Conte said in an address to senators in Rome after the upper chamber of parliament voted to support the new populist coalition government in a 171-to-117 confidence vote on June 5. The move, according to Conte, would include immediately ending the European Union’s four-year-old sanctions regime that it levied against Moscow following the Kremlin’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Kyiv’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014.
Conte said that the multiple rounds of sanctions, which target Russian individuals, Kremlin insiders, companies, and financial institutions that were involved in Moscow’s ongoing war in Ukraine, “hurt the country’s civil society”.
Italy’s new leaders face two important dates over the next few weeks as they’ll be confronted by their counterparts in the G7 at a summit on June 8-9 that will be held in Canada, which will be followed up by an EU summit in Brussels that will focus on the region’s refugee crisis and reforms to the Eurozone.
“We will push for a review of the sanctions in meetings with other EU members, making good on campaign pledges to improve ties with Russia”, Conte said. “The truth is that we are part of a radical change and we’re proud of it.”
Conte’s remarks came while Russian President Vladimir Putin was on a visit to Austria — where a right-wing, populist, pro-Russia government also holds power. The Austrian government commented that “everybody has an interest in getting the sanctions lifted — us too.”
Putin denied ahead of his trip that his government had been working to promote divisions in Europe by backing right-wing, populist parties that favour closer ties with Moscow.
Just this week, George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist, questioned whether Russia hadn’t provided funding for Italy’s far-right Lega (League) party — something both Lega and the Kremlin have strongly denied.
“We need to build cooperation with the EU,” Putin told Austrian public broadcaster ORF. “We are not looking to divide the EU.”
Conte said the issue of migration would be an early measure of how well it is able to work with other EU members to promote change. He rejected accusations of growing xenophobia in his country as Italy has taken in an estimated 700,000 migrants since 2013, most of whom crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa.
Conte’s populist government is calling for a more even distribution of the migrants and refugees among all the EU Member States — something that has been resisted particularly by Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.
“We are not racist and we never will be,” Conte said. “The Italian government will always stand up for the rights of every migrant who arrives legally in our country.”
The leader of Lega, Matteo Salvini, has taken up the post of interior minister, which gives him a say on migration. Salvini told a rally on June 2 that Italy “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp,” and that the “good life is over” for migrants, who he suggested should “pack their bags.”
The populists’ 18-member cabinet is a mixture of party politicians and technocrats, five of whom are women.
“The political parties that make up the government majority have been accused of being populist and anti-establishment,” Conte said. “If populism is the attitude of listening to people’s needs, then we admit that we’re populists.