Italy risks clash with Britain and EU as it threatens to veto renewal of Russia sanctions
Italy put itself on a collision course with Britain and much of the EU on Wednesday after threatening to veto the renewal of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
During a visit to Moscow, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s staunchly pro-Moscow deputy prime minister, said that Rome might block the renewal of sanctions that have been in place since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.
The sanctions, which include the freezing of assets of individuals, an embargo on the export of weapons and financial restrictions, are due to expire in January.
Mr Salvini described sanctions against Russia “economic, social and cultural madness” and “an absurdity” that had cost Italian businesses “billions of euros”.
“If we are asked to confirm (the sanctions), we will say no,” Mr Salvini told a conference of business leaders in Moscow.
Asked if the coalition government, which came to power in June, might veto the renewal of EU sanctions, Mr Salvini said: “We can only use the trump card of the veto once in Europe.”
That was a reference to the Italian government’s numerous battles with Brussels, from demanding more help with migrants and refugees, to pushing through a controversial budget that revolves around lavish spending on social welfare and generous tax breaks which will cost debt-laden Italy billions of euros.
‘There is the question of the budget, the question of migration,” Mr Salvini said.
“We are counting on the fact that they are intelligent enough in Brussels to understand that they have gone over the top and that you have to return to good relations between the EU, Italy and Russia.”
Italy has been opposed to sanctions against Moscow for years, arguing that they hurt Italian businesses which export hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of luxury goods, furniture, fashion, food and wine to Russians.
Mr Salvini, who is the head of the hard-Right Northern League as well as deputy prime minister and interior minister, is particularly pro-Moscow.
He said sanctions against Russia had resulted in “hundreds of millions of citizens and small and medium businessmen” paying a heavy price economically.
Underlining his affection for President Putin’s Russia, he said: “I feel at home in Russia in a way that I don’t in other European countries.”
In an apparent reference to NATO exercises in countries close to Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic republics, he said: “The problems of 2018 are to be solved sitting at a table – not with tanks at the borders.”
Mr Salvini, who has doubled his party’s support in the last few months with his stridently anti-migrant rhetoric, has previously said that the coalition is “not scared” of using its veto powers at Brussels in order to push the EU into lifting sanctions.
Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, who is due to travel to Moscow next week to meet President Putin, has also criticised EU sanctions. He said they “damaged our companies, as well as Russian society.”
Italy’s soft line towards Russia entails the risk of it being isolated within the EU because Britain and other countries are pushing for punitive measures against Russia for its aggression in eastern Ukraine, alleged interference in elections – most recently in Macedonia – and poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in March.
Italy is the only member of the EU that openly resists a new regime of sanctions against Moscow, according to a confidential document seen by Reuters.
Italy’s attempt to weaken measures against Moscow are likely to be opposed by Britain and several Eastern European countries, which want to keep up the pressure on Mr Putin.