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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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”