Two parliamentary votes of confidence this week have enabled a new Italian government to finally assume power. The breakthrough could herald a radical restoration in diplomatic relations between the 28-member European Union bloc and Russia.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will lead an administration formed by the two main parties that emerged from the earlier March elections: the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League. Both parties present a strange blend of leftwing and rightwing politics, with the League being most associated with a strident anti-immigrant policy.
The eclectic coalition was the main reason why it took the parties nearly three months to hammer out an agreed plan for governance.
Nevertheless, two areas of strong common ground are a rejection of the EU’s economic austerity policies; and an explicit desire to reinstate normal relations with Russia.
Both M5S and League have repeatedly stated that they want to promptly end the EU’s sanctions on Moscow, which have been enacted over the past four years. Those sanctions followed Washington’s lead based on dubious allegations that Russia interfered in Ukraine’s politics, as well as hollow claims of Moscow meddling in Western democracies.
Significantly, and it’s a breath of fresh air in political thinking, the new Italian coalition parties have repudiated the official US-EU-NATO narrative accusing Russia of malfeasance. The M5S and League have decried the demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and have both praised Russia’s role in helping to stabilize Syria from a covert war sponsored by NATO.
Much of the anti-immigrant sentiment surging in Italy, as elsewhere across Europe, stems from a growing popular realization that the flow of refugees has been fueled by US-led NATO wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Italy’s League has said that it refuses to make the frontline Mediterranean country a “dumping ground” for refugees due to illegal wars. It seems unfair to dismiss that resentment as merely an expression of “xenophobia” and “racism”. People have a right to resent the abhorrent results of warmongering caused by Washington and servile European governments.
The new administration in Rome also holds the view that sanctions imposed on Russia by Washington and Brussels have only exacerbated economic problems for Europe, from the huge damage to trade relations and the repercussions for European jobs and businesses. For this reason, the parties comprising the new Italian government have said they will veto the EU’s sanctions.
Crucially, the EU measures against Russia require unanimity among the 28 member states. Without Italy’s support, the European position of adversity towards Moscow will cease to exist.
That will inevitably further sharpen the cleavage between Washington and the EU. Tensions in the transatlantic alliance are already peaking over US President Trump’s policy of imposing trade tariffs, as well as his testy backsliding on international deals such as the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement.
It remains to be seen, however, what pressure Washington and other European powers might exert on the nascent Italian government. Financial institutions and markets could destabilize premier Conte’s administration. Already this week higher Italian debt penalties were exacted by the markets on news of the administration forming.
Last month, an indication of the high geopolitical stakes was seen when the figurehead President Sergio Mattarella controversially intervened to try to block formation of the new government. Mattarella is an old-type transatlanticist and an ardent supporter of NATO from when he was formerly a defense minister. In the end, the blocking bid failed due to a popular backlash, and the new populist administration this week succeeded in gaining parliamentary assent to go ahead in forming a government.
We have been here before though. Recall how the Greek populist government led by Alexis Tsipras also previously raised hopes of overturning EU economic austerity policies and restoring relations with Russia. Tsipras quickly caved to all sorts of pressure brought to bear on him from Washington and Brussels.
Still, this time around promises to be different. Across Europe and in Italy in particular the popular anger at neoliberal capitalist policies is reaching boiling point. France, for example, is racked by months of industrial strikes.
There is also a burgeoning estrangement between Washington and Brussels which makes adhering to the much-vaunted transatlantic alliance increasingly difficult to justify.
Italy now, potentially, has the key to radically challenge EU policies for the benefit of ordinary citizens by rejecting neoliberal oppression and, secondly, by overturning the irrational hostility the bloc has shown towards Russia at the slavish behest of Washington.
Premier Conte’s first major official debut is attending the G7 summit being held in Canada over the weekend. The growing disunity and disaffection between Trump and the other G7 members will make it harder for any transatlantic axis to derail the new Italian government and its project for normalizing relations with Russia. A normalization that is long overdue.