The Kremlin overlooks Lake Como. On Sunday, Matteo Salvini attended the Ambrosetti Forum in Cernobbio – a recurring and influential event in Italian political life, offering politicians a chance to present and debate their plans in front of a business-minded audience. And there, he once again cast doubts on the efficacy of European sanctions on Russia, as he’s been doing for a while.
- The leader of the League believes it’s crucial to reconsider them, given they damage the sanctioners more than the sanctioned. Incidentally, it’s the same talking point pushed by Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine.
- This was also recently confuted by a Yale University research.
A lonely voice. By repeatedly expressing this position in the past days, Mr Salvini – who has a history of cosying up to Mr Putin – is also seeking to stand out in the ongoing electoral campaign. Even at the cost of fuelling tensions in the centre-right coalition, as all of its other members beg to differ.
Giorgia Meloni, the frontrunner in the electoral race and prospective leader of the centre-right, reiterated in front of the Cernobbio audience her party’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine and the necessity to uphold the Western sanctions on Russia.
- The leader of Brothers of Italy also stated that Italy cannot become the weak link in the Western front.
- When she heard Mr Salvini’s stance on sanctions, she gestured annoyedly.
- That stance “cannot be a government line,” said Senator Giovanbattista Fazzolari (who is considered Ms Meloni’s right-hand man).
“I believe that sanctions are inevitable, and we must continue to inflict them,” noted Antonio Tajani, who represented Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at the Ambrosetti Forum. “Any change of position can only be made at the European and NATO level.
- Mr Salvini’s is an opinion […] we may discuss everything, but we need strong European solidarity,” he added.
Maurizio Lupi, leader of Noi Moderati, said that the EU “absolutely mustn’t” backtrack on sanctions, which are “just and necessary.” Instead, Brussels should help people and businesses to bear the consequences of the sanctions, he argued, adding that splitting the Western front would be “devastating” for Italy.
Standing out. To understand why Mr Salvini is sticking to his pro-Russian guns, one must consider several factors, including his desire to uphold a dualism with Ms Meloni within the centre-right coalition and his fear of losing votes to anti-establishment parties. According to the latest polls, the League has been overtaken by the Five Star Movement.
- Mr Salvini, who’s always keen to dominate the debate, has thus chosen to insist on criticising sanctions and the European approach. He doubled down by downsizing the Atlanticists among his party’s candidates and reverting to a degree of Euroscepticism – which was his flagship policy, together with migration control, when he won over 32% of votes in 2019.
- Today, he stands at around 13%.
The left’s counterattack… Elsewhere in Italian politics, two key members of the Democratic Party – which heads the competing centre-left coalition – lambasted Mr Salvini for his stance on sanctions and his allies for enabling him.
- “I believe that Putin couldn’t have said it any better,” wrote party secretary Enrico Letta, noting how “irresponsible” it is to campaign at the expense of Italy’s international reliability.
- The centre-right coalition demonstrates “an ambiguity of positions” that “gives no reassurance,” said Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini in an interview with La Stampa.
… and the populist’s silence. The Five Star Movement refrained from engaging on the issue. This makes sense, considering their historical pro-Russian leaning. Much like Mr Salvini and the League, 5SM members generally oppose sanctions and sending military aid to Ukraine under the pretence of pacifism.
- Mr Salvini’s line has inflamed the public debate, and some outlets – namely Il Fatto Quotidiano and La Verità – are espousing his critiques. Nevertheless, these hardline positions are relatively marginal for the time being.