News Analysis: Putin’s visit to Italy to touch on EU sanctions, migration policies

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy next week could be the first step toward thawing economic tensions between the European Union and its neighbor to the east, analysts said, though few expect quick progress on that front.

Putin’s support for Italy’s strong anti-migrant policies could also help bolster anti-migrant forces in the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at a time when they are under fire from European allies and advocacy groups, analysts told Xinhua.

Conte first floated the idea of a Putin visit last year, while on a state visit to Russia. Putin accepted, though the timing for the July 4 visit was only finalized in recent weeks. Putin will meet with Conte and Italian leaders in Rome, as well as with Pope Francis in the Vatican City.

Putin told Russian media that he did not expect Italy to lobby on Russia’s behalf to reverse European Union sanctions put in place after Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea five years ago. But Putin did say he was grateful to Italian officials showing a “willingness to find ways to improve” relations between the European Union and Russia.

“I expect that (during the visit) broad discussions will take place that will concern bilateral matters and international relations,” Putin said, according to Russian media.

According to Confindustria, Italy’s main industrial association, many of the more than 500 Italian companies operating in Russia are calling for the Italian government to push for sanctions to weaken, and Pasquale Terracciano, Italy’s ambassador to Russia, has said Italy would like to see more openness in the European Union toward Russia.

“The question is not whether Putin will discuss sanctions when he meets with Italian leaders,” Oliviero Fiorini, a political affairs analyst with ABS Securities in Milan, told Xinhua. “The question is whether Italy can do anything about them and whether it will be willing to try.”

Fiorini noted that Italy has not been shy about departing from the stance of the European Union as a whole, whether on budgetary matters, immigration policy, or in becoming the first major western economy to sign on to China’s ambitious Belt-and-Road Initiative.

“The problem is that the more Italy is willing to clash with the European Union, the less influence it has in terms of shaping European policy,” Fiorini said, adding that any changes in this area would come slowly.

One of the points of contention between Italy and the European Union is related to Italy’s hardline policies against migration.

Pushed by Matteo Salvini, head of the nationalist, anti-migrant League, and one of Conte’s two deputy prime ministers, Italy has closed ports to migrant arrivals, cut spending on initiatives aimed at helping migrants integrate into Italy, and it has threatened action against rescue ships that save would-be migrants at sea. European Union officials have called for Italy to loosen its policies so they can come into line with those of its European neighbors. But Italy has refused — a stance supported by Putin.

“The government’s anti-migrant policies have been widely criticized but in Putin, they will find an ally,” Fiorini said.

The visit will be Putin’s first to Italy since 2015 when he visited the World Expo in Milan. It will be Putin’s 11th visit to Italy since he first took power in 2000, and Conte will be the sixth Italian prime minister to welcome him on a state visit.