LONDON — Italy demanded EU leaders discuss loosening sanctions against Russia at a closed-door meeting of European diplomats earlier this month, according to two written accounts of the meeting seen by BuzzFeed News.
At the meeting of EU ambassadors, which took place in Brussels on Sept. 12, the Italian envoy asked counterparts to include the issue of European banks lending to Russia on the agenda of the next European Council meeting of EU heads of government and state, which will take place next month in the Belgian capital.
The Italian request will further raise concerns and questions about the government’s relationship with Moscow. Diplomats have previously told BuzzFeed News that they can’t understand why Italy’s new government prioritizes the issue to the extent that it does.
“The Italian government seems anxious to exit the European mainstream and constantly highlight differences. An Italy that seeks trouble is, however, the exact opposite of our interests as a country,” said Filippo Sensi, former spokesperson for two Italian ex–prime ministers, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, who has for years campaigned extensively for stopping the sanctions, has repeatedly called for dropping the measures since taking office earlier this year. He has also said that the annexation of Crimea was legitimate, and openly criticized the coordinated EU response to the use of a nerve agent in Salisbury that left a Russian double agent and his daughter in critical condition.
At the meeting in Brussels, the Italian diplomat noted it was important that funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), as well as the European Investment Bank (EIB), be unblocked in order to support civil society and small and medium-sized businesses in Russia, the two diplomatic write-ups of the meeting state.
The Italian government has voiced concerns about the impact lending restrictions have on Russian civil society before, but a move to formally add the issue to the agenda of EU leaders as an item to debate is seen as an escalation.
According to both write-ups, the Latvian diplomatic representative at the table pushed back strongly against the Italian request, cautioning that October was not the right time to discuss the issue.
The written records of the meeting were authored by two separate EU governments, and were shared with BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity.
None of the other European diplomats present at the meeting spoke out in support of the Italian demand.
It is not the first time the Italian government has called on the EU to drop sanctions against Russia. The coalition agreement between Salvini’s nationalist Lega party and the populist Five Star Movement has pledged to work for their removal.
In an interview with Ukraina.ru, a Russian government-sponsored media outlet dedicated to Ukraine, published last week, Salvini reaffirmed his views, and said he admired Russian President Vladimir Putin as both a man, and political leader.
The interview was criticized by Ukraine’s ambassador to Rome, who told reporters that the Russian website was a propaganda tool set up after the occupation of Crimea. The ambassador told the Italian news website Formiche: “It’s comprised of 3–4 operators and a journalist who roam Europe to do propaganda.”
Sensi, who is now an MP with the centre-left opposition Democratic Party, told BuzzFeed News, “We [Italy] seem to constantly pursue a hidden agenda that doesn't coincide with Italy's interests.”
The EBRD and EIB suspended lending to Russia following the introduction of EU sanctions, which were put in place as a response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.