Rome is determined to promote a new chapter in NATO cooperation with Russia, Italian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Guglielmo Picchi said.
“NATO is a cornerstone of Italy’s international policy. Nonetheless, our country can and must speak its mind on major strategic decisions … Italy intends to inaugurate a new season of cooperating with Moscow, in the spirit of the  Pratica di Mare Summit,” Picchi, who is also a foreign policy adviser to Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini, said.
The official also recalled that Italian Prime Minister Conte had joined US President Donald Trump’s call for Russia to be brought back into the G7.
He added that, though “eastward, Russia has undoubtedly assumed positions that deserved a firm response,” the biggest dangers facing the alliance, in Italy’s point of view, stemmed from the south, specifically the arrival of migrants from across the Mediterranean sea.
The Pratica di Mare Summit was a meeting between NATO and Russia at the level of heads of state and government held in Rome in 2002. It established the NATO–Russia Council (NRC) through the Declaration on NATO-Russia Relations: a New Quality.
On April 1, 2014, NATO suspended all practical and military cooperation with Russia over the Ukraine crisis. However, it decided to keep channels of communication open in the NRC at the ambassadorial level and above.
Earlier in June, Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta said that Italy could play the role of “a bridge” in relations between the East and the West, noting that NATO policies should be more flexible and focus on different regions, in particular, the Mediterranean.
According to Guglielmo Picchi, Rome believes that its support for lifting EU anti-Russia sanctions will have no negative consequences for relations between debt-hit Italy and the European Central Bank (ECB), and hopes to resume the union’s dialogue with Moscow and the mutual benefits that come with it.
The politician also expressed hope that Rome’s proposal to resume the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) funding for Russia’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would gain support and lead to an increase in trade with Moscow.
“Our exports have risen 23.5 percent last year and we hope that they will continue to grow; especially if we soon succeed in having our proposal passed to provide the [EBRD] and the European Investment Bank [EIB] financing to Russian SMEs which would entail bank guarantee schemes and trade facilities that, if reactivated, could favour an increase in trade to the full advantage of Italian SMEs, which have never turned their back on the Russian market,” he said.
In addition, Picchi pointed to opportunities for counterterrorism cooperation should ties with Moscow be restored.
“Moreover, in this phase in which Moscow is very active on the Mediterranean scene, there are great possibilities of cooperating in fighting Islamic radicalism,” he added.
The new Italian government, a coalition comprising the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Eurosceptic Lega party, has consistently called for the lifting of anti-Russia sanctions and Moscow’s reinstatement as a strategic mediator of the Syrian, Libyan and Yemeni crises.
In their government coalition agreement, the two parties also said that they considered asking the ECB to forgive 250 billion euros ($295 billion) of debt in bonds bought by the ECB under quantitative easing program. This would help improve Italy’s debt to GDP ratio, as the country’s public debt exceeded a historic-high 2.3 trillion euros ($2.68 trillion) in April.
“We are against waging trade wars with a key ally like the United States and we are certain that Washington has the same opinion with respect to the EU. It is understandable that [US] President [Donald] Trump wants to protect American industry and workers but we must find the right formulas to avoid undermining our trade relations,” Picchi said.
On Wednesday, the European Commission adopted the regulation on rebalancing measures in response to the United States’ steep metal tariffs, targeting a list of products worth 2.8 billion euros ($3.2 billion).
On June 1, the United States imposed 25-percent tariffs on steel imports and 10-percent tariffs on aluminum imports from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, which were initially exempt from the extra duties.
Brussels has expressed its opposition to the US tariffs, with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker calling the move pure protectionism and saying that the bloc would retaliate with its own duties on US goods. The European Union also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the US trade policies.
Italy Remains Interested in Trans Adriatic Gas Pipeline
Rome remains interested in building the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which will bring Azerbaijani natural gas to western Europe and connect with Italian gas pipelines, Italian Under-Secretary of State stressed.
“The TAP is an important strategic infrastructure for Italy and Europe: it is our intention to put it in place, obviously in consideration of every possible fallout it could have on the environment,” Picchi said, asked to comment on the issue.
In early June, new Italian Environment Minister Sergio Costa said that Rome’s involvement in the TAP would be reviewed, calling the pipeline, along with some other major projects “pointless,” amid the falling gas demand.
The TAP is one of the sections of the Southern Gas Corridor, along with the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) and Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). It is expected to bring 10 billion cubic meters of gas from the Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz Stage 2 gas field to Europe per year. The pipeline will be 878 kilometers (545 miles) long. Last week, TANAP was launched in Turkey.
The TAP will connect with TANAP at the Greek-Turkish border, from where it will run through northern Greece, Albania, and the Adriatic Sea to southern Italy, where it will connect with Italian gas pipelines.
Italy and France can jointly promote a new EU-wide approach to immigration, including through stabilization of Libya to make it a safe country for migrants, by placing more emphasis on the protection of external borders and moving asylum application processing outside the union, according to Picchi.
He clarified further that the new approach should no longer be based on the reasoning that a country of first entry must bear the full brunt of the migration burden nor on the logic of relocation that displeases many EU countries. Instead, this policy should shift the focus on controlling the external borders and decentralizing the reception and asylum application vetting process in the proximity of, but not inside, the European borders.
On June 15, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron held talks in Paris. The meeting followed an exchange of critical rhetoric between the two countries, after Rome denied entry to a vessel carrying some 600 migrants rescued off Libyan coast. The leaders managed to iron out their disagreements, with Macron recognizing the “burden” of Italy, one of the main entry points for migrants fleeing to Europe. They agreed to come up with proposals to revise the Dublin Regulation, which allows for migrants to be sent back to the country where they first entered the continent.
The new Italian government, a coalition comprising the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Eurosceptic Lega party, pledges to pursue a hard-line policy on illegal immigration. In particular, it previously expressed the intention to reinforce existing bilateral agreements on the relocation of undocumented migrants, and proposed setting up centers to accommodate migrants in countries of their origin and transit.