The upcoming elections to the European Parliament are clearly a reflection of the deeper trend developing in the European Union.Within the European Union today, a complex process of rethinking the balance of national and supranational sovereignty is underway. Russia is closely watching how different groups of EU countries approach the issue of supranational integration. In particular, we see that the Franco-German tandem proposes new initiatives in the area of deepening European integration: in the area of economic integration and enhancing the global competitiveness of the EU; in developing EU activism in the international arena and strengthening the defense capability of the Union (especially in the context of Donald Trump’s “sovereignists” decision-making practices in foreign policy); in the social sphere, including issues of joint responsibility for the fate of refugees.
We see how the conflict around the problem of the relationship between national and supranational sovereignty caused a painful brexit, still far from the stage of its completion. It is also obvious that the countries of Eastern Europe, as well as a number of countries of Southern Europe, are striving to revise the EU financial policy and do not share Germany’s approaches to solving the problem of receiving refugees.
Besides, for three years now we have witnessed how the European Union is permanently unable to implement the strategy of “selective engagement” in relations with Russia, formulated by Federica Mogherini in March 2016. There was no joint approach of the countries as well as no concrete proposals or “road maps” in any sphere be it Syria, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran etc.
At the same time, we are witnessing how a number of EU countries are trying to actively build up an independent foreign policy, often running counter to the Brussels guidelines. Italy and the new Italian “government of change” are at the epicenter of these processes. On the one hand, the country’s political leadership abandoned the idea of leaving the euro area and calls for the formation of pan-European solidarity in the reception and distribution of refugees, for the development of pan-European foreign policy, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, since these regions create direct threats for the European security, and thus appeal to the strengthening of supranational sovereignty.
On the other hand, during the year of the new government’s change of power, we see a high degree of dissatisfaction with the development of supranational integration processes in the EU and numerous attempts to return the solution of certain issues to the sphere of national sovereignty. So, in particular, issues of financial and budget planning caused a protracted conflict between Rome and Brussels at the end of 2018. In matters of admission of refugees, the Italian leadership has taken a number of independent measures and decisions to limit the access of refugees to the territory of Italy (“portichiusi”), and also adopted “decretosicurezza”, reviewing the rules for granting refugee status. In the sphere of foreign policy, Italy is also becoming increasingly independent. So, in particular, Italy refused to recognize the self-proclaimed Juan Guaydo as the new president of Venezuela, thereby making it difficult for the EU to develop a common approach to this issue (Italy took a more accurate position on this issue). Italy has an independent policy on Libya, openly states the need to lift sanctions on Russia (adhering to, however, the joint position in other EU countries when voting on the issue of extending sanctions). On March 23, 2019, during a state visit to Xi Jinping, Italy and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of cooperation within the framework of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, despite numerous warnings from Brussels to Rome on the eve of the visit.
In Brussels, such Rome’s actions as well as the attempts of many other countries to decide on the national level are increasingly viewed in a negative way – as detrimental to European solidarity and hindering the development of further supranational integration. So, in particular, E. Macron repeatedly called such manifestations of “nationalism” and “sovereignism” a new “leprosy” and emphasized that sovereignty can be achieved only at a supranational, European level.
Thus, it is obvious that in the near future the EU will be in the process of developing a new approach to the relationship between national and supranational sovereignty, and Italy is becoming one of the drivers of this dynamic. In the upcoming elections to the European Parliament on May 26, the positions of sovereignists from Italy and other EU countries are expected to strengthen.
For Russia, consistently upholding the principle of national sovereignty in the international arena, the strengthening of “sovereignists” in Italy and in Brussels may seem like a new opportunity to foster dialogue. Russia traditionally declares its readiness to develop relations with all political actors ready to cooperate with Russia. This position looks quite pragmatic, although in Brussels it is traditionally regarded as an attempt to undermine the unity of the EU “from the inside” and, obviously, will be so considered in the future. More than that: just recent scandal with the Austrian “Freedom Party” show that the mainstream political forces in the EU are ready to do everything possible to discredit political forces ready for the dialogue with Russia.
Therefore, the dialogue with representatives of the “sovereignists” has two sides for Russia: on the one hand, it’s certainly positive that the number of forces in the EU ready to cooperate with Russia is promised to grow. On the other hand, this will most likely entail even greater aggravation of relations with Brussels, as well as the official Paris and Berlin. In addition, the so-called “euroskeptics” and “sovereignists” of different EU countries have quite diverging approaches to the relations with Russia, which does not allow them to be considered as a potentially unified force in the process of improving Russian relations with the EU.
Therefore, the only possibility for Russia in the context of the upcoming European elections is to continue to maintain a constructive and pragmatic dialogue with political forces ready to develop cooperation with Russia, but at the same time as much as possible to prevent this cooperation from being presented in the media and public opinion as support for the forces provoking a split of the EU and not to emphasize the issue of internal differences in the EU in public discourse. Russian-Italian relations have been historically maintained at a high level in any political context, so in this situation within the EU, painfully undergoing the process of revising the relationship between national and supranational sovereignty, it would be in the interests of both Rome and Moscow to depoliticize the dialogue as much as possible, focusing on deepening mutually beneficial economic cooperation and promoting dialogue and openness through civil society.
Elena Alekseenkova is Senior Researcher, Head of the Center for Italian Studies, Department of Black Sea and Mediterranean Studies, Institute of Europe, RAS, Candidate of Political Sciences