“We want peace in Ukraine. However, one year after the beginning of this disastrous war that has cost thousands of lives, we are aware that peace can only be achieved by continuing to supply the Kiev army with weapons. Italy supports the Ukrainian people and will do everything to ensure that the conflict does not end in surrender to the Russian oppressor. To be clear: I am the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of a government that is firmly anchored to Europe, the United States, and the West”.
Antonio Tajani is sitting on a white armchair in his office on the first floor of the Farnesina. He has a resolute tone but a relaxed air, a pinstripe suit over an unbuttoned white shirt, with no tie. Perhaps it is because little more than 24 hours have passed since the Regional elections in Lombardy and Lazio, where Forza Italia was declared to be still alive. It was not a given. Below 10%, but the party still holds. It is Italy’s international positioning that risked being hit by a backlash after Silvio Berlusconi’s anti-Zelensky statement, with the polls still open on Sunday evening.
Minister, it is important to make things clear. After what the leader of your party has declared, is it still possible to say that Italy fully supports the Ukrainian resistance? Doesn’t this, on the contrary, create a rift with the line dictated by Prime Minister Meloni in these first months of government?
“Italy has no second thoughts, it works for peace and for the independence of Ukraine, alongside NATO and Europe. This does not mean that we will send weapons capable of attacking Russia, we are certainly not against the Russian people, but we fully support Kiev and its resistance”.
You will admit that Berlusconi’s words did not sound as clear.
“What counts are actions. I would like you to remember that our president voted in the European Parliament for resolutions against Russian aggression. Right from the very tough one of 1 March 2022”.
Yet the EPP, of which you are prominent representatives, distanced itself from the statements made by the former prime minister last Sunday.
“Berlusconi wants peace. However, the line dictated to the groups, in Italy and in Europe, has never deviated from that of the EPP, in Brussels, and of the Italian Parliament, in Rome. He too has always voted in favour of Kiev. That said, Berlusconi is the man who brought Russia and the United States to shake hands at Pratica di Mare. The problem is that the times have changed, unfortunately”.
By doing so, isn’t Italy in danger of becoming the weak link in the western coalition? Could it possibly even leave it?
“Italy is not a weak link. Seeking a solution to stop the war does not mean being weak. It is just a matter of supporting the path to peace in the most appropriate way. That is, the one that guarantees Ukraine’s independence and at the same time an end to hostilities”.
Peace or surrender?
“Peace. Without doubt. Peace that cannot be achieved by disarming the Ukrainian army. On the contrary. We are trying to provide not only weapons but also full humanitarian assistance in every way: supplies to the military but also, and I would say above all, to civilians. We have never, and I mean never, failed in our commitment to send weapons”.
Speaking of which, how far has the new decree come? It was in the pipeline for February, early March at the latest. Will the Meloni government send more weapons as it has pledged to do with the allies?
“The Parliament has authorised the sending of weapons and the sixth decree has already been passed over the past few weeks. Minister Crosetto and I explained it in detail to the Italian Parliamentary Committee for the Security of the Republic (COPASIR). We are now working with the French to send the Samp-T air defence system as soon as possible. No new decree is being prepared. Still, Forza Italia would vote in favour of it”.
Will you also continue to support sanctions against Russia?
“We will continue down the road we have taken unless there are signs of change from Moscow. The Russian Federation has violated international law. This is why we need to defend Ukraine’s independence and work towards reconstruction”.
“Between March and April, we will organise an Italian conference precisely aimed at finding our role in the reconstruction. The meeting will be open to businesses. We can export our know-how and we think it is right that those who have fought alongside Ukraine can contribute to its reconstruction”.
Back to Italy, Minister. Has the “destracentro” (“right-centre”) party won, as affirmed by your Fdl allies?
“Forza Italia has gained two and a half points in Lazio compared to the political elections, in Lombardy we have held our ground. We have an important margin. Fratelli d’Italia has grown but not at our expense. At the centre of the party is still us: the liberals, the guarantors, the reformists”.
So, you’re not at risk of becoming extinct?
“I wouldn’t say so. Rather, I see the ambitions of the Third Pole fading away”.
Do you not fear, also in light of the exponential growth of Fdl, a shift to the right of the government?
“No, because we are here, at the centre of the party. Besides, there is a balance in the coalition. Salvini and I are deputy prime ministers. And Berlusconi remains an extraordinary element of guarantee in the centre-right”.
You also had to put up with Lega’s Autonomy reform, despite the perplexity of the southern governors.
“That reform has been amended thanks to our suggestions, which were accepted without opposition by Minister Calderoli. We have prevented the southern regions from being damaged by the new autonomy”.
There was no shortage of opposition in the government.
“No, just an open discussion. The centre-right party remains united on the crucial issues. We want to govern by looking to the future with a view to growth, but never losing sight of those who are most vulnerable”.
Will you change the NRRP guidelines during the Council of Ministers?
“The NRRP should not be overturned, but made more flexible. Its framework will remain unchanged but we will try to adapt it to the new needs of the country, which have changed since the Recovery was conceived, during the pandemic”.
Could the EPP ally itself with Meloni’s European conservatives after next year’s vote for the renewal of the European Parliament?
“I am in favour of it. I think a collaboration with the socialists is now unlikely. We will see what the numbers will be after the elections, but it is the way forward”.