By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Italy’s new populist Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said top priorities for his government will be ending illegal immigration and strengthening ties with Russia.
“We’ll be the advocates of an opening towards Russia,” including ending European Union sanctions against Russia that hurt “civil society,” Conte said in an address to senators in Rome after the upper chamber of parliament voted to support the new populist coalition government in a 171 to 117 confidence vote on June 5.
The lower chamber is expected to also approve the new government in a vote on June 6.
Italy’s new leaders face two important dates in June, the first being the Group of 7 summit on June 8 and 9 in Canada. The second, an EU summit in Brussels, is expected to focus on the region’s refugee crisis and reforms of the euro currency bloc.
“We will promote a review of the sanctions system” in meetings with other EU members, making good on campaign pledges to improve ties with Russia, Conte said. “The truth is that we have created a radical change and we’re proud of it.”
Conte’s remarks came as Russian President Vladimir Putin on a visit to neighboring Austria — where a populist, pro-Russia government also holds power — said that “everybody has an interest in getting the sanctions lifted — us too.”
Putin denied ahead of his trip that his government has been working to promote divisions in Europe by backing right-wing, populist parties that favor closer ties with Moscow.
Just this week, George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist, questioned whether Russia hadn’t provided funding for Italy’s League party — something the party and the Kremlin both strongly denied.
“We need to build cooperation with the EU,” Putin told Austrian public broadcaster ORF. “We do not aim to divide the EU.”
For Italy’s new government, Conte said the issue of migration would be an early measure of how well it is able to work with other EU members to promote change. He rejected accusations of growing xenophobia in his country.
Italy has taken in an estimated 700,000 migrants since 2013, most of whom crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Africa seeking new lives in the EU.
Conte’s populist government is calling for a more even distribution of the migrants and refugees among all EU members — something that has been resisted particularly by eastern European states.
“We are not racist and we never will be,” Conte said. The Italian government will take a stand for the rights of every migrant “who arrives legally in our country,” he said.
“The political parties that make up the government majority have been accused of being populist and anti-system,” Conte said. “If populism is the attitude of listening to people’s needs, then we lay a claim to it.”
During the vote approving the government, senators clapped and cheered, sometimes so loud that the chamber president had to intervene. “There is no need to behave like fans in the stadium,” admonished Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati.
The populists’ 18-member cabinet is a mixture of party politicians and technocrats, five of whom are women.
The leader of the right-wing League party, Matteo Salvini, is interior minister, a position that gives him wide say on migration.
Salvini told a rally on June 2 that Italy “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp,” and that the “good life is over” for migrants, who he suggested should “pack their bags.”