Is Italy set to resume its support for Turkey in Europe?

Many Italian politicians would like to return to being Turkey’s strongest advocate in Europe. Whether that will happen remains uncertain due to different attitudes inside Italy’s ruling coalition.

Italy recently gained from Turkey the liberation of Silvia Romano, an Italian aid volunteer who was kidnapped in Kenya and freed in early May in Somalia thanks to the active cooperation of Turkish intelligence in Mogadishu.

In return, Rome could support Ankara’s positions in its accession talks to join the European Union. But the issue is still being debated.

The centre-left Democratic Party, which is part of Italy’s ruling coalition, is still discussing its approach to Turkey with the populist Five Star Movement, the coalition’s leading party, which doubts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to act as a stable element inside the European Union.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte from the Five movement is currently closer to the Democratic Party’s position of advocating support for Turkey.

However, it is Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star Movement’s leader, who is resisting. In his official statements, Di Maio expressed his will to strengthen Italian’s relationship with Turkey. But behind the scenes, he is expressing doubts.

The main question on the minds of the Italian public and media is the following: how we can be an ally of a country who is a rival in so many crucial areas in the region, such as Libya, the African Horn (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea), and the Mediterranean Sea? How we can trust a leader who is stamping on our feet abroad?

Rome is fully aware of Erdoğan’s strong foreign policy, despite his poor performance inside his own country. But Italy’s position on the Middle East and Africa agenda is currently too weak or tied to other European countries, while Turkey with its strongman can act in an entirely different manner.

In the African Horn, Turkey has been able in the last fifteen years to establish itself as a credible presence, while Italy has lost ground in its former colonial dominion.

The same has happened more or less in Libya, where Ankara is one of the two most prominent foreign powers involved in the conflict, along with Moscow. Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, Italian ships were blocked from exploratory gas drilling by Turkish sea vessels in 2019, which ignited a diplomatic quarrel between the two countries.

But Italy has recently signalled a change in its approach towards Turkey with its refusal to sign the note sent by some major countries complaining about Turkish drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.

The memo, published in May, accused Turkey of conducting “illegal activities” and of "continuous provocations in the Mediterranean" and was signed by France, Greece, Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates – but it was not signed by Rome.

A second positive signal for Ankara concerns Libya. Rome gave the green light to the Turkish military intervention in defence of Fayez al Serraj, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

The third point is more controversial. Ankara and Rome’s foreign ministries negotiated for quite some time about Silvia Romano’s liberation in Somalia. Now Italy is ready to support economic and trade cooperation with Turkey, to establish a better military relationship, and to build stronger cultural and artistic ties.

Furthermore, the major Italian drill company Eni is drilling again between south Cyprus and the coast. And some in Italy are ready to back renewed talks over the Turkish candidacy to the European Union, with even stronger support than in the past.

But Italy would like in return like to receive assurances on some important issues, such as migration flows, Kurdish issues, and Turkey’s respect of human rights and freedom of expression, especially regarding journalists and intellectuals.

The recent decision by Turkish authorities to unblock the Facebook page of the Italian freelance reporter Mariano Giustino is a step in that direction.

With Turkey’s Fatih drillship setting off from Trabzon on May 29 towards the Mediterranean to conduct new gas exploration activities, Ankara has asserted the drilling claims of Turkey and Northern Cyprus on lots 1,4,5,6,7 of the gas field called Aphrodite, given unilaterally under concessions to foreign companies by the Greek part of the island.

It will be interesting to see the international - and the Italian - reaction to this move.

Marco Ansaldo is currently senior foreign correspondent at La Repubblica. He has worked as a diplomatic correspondent, international correspondent, Vatican correspondent, and Middle East correspondent based in Istanbul.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.