Italy’s Conte seeks Brussels reform, cooperation

Rome, Sept 9 (AFP/APP):Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called Monday for reform of European Union budget rules and cooperation on immigration, ahead of a parliamentary confidence vote in his new government.

The most pressing dossier for the incoming coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and centre-left Democratic Party is the upcoming 2020 budget, a key test for relations with Brussels.

Much of the start of Conte’s first speech to parliament however was dedicated to ticking off the previous populist coalition for endless bickering, and promising the new government would be better behaved.
Conte called for the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, which limits budget deficits to three percent of gross domestic product in European countries, to be “improved” and simplified.

The pact was the main problem between the European Commission and the previous populist government in heavily indebted Italy, which must submit a balanced budget to Brussels in the coming weeks.
Should it fail, Italy could face an automatic rise in value-added tax on January 1 to raise more funds but which would hit the poorest the hardest.

Conte said the government would up efforts to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, from income support for the lowest earners to help for the disabled, earthquake victims and working mothers, as well as tackling gender equalities.

He promised Italians that, after a season of bitter fighting and hate propaganda, the new keyword would be respect.

“We cannot in the coming months waste our time with disputes and clashes,” he said, adding that the government must act with humanity rather than wallow in arrogance.

Demonstrators from the far-right League and smaller Brothers of Italy party descended on the square outside parliament, with League leader and former strongman Matteo Salvini slamming the new alliance between the former party foes.

“We will be a serious opposition, in parliament but also among the people, from north to south, one town after another,” Salvini said.

– ‘Season of reforms’ –

Conte said the country was on the threshold of a “season of reforms”, which would work to ease Italy’s colossal public debt, which currently stands at more than 2.3 trillion euros or 132 percent of GDP — the highest rate in the eurozone after Greece.

Brussels is constantly calling on the eurozone’s third largest economy to reduce the deficit and the accumulated debt. It frequently clashed with the outgoing populist government over its big-spending plans.

The previous coalition eventually agreed to reduce the annual deficit to 2.04 percent of GDP in 2019, instead of 2.4 percent.

On the hot-button topic of migration, Conte disappointed human rights activists who had hoped he would announce a sharp about-turn on Salvini’s controversial immigration law, although he did say integration measures would be boosted.

He said promises of solidarity between EU member states were not enough, and insisted both Italy and the bloc must stop treating the migration phenomenon in crisis-mode, but implement concrete measures such as humanitarian corridors.

Conte called for a “real shared project” among European countries and floated the idea of a summit on Europe’s future to boost the country’s relevance and redefine its role “in a world undergoing a full transformation”.

The prime minister said more would be done for Italy’s young — particularly from the impoverished south — in terms of training and apprenticeships, as well as investments in universities, the digital sector, and heritage sites and tourism.

In a nod to climate change concerns, he said the government was preparing a “courageous and innovative” Green New Deal, which would promote urban regeneration, the use of renewable energy and the protection of biodiversity and the sea.

Conte’s speech was interrupted several times by cries of “elections!” from the League and Brothers of Italy MPs.

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