Italy’s Conte rebukes opposition as debate over ESM reform heats up

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Minister of Economy Roberto Gualtieri hearing lawmakers' replies in the Senate. [EPA-EFE/FRUSTACI]

Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte called upon the right-wing opposition to act responsibly in talks over the reform of the eurozone bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Conte blamed opposition parties including the far-right Lega of Matteo Salvini and the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia of Giorgia Meloni for “unscrupulous behaviour” in raising public opinion’s attention to the overhaul of the ESM.

“The opposition is showing a poor culture of rules and a lack of respect for the institutions,” Conte told the Parliament on Monday (2 December).

For Conte, the right-wing opposition is acting in such an irresponsible way on the ESM that they could undermine citizens’ trust in the democratic institutions only to gain some ephemeral advantage in opinion polls.

In the past weeks, tension has mounted in Italy on the proposed reform of the ESM, which was provisionally agreed by EU member states in June and was expected to receive the final green light at the Eurogroup in December.

Criticism was raised even by the ruling Five Star Movement, which questioned the “conditionality” of EU financial aid “in the form of macro-economic adjustment programme”. This means that countries in trouble will receive assistance from the ESM fund only if they agree to economic restructuring.

Opposition lawmakers have accused the government of having sold out the country, while right-wing Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini heated the debate saying that approving the June deal should be considered as high treason.

‘Lega knew’

For Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri, the criticism raised by the opposition on the reform of the eurozone bailout fund is only a pretext to attack the executive.

“Concerns about the ESM are based on inaccurate and incorrect information,” he said addressing Parliament’s lower chamber last week.

Addressing lawmakers, Conte recalled that at the time of the provisional approval of the ESM reform, Salvini’s Lega was in the ruling coalition. The ESM reform was outlined during a cabinet meeting on 27 February but none of the ministers present, including those from the right-wing Lega, raised any objections, Conte reminded.

The topic was also brought up to the Italian Parliament’s attention in the government’s communications to the two Chambers before the two European Council in March and June, Conte recalled.

The Italian prime minister also attacked Matteo Salvini, saying he was quite aware of his “reluctance” to study political dossiers from the times when he was Interior Minister in Conte’s previous government.

Salvini replied to Conte saying he doesn’t hold a grudge after the spat they had during Italy’s political crisis in August, adding however that Conte was telling lies on the ESM reform.

Italy’s Conte blasts Salvini before handing in resignation

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned on Tuesday evening (20 August), despite an eleventh-hour attempt by the far-right Lega party to defuse the crisis by withdrawing a motion of no-confidence against the government.

Delay in Eurogroup decision

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement appears to be critical of the reform that will turn the ESM into an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-like structure.

“We’ve always been against the ESM because, when applied, it cuts salaries and pensions and brings bad reforms such as the Italian Job Act,” said Five Star MEP Nicola Pedicini.

According to him, under the guise of structural reforms, the EU is in fact hiding unacceptable “blood and tears” measures.

“Italy has contributed €14 billion to the ESM. We will not give more,” he said adding that his party was aiming for a fairer reform that will not punish citizens nor member states.

On Sunday (1 December), Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte convened a cabinet meeting to ease tensions between ruling parties on the overhaul of the ESM.

But after four hours of talks, both the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party failed to find common ground, deciding to wait for a resolution from the Italian Parliament on the matter, scheduled for 11 December.

This means that Italy won’t be able to give its go-ahead to the reform of the eurozone bailout fund at this week’s Eurogroup meeting on 4 December.

Speaking to Italian news agency Ansa, an EU source said that there was no need to conclude the procedure in December, but that Italy has not asked yet to postpone the final decision.

Furthermore, the EU source said that reopening negotiations concluded in June is still possible in theory, but that it is too risky.

The Italian executive wants to address the negotiations following a “package approach”, said a government’s source.

However, putting the ESM dossier on hold waiting for concluding other elements of the “package”, such as the roadmap on the completion of the banking union, may slow down the entire reform of the Economic and Monetary Union.

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