Italy’s Di Maio is not concerned with Europe as worries mount at home

Italian Vice Prime Minister Di Maio was in Brussels for the signing of a cooperation agreement on blockchain. [Gerardo Fortuna]

Italian vice prime minister Luigi Di Maio abruptly cancelled participation in the Competitiveness EU Council in Brussels on Thursday (27 September) and flew back to Rome to smooth tensions with Economy Minister Giovanni Tria on Italy’s draft budget, which seeks to increase spending.

Di Maio came to Brussels to sign a cooperation agreement on the European blockchain partnership in the presence of Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

Straight after the signing ceremony in the morning, he took a plane back to Italy, where the government is expected to reach a common position and unveil plans for the “manovra”, as Italians usually call the annual budget package.

“Today I’m not worried about the dialogue with Brussels,” Di Maio told the reporters, “if France will increase its public deficit, then Italy will do the same, as well as other countries that need to get something more compared to what was originally provided for.”

“It seems to me that at a European level, more member states agree the austerity policy of recent years is outdated. All the EU countries are trying to do expansive budgetary plans,” he added.

Asked if the Italian government can lead the front of those who want to spend more, he said that at this stage, Italy has shown to be more central to the debate in Europe than in the past.

“And we will be more and more central to the debate. We belong to the generation that in the next six months will change the face of the European Union after the European elections,” he concluded.

Di Maio’s instant Brussels agenda

According to a 5 Stars Movement’s source, Di Maio landed in Brussels on Wednesday night. He was supposed to take part in the Competitiveness EU Council in Brussels today (27 September), in a session dealing with Digital Single Market and in an exchange of views with other ministers on the EU’s long-term budget.

Di Maio was replaced at the last moment by Ambassador Michele Quaroni, a diplomatic source confirmed to EURACTIV.

Di Maio appeared very warm and collaborative with Commissioner Gabriel, confirming the Five Star Movement as the preferred interlocutor for the Commission.

“We support the Commission’s Digital Europe programme. We know that in the next years there will be big investments from the EU not only in the blockchain but also in artificial intelligence and internet of things,” said Di Maio after the signing ceremony.

“I am pleased that Italy is now part of European efforts to develop innovative services based on blockchain technology, including digital public services that people will be able to use across borders,” said Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

Di Maio also looks at blockchain as a way to prevent fraud, for example in the agrifood sector. “Thanks to blockchain, we will know if a tomato we are buying at the supermarket comes from abroad or from the Italian countryside”

“We will use blockchain to defend the Made in Italy from counterfeit,” he added.

Tensions with Tria

Both 5 Star Movement and Lega are pushing Economy Minister Giovanni Tria to present an expansive budgetary plan, with enough hedges to finance the campaign promises of tax cuts and welfare spending. Tria, an economics professor, was proposed by Lega for this position but is not affiliated with the party.

Italy on collision course with EU over budget deficit

Party leaders in the Italian coalition government signalled they will seek leeway from the EU to increase next year’s budget deficit, heading on a collision course with the European Commission and investors who want it cut.

“We want to make a budget plan for the people and not in favour of the mighty,” Di Maio told the press.

“Today is an important one. We will have a coalition summit [of Italy’s ruling parties and cabinet ministers] and each party will express their evaluations before the Council of Ministers,” Di Maio said. The Council of Ministers is expected to approve 2019 targets for economic growth, deficit, and public debt in a draft document to the budget law.

“We don’t want to challenge Europe or the markets. We only need the financial capacity needed to use all budget cuts that we are making in order to finance the measures included in the coalition contract we signed,” Di Maio said.

He also tried to redirect tensions against technocrats and bureaucrats inside the economy ministry. “It’s crystal clear that when there is such a radical change in parties’ government, there’s a part of the establishment that works against it,” he concluded.

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