New Italian prime minister takes aim at migrants, austerity in maiden speech

Italian premier Giuseppe Conte (C), flanked by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (R) and Labour Minister Luigi Di Maio (L), addresses the Senate asking it to put its confidence in his 5-Star Movement/League coalition government in Rome, Italy, 5 June 2018. [EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCONI]

The leader of Italy’s new populist government vowed on Tuesday (5 June) to redistribute migrants in the EU and review EU sanctions against Russia, in his first policy speech to lawmakers since being sworn in.

Giuseppe Conte addressed the Senate ahead of two parliamentary confidence votes expected to confirm his new cabinet, formed from a coalition of far-right and eurosceptic parties.

Conte’s maiden policy speech reaffirmed several of the coalition’s key manifesto themes, such as a tough line on migrants.

“We will strongly call for the Dublin Regulation to be overhauled in order to obtain respect for a fair distribution of responsibilities and to achieve an automatic system of compulsory distribution of asylum seekers.”

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Conte also rejected economic austerity and conciliatory gestures towards Moscow.

“We want to reduce our public debt, but we want to do so with growth and not with austerity measures,” he told senators.

On Russia, which faces EU sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, Conte said: “We will promote a review of the sanctions system.”

His eurosceptic government was sworn in on Friday (1 June) after almost three months of political turmoil that alarmed EU officials and spooked financial markets.

A lawyer with little political and no government experience, Conte was nominated by far-right League leader Matteo Salvini and the head of the anti-establishment Five Star movement Luigi di Maio – both of whom flanked him during the speech and are now his deputy prime ministers.

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Summits on horizon

Both former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party – a campaign ally of the League – and the outgoing centre-left Democratic Party have said they will not vote in favour of the new government.

But the alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League is expected to pass the confidence votes in the Senate on Tuesday and in the lower Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday as the two parties hold a majority in both houses.

The 53-year-old prime minister’s agenda in his first weeks in office includes a Group of Seven summit in Canada this week and a key EU summit at the end of the month.

Conte’s low profile has fuelled speculation that he will take a back seat to his two powerful deputies. Salvini is to be the interior minister in the new cabinet and Di Maio will hold the economic development portfolio.

Since being sworn in, Conte had limited himself to a Facebook post in which he said that he had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and would meet the two leaders at the G7 summit.

“Good times over”

On Monday, Di Maio met representatives of food deliverers in Italy’s gig economy.

Afterwards, Di Maio described the workers as “the symbol of an abandoned generation,” and underlined the need to give them “job security and a dignified minimum wage”.

Salvini has wasted no time addressing immigration.

Visiting Sicily, where thousands of migrants have arrived in recent years, he declared at the weekend that Italy “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp”.

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The 45-year-old has repeatedly promised to cut arrivals and accelerate expulsions from a country where around 700,000 migrants have arrived since 2013.

“The good times for illegals are over – get ready to pack your bags,” he said Saturday.

European Union interior ministers are meeting on Tuesday (5 June) to discuss possible reforms of the bloc’s controversial Dublin regulation, whereby refugees must file for asylum in the first member state they enter.

Salvini has blasted the regulation as unfairly burdening Mediterranean countries and leading to “an obvious imbalance in management, numbers and costs”.

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