Italy’s Conte proposes a ‘pact’ to start honeymoon with Commission

On Wednesday morning, Italy's PM Conte had a meeting with President-elect von der Leyen in Brussels. [Conte's media team]

Freshly re-appointed as Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte has meaningfully chosen Brussels and the EU institutions for his first official visit, aiming to lay down weapons and start a new give-and-take relation with the European Commission.

On Wednesday (11 September), the day after winning the last vote of confidence in the Senate, Conte flew to Brussels to meet all the key figures in current and future EU establishment.

The official visit formalised the new government’s change of tack towards the EU: after 14 months of living dangerously under right-wing Lega’s influence, hostility was replaced by the goodwill toward Brussels from the new ally centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

“I really did want to visit the European institutions in my first public trip,” Conte told the press before having a working lunch with the president of the European Parliament, fellow Italian David Sassoli, adding that Italy wants to give its contribution to make Europe fairer, more inclusive and stronger.

This new friendly atmosphere is far away from the tensions of the past months when Conte used to come to Brussels only to negotiate how to save Italy from falling under an excessive deficit procedure by the Commission.

Conte’s agenda also included a meeting with both Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen and the current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as with the incoming European Council President Charles Michel and his predecessor, Conte’s ‘wonderful friend’ Donald Tusk.


A ‘pact’ with the EU

But Conte also brought forward his government’s intention to provide an expansive budget law for the next year with the aim of reducing the huge public debt through growth created from a huge plan of investment expenditures.

“What I’ve asked is to establish a pact with the EU to make investments in digitalisation, green and circular economy,” said Conte during a press point.

The outlined strategy seeks to demand more deficit spending to fulfil von der Leyen’s Commission priorities through digital and green investments rather than fund welfare support as was the case with the flagship measures of the pension reform and basic income laid down by the previous cabinet in last year’s budget.

“These are the cards we want to play and this is our programme. Allow us to deliver these investments for a while,” said Conte, asking the new Commission to essentially turn a blind eye on higher government spending.

Besides the practical support to implement von der Leyen’s agenda, Italy’s new government can also offer in return the votes she will need to have her EU executive confirmed in the European Parliament in October, as MEPs from the new ruling coalition were part of the majority which voted for her in July.

But Italy’s biggest ambition for its newly-designated Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni is not to help Italy avoid infringement procedures in the future, but to have an active role in reforming the bloc’s economic governance.

“We want to review the Stability and Growth Pact, to make sure that the EU rules will reinforce economic growth and sustainable development of Italy and the whole Europe,” Conte said in his 90-minute speech in the Senate, before winning the second vote of confidence.

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The European Fiscal Board has recommended major reform of the Stability and Growth Pact in order to simplify the EU’s spending rules and favour productive investment in the era of low-interest rates.

PD as a guarantee

The new ruling party, PD, will have a pivotal role in improving good relations and ensuring that the new Italy-EU honeymoon lasts, as trusted men from the centre-left are appointed in key roles dealing with European affairs.

The new government does not expect a harsh confrontation with the Commission as long as the experienced Paolo Gentiloni is in charge of the economic affairs at the Berlaymont, although Latvia’s ‘hawk’ Valdis Dombrovskis will be keeping tabs on him and on Italy’s public finances.

Reactions in Rome were bittersweet on the checks and balances system put in place by von der Leyen, as Gentiloni’s powers appear to be counterbalanced and limited by Dombrovskis’ executive vice-presidency.

However, Conte’s executive is fully aware that Italy could not ask for more and that the twofold leadership of the EU economic governance has shown to work well in the last Commission term with the good cop – bad cop approach of Moscovici and Dombrovskis.

Von der Leyen also said during the unveiling of her team that teamwork would be easier now that former MEP Roberto Gualtieri, also from PD, is appointed as economy and finance minister.

“He knows exactly what happened, what was agreed and what the expectations are at the European level,” she said, referring to Gualtieri’s experience as the chair of ECON committee at the European Parliament.

PD doesn’t want to lose this post with Gualtieri’s departure, as rumours have suggested Italian socialist MEP Irene Tinagli as the front-runner to replace him as the chair of ECON committee.

The new EU affairs minister, PD’s Enzo Amendola, completes the picture of centre-left ambassadors being tasked with taking care of the dialogue with Brussels and moving away from the Eurosceptic stance adopted in the first Conte government.

The Brief – Death to the Leopard

There is an old classic book that tells much more about Italian politics than newspaper clippings can say. It’s ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, containing the famous quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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