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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Italy’s novice premier inches towards power

In a fraught first few hours, Giuseppe Conte faces a headache keeping the EU, his critics and his backers all happy

Designated Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrives at the Lower House in Rome, Italy, 24 May 2018, where he is holding a round of consultations with Italy's political parties. EPA/ANGELO CARCONI
Designated Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte arrives at the Lower House in Rome, Italy, 24 May 2018, where he is holding a round of consultations with Italy's political parties. EPA/ANGELO CARCONI

Nobody said that running Italy was easy. After a first day of life as prime minister facing criticism for his political inexperience and dubious claims on his CV, Giuseppe Conte spent Thursday trying to reconcile former foes for a new anti-austerity coalition government.

After a bitter election campaign and two-month political deadlock, the law professor emerged from obscurity to become the man with the daunting task of selecting a cabinet comprising the far-right League and the anti-establishment 5-Star movement. His task is made no easier by suspicions - openly expressed by European Union leaders - that his eurosceptic coalition’s new policies could invite economic “suicide” that would affect the rest of the 28-nation bloc.

Since being agreed as prime minister, Mr Conte said that he wanted his government to “confirm Italy’s place” in Europe in comments designed to placate the EU after the 5-Star movement only belatedly recanted on a promise to hold a referendum on membership. Further clashes are expected, however, with the coalition pushing for 81-year-old Paulo Savona to be named as economy minister, an ardent critic of the EU whose views chime with the League. His appointment has been opposed by president Sergio Mattarella who has to sign off the names.

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The coalition is expected to also push for Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, to be named as interior minister to pursue his crackdown on illegal migration. The leader of 5-Star, Luigi Di Maio, wants the labour portfolio to improve welfare for the poor.

Mr Conte was meeting all the groups in parliament and is unlikely to give the head of state his list of names before Friday evening, according to the 5-Star Movement, which proposed him as premier of the eurozone’s third largest economy.

The two parties, that emerged strongest from March elections, both want to spend more to help the country’s sluggish economy, a move that would likely breach the EU's fiscal rules. Italy’s level of public debt of more than 130 per cent of GDP has sparked concerns that a further downturn could lead to a potential Greek-style crisis, with Italy’s economy too large to be bailed out.

Slovak Finance Minister Peter Kazimir said the coalition would be on a "suicide mission" if it fulfilled its promises of higher spending and tax cuts.

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