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Italy awaits president’s decision on new PM for eurosceptic government

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio (L) announced Italian lawyer Giuseppe Conte as candidate for prime minister © AFP/File / Filippo MONTEFORTE

Rome, Italy, May 22 – Italy was Wednesday awaiting the president’s decision on whether to approve little-known lawyer Giuseppe Conte as prime minister to lead a populist, eurosceptic government which is already causing unease in Brussels.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League nominated Conte, 54, to head a coalition government in a bid to end two months of political deadlock following March’s inconclusive general election.

President Sergio Mattarella hosted the speakers of the lower house and the Senate on Tuesday to discuss Conte’s nomination.

The head of state has to agree to the parties’ candidate and ministerial team before they can seek approval for the new government in parliament.

Italian media said the president could make an announcement on Wednesday.

Mattarella’s endorsement would take the two parties a step closer to setting up a eurosceptic, anti-austerity government in the eurozone’s third-biggest economy.

Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and League chief Matteo Salvini unveiled their policy programme on Friday.

As well as planning to speed up expulsions of illegal immigrants, the programme contains anti-austerity measures including drastic tax cuts, pension reform rollbacks and a monthly basic income.

– EU warning –

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European authorities Tuesday warned Di Maio and Salvini to be “responsible” in their budget measures.

Italy’s 2.3 trillion euros of debt is 132 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the highest ratio in Europe apart from Greece and more than double the bloc’s 60-percent ceiling.

“There are some things there that are worrying, yes,” EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday when asked about the Italian situation.

EU countries with the highest levels of public debt (Q4 2017) © AFP / Alain BOMMENEL

The main fear is that Italy, a founder member of both the EU and the euro, is set to irk financial markets and trigger a new eurozone crisis by refusing to stick to public spending and debt targets set by Brussels.

“We view it as important that the Italian government remains on course in pursuing a responsible budget policy,” Valdis Dombrovskis, EU vice-president for the euro, told German business daily Handelsblatt in a warning to the incoming administration.

Italy has one of the eurozone’s lowest growth rates, with 8.3 percent of the population living in absolute poverty, according to national statistics agency Istat.

Istat announced Tuesday a GDP growth forecast of 1.4 percent in 2018, down 0.1 percent on an April forecast.

– CV controversy –

Conte’s CV boasts studies at New York University (NYU), the Sorbonne and Cambridge, but some entries have been called into question.

NYU told the New York Times it had no record of him studying there to “further his juridical studies” as Conte’s CV claims. The university said he might have taken part in one- or two-day courses for which they don’t keep records.

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Cambridge University said it does not “disclose personal data without the knowledge and/or consent of the subject of that personal data”.

Conte has yet to speak publicly, but Five Star has defended its PM pick to head a cabinet in which Di Maio and Salvini are tipped to hold key posts.

“The international and Italian press are going wild over presumed qualifications that Conte has never claimed to have. This is the umpteenth confirmation that they really are afraid of this government of change,” Five Star said in a statement.

– Necessary authority? –

Some observers questioned whether Conte had the necessary authority for the job.

“He’s in a very difficult situation because he has to deal with two groups who have formed a difficult compromise,” Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University, told AFP.

“What remains to be seen is whether he’s going to be able to control the various political directions in which this coalition was formed.”

Some media and commentators said Conte would be at the command of the two coalition groups’ leaders.

“I think that he’ll have to respond to what they want, do what they decide,” Gianfranco Pasquino, political science professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, told AFP.

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“It doesn’t seem that he has political experience so he will be forced to carry out the preferences of Di Maio and Salvini.”

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