Thu, Feb 14, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Row with France could lift divided Italian coalition

Italian coalition parties are increasingly split on key issues and upcoming elections are adding to the friction, but the French diplomatic row has given them a common enemy

By Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer  /  Reuters, ROME

Illustration: Mountain People

Italy’s ruling coalition has hit fierce turbulence for the first time since taking office last June, with diplomatic crises, ideological divisions and daily dustups taking their toll as the economy tips into recession.

France’s decision on Thursday last week to recall its ambassador from Rome to protest against repeated verbal assaults from Italy’s populist leaders has exacerbated a sense of turmoil in Rome and helped further depress already anxious financial markets.

Italy is Europe’s third-largest economy and has its second-biggest debt pile in terms of GDP after Greece, making investors highly wary of political risk there.

Recent ructions have raised speculation that the government might fall apart even before European parliamentary elections in May, long seen as a litmus test for the two ruling parties — the far-right Northern League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

However, interviews with more than a dozen coalition lawmakers suggest that despite deep, mutual frustrations, neither side expects an imminent divorce, with the French row likely to reinforce their troubled relationship rather than break it.

“We are united in not accepting orders from France, Europe or anyone else,” said Italian Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Guglielmo Picchi, a senior member of the League.

“What do you expect? We are in an election campaign where everyone has their own interests,” he added.

The League and Five Star have identified pro-European French President Emmanuel Macron as a natural adversary in their respective EU electoral battles, publicly accusing him of undermining Italy’s foreign, economic and immigration policies.

Macron’s abrupt decision to recall France’s envoy, a move not seen since World War II, alarmed Italian business leaders, but could please League and Five Star voters, thirsty for change after years of old-style, consensus politics.

“Potentially, this is something that might help the government parties reconnect,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, a founder of political consultancy YouTrend.

“Identifying common enemies always helps bring parties together ... so I don’t see this as a major problem,” Pregliasco said.

By its own admission, the coalition faces myriad other problems, starting with the anemic economy.

Italy fell into its third recession in a decade at the end of last year and the European Commission on Thursday slashed its Italian growth forecast to 0.2 percent this year from a previous estimate of 1.2 percent — the lowest in the 28-nation block.

Anxious not to be blamed by voters for the downturn, coalition parties hope their big-spending budget for this year, which includes a new income support scheme, will lift the economy.

“The economy is at the center of our thoughts. We are waiting to see what impact the budget will have,” said Stefano Patuanelli, the Five Star leader in the Italian Senate.

The effect of the budget is likely to take months to be felt and the coalition faces many hurdles in the meantime, including a fraught decision on whether to press ahead with building a Franco-Italian Alpine rail link, known as the TAV.

Five Star, which has strong roots among environmentalists, wants to kill off the multibillion-euro project, while the pro-business League is determined to proceed, with no sign that either party is willing to back down.

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