Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, 2nd from right, is congratulated by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, right, as Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio, top left, applauds, at the Senate, in Rome, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. In his first policy statement, Conte addresses the upper Senate chamber on Tuesday and the lower Chamber of Deputies on Wednesday, capping an extraordinary week that saw the installation of Western Europe's first populist government after three months of political and financial turmoil. (Angelo Carconi/ANSA via AP)

Italy populists put EU on notice on migration, fiscal pacts

June 05, 2018 - 1:32 pm

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte declared Europe's immigration policy a "failure" and demanded it be renegotiated as he outlined on Tuesday a heavy-spending domestic policy agenda for the populist "government of change."

In his first policy address ahead of parliamentary confidence votes, Conte also warned that the government planned to renegotiate fiscal policy with the European Union, though he assured wary partners that leaving the common euro currency "is not up for discussion" and never was.

Conte, a political unknown who until last week was still teaching law classes, readily acknowledged that the alliance government of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and right-wing League marks a radical shift from the Italian status quo.

"If 'populism' is the attitude of leaders to listen to the people ... and if 'anti-system' means introducing a new system that removes the old privileges of power, then this government deserves both these descriptions," said the premier, who was sworn into his first political office Friday.

Conte was interrupted nearly three dozen times during his 75-minute speech to the Italian Senate ahead of a confidence vote later Tuesday. He is to deliver a similar address Wednesday before Parliament's lower Chamber of Deputies.

Between them, the 5-Stars and League have a slight parliamentary majority that is expected to give the government the votes it needs, giving the go-ahead to Western Europe's first populist government after three months of political and financial turmoil.

Conte responded to concerns about the xenophobic League's rhetoric, insisting that Italy "isn't racist" and accepts its responsibilities to welcome and integrate legitimate refugees. But he said the rest of the EU must take on a greater burden of accepting refugees as well as negotiating with migrants' home countries and helping send back those who don't qualify for asylum.

"It's obvious to everyone that the way migrant flows have been managed has been a failure," he said. "We will put an end to the business of immigration that grew disproportionately under the cloak of a pretend solidarity."

He also sought to assuage fears in Europe about his budget-busting fiscal program, but he offered no details on financing and limited his comments to responding to concerns that Italy at some point might leave the Eurozone.

"Do we have to repeat it? Leaving the euro was never up for discussion. It is not up for discussion," he said. "The issue is another: Is it legitimate or not for a government of a country to re-negotiate economic policy?"

Fears of a possible exit strategy were stoked when an early draft of the government's policy agenda leaked, showing plans to delineate rules to leave the euro and for the European Central Bank to cancel 250 million euros in debt. Those points were dropped in the final document.

Conte also said Italy was a "convinced" member of NATO and reaffirmed its "traditionally privileged" alliance with the U.S.

But he called for the lifting of EU sanctions on Russia, citing Moscow's strategic role internationally and the risk that sanctions will crush Russian civil society.

Conte gave his speech standing between his two political masters: 5-Star Leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini. The two gave up their own ambitions to be premier and agreed to find a compromise candidate to head a previously unthinkable alliance.

As expected, the new premier's address drew heavily from the 5-Star-League's 57-page policy agenda, the "Contract for the Government of Change," repeating its call for a two-tiered flat tax, a basic income for poor Italians and a "dignified" minimum wage. Conte gave no specifics on how the expensive public programs would be financed, other than by calling for new criminal penalties for flagrant tax scofflaws.

The 5-Star-League's financial platform has worried economists and EU policymakers who warn it will increase Italy's debt burden, already Europe's heaviest after Greece.

Conte said Italy was committed to reducing its public debt, but said it wouldn't do it through austerity measures. He said the government plans to grow the economy through environmentally sustainable development, reduction in bureaucracy and a more business-friendly administrative climate for the small and medium-sized companies which are the backbone of the economy.

Leading the opposition in the Senate on Tuesday, Democratic Party Sen. Franco Mirabelli said it was fine to call for decent salaries and a speeding-up of public works contracts. He said the Democrats could support some of the new government's policy proposals.

"But the point is: How do you do it? With what resources?" Mirabelli said.

Mirabelli also criticized Conte for what he said was inadequate attention in the government's plan to fighting the Mafia. He noted that League leader Salvini — the new Italian interior minister — spoke about migration while in Sicily on Sunday "and didn't say a word" about organized crime.

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