EU President Scorns Italians: ‘Work Harder, Be Less Corrupt’

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker speaks during the plenary session of the European People's Party (EPP) Congress on October 22, 2015 in Madrid, Spain. Madrid is hosting the European People's Party (EPP) for two days of congress, gathering conservative parties from across Europe and 14 …
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty

ROME— The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker defended the European Union Thursday, saying that Italians need to work harder, be less corrupt, and stop blaming the EU for their problems.

“Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy,” Juncker said during a Q&A session at a Brussels conference titled “New Pact for Europe.”

“This means more work; less corruption; seriousness,” he said.

“We will help them as we have always done. But you should not play around by putting the responsibility on the European Union.”

The EU president’s comments followed on a surge in approval for Italy’s Eurosceptic populist parties after Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella vetoed the formation of a government that featured the illustrious economist and Eurosceptic Paolo Savona as finance minister.

Mattarella’s veto was widely interpreted in Italy as an effort by the establishment to deny the people their elected leaders in deference to concerns from Brussels.

Mr. Juncker said on Thursday that he loves Italy “but I am no longer accepting that everything going wrong in the south of Italy is explained by the fact that the European Commission would not do enough.”

Juncker’s comments provoked indignation and anger in Italy, while other senior officials in Brussels rushed to try to contain the damage.

The President of the European Parliament, the Antonio Tajani, said: “I asked European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to immediately deny the comments attributed to him, because if they are true they would be unacceptable.”

A spokeswoman for the Commission said that Mr. Juncker’s words on Italy were “taken out of context.”

“In a closed Q&A session, President Juncker was referring to the structural problems of the region of south Italy where the EU has done a lot to mobilise funding to spur growth and jobs,” she said.

“The absorption of EU funds could be improved so that people can feel the results swiftly,” she added. “The EU will continue to engage with Italy in order to make sure that help arrives where it is most needed.”

Less than a week ago, budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger suggested that financial markets would teach Italians not to vote for populists, which brought on accusations of trying to “bully” the Italian people.

Oettinger said that the markets “will teach Italy’s voters not to vote for populist parties in the next elections.”

On Thursday evening, the leaders of the victorious populist parties La Lega and the 5-Star Movement reached an agreement with President Sergio Mattarella for a new government, staving off the spectre of snap elections.

While Paolo Savona was still put in charge of a ministry, it was the ministry of European affairs rather than the finance ministry.

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