ROME – Italy is not getting enough respect from the European Commission or its partners and it is determined to convince the European Union to adopt bolder, more growth-friendly policies, Rome’s top EU affairs official said on Thursday.
“We hope and expect to see a change of attitude towards Italy from the Commission and from other countries,” said Sandro Gozi (pictured above), undersecretary for EU affairs and a close ally of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Gozi’s comments reflect growing frustration in Rome at a series of Commission decisions covering areas from immigration to bank rescues, state aid for a steel plant and fiscal policy.
If such decisions continue to go against Italy, Rome “has the option of challenging them in the European Court of Justice”, Gozi told Reuters, referring to the EU’s highest court which is based in Luxembourg.
In unusually frank remarks, Gozi said the approach of the Commission, Germany and other countries had to change or “everything will become more difficult”.
The Commission needed to show it was “the guarantor of all the countries, not just some”, he said, while calling for more growth-friendly EU policies that “have respect for Italy’s role in Europe”.
Renzi’s government has been under pressure since the rescue last month of four small banks that left thousands of retail investors out of pocket. Rome’s preferred solution was deemed by Brussels to be state aid, triggering a clash with the Commission.
Gozi said Brussels’ stance on the rescues was “not wise”. Government officials have said the Commission has been more flexible with recent bank rescues in Portugal and Germany.
With the row showing no signs of abating, the Commission on Wednesday defended its decision to warn Rome not to intervene directly in the salvage of the four ailing lenders.
“There is … a simple underlying logic – EU state aid control and the safeguards it provides for taxpayers and fair competition could otherwise be easily circumvented,” a Commission spokesperson said.
A RAFT OF PROBLEMS
Besides the bank furore, Italy was also infuriated this month when the Commission opened an infraction proceeding against it for allegedly failing to fingerprint the thousands of migrants who have arrived from Libya this year.
Renzi says migrants are now being fingerprinted and has called the EU focus on the issue “surreal”.
The Commission is also investigating Italy for possible illegal state aid over its support for the Ilva steel plant, Europe’s largest by output capacity. The government took full control of the plant in January after a court sequestered much of it on accusations that it failed to contain toxic emissions.
In yet another area of contention, the Commission said in November that Italy was among four euro zone countries whose 2016 budget risked breaking EU fiscal rules, and postponed a definitive judgement until the Spring.
“There is the banks, immigration, Ilva, a series of cases,” said Gozi, but he stressed Italy’s main concern was the broader political direction of the EU which continued to be marked by “hesitancy and inconsistencies we can no longer tolerate”.
Renzi, whose approval ratings have fallen steadily over the last year, has taken aim at Germany and what he sees as German-inspired EU-austerity policies. Gozi echoed those comments but said Germany was not the only problem.
He said France always claimed it supported Italy’s calls for more growth-oriented EU policies, but its words were not always followed by actions. “What does France want to do? We share the analyses but we want to also share the policies,” Gozi said.
“We want to be open about all this, rather than talking behind the scenes,” he said.
(By Gavin Jones; Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer)