Italy’s new populist government formally takes reins

Italy's incoming premier Giuseppe Conte (C) shakes hands with far-right leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Five Star Movement head Luigi Di Maio after Tuesday's successful senate vote

Rome (AFP) – Italy’s new populist government officially took the reins of the eurozone’s third largest economy Wednesday after winning parliamentary backing.

The alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League was approved by the chamber of deputies with 350 votes in favour, 236 against and 35 abstentions.

Wednesday’s vote came a day after the upper house senate approved the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

The new coalition was sworn in by President Sergio Mattarella on Friday after months of political turmoil that alarmed EU officials and financial markets.

Approval in both houses of parliament gives 53-year-old academic Conte, a political novice, the mandate to carry out his programme for a “government of change.”

The programme — which combines radical tax cuts with anti-austerity measures like a basic monthly income for the poorest citizens — has left many Italian and international observers perplexed given the country’s huge public debt.

It also takes a hard line on immigration, promising to curb new arrivals and speed up expulsions of illegal migrants. 

On Wednesday, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini went a step further saying that he wanted asylum centres to become closed-off structures so that migrants “aren’t strolling about our cities”.

A lawyer with little political experience, Conte was nominated by Salvini and Five Star head Luigi Di Maio — both of whom are now also his deputy prime ministers. 

In his first policy speech on Tuesday, Conte called for “obligatory” redistribution of asylum seekers around the EU and a review of sanctions against Russia.

He also reaffirmed several of the coalition’s key manifesto pledges, including rejection of austerity in an economy weighed down by the eurozone’s second-largest debt ratio.

“We want to reduce our public debt, but we want to do so with growth and not with austerity measures,” he told senators.

– Summits on horizon –

The 53-year-old Conte will quickly have to step up to the plate — on his agenda in his first weeks in office are a Group of Seven summit in Canada this week and a key EU summit at the end of the month.

Ahead of his first engagements, Conte reiterated the government’s intention to stay in the EU.

“Europe is our home,” Conte said, adding that he wanted a “stronger but also fairer Europe”.

But the government’s ambitious anti-austerity policies — which include rolling back pension reform, slashing taxes and a basic universal income for Italy’s poorest– have worried Brussels, given Italy’s huge public debt. 

“We will get through the summer without difficulties, but there will be problems in the autumn if the new government implements even only 50 percent of what it has planned,” head of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) Klaus Regling told the German newspaper Handelsblatt on Wednesday.

– Exporting ‘convicts’  –

Since being sworn in as interior minister, Salvini has already made waves. 

He wasted no time addressing immigration, stressing at the weekend that Italy “cannot be Europe’s refugee camp” on a visit to Sicily, one of the country’s main refugee landing points

The 45-year-old said the “good times for illegals are over” in a country where around 700,000 migrants have arrived since 2013.

The bullish minister also caused a diplomatic gaffe with Tunisia after accusing the North African country of exporting “convicts” to Italy.

Tunisia’s foreign ministry summoned their Italian ambassador and expressed their “deep surprise” at Salvini’s comments in light of the two countries’ “cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration”. 

Salvini capped off an eventful few days by getting into a spat with Italian international footballer Mario Balotelli. 

In an interview, Balotelli — whose parents are Ghanaian immigrants — lamented that he was not granted Italian citizenship until the age of 18 despite being born and raised in Italy. 

“I’m not a politician, but I think the law should change,” he said Tuesday.

Taking to Twitter the new interior minister wrote:

“Dear Mario, ‘Ius Soli’ (birthright citizenship) is not my priority, nor the priority of the Italians. Regards, and have fun chasing the ball.”