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Italy

Italy plunges into political crisis after president vetoes Eurosceptic minister and government talks collapse

New elections loom as would-be prime minister Giuseppe Conte gives up bid to form a government, after refusing to find an alternative to proposed economy minister Paolo Savona

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 9:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 2:21pm

Italy could be forced to hold new elections after Giuseppe Conte gave up his bid to form a government following the collapse of talks with the president over including a Eurosceptic economy minister in his cabinet.

Conte, 53, a lawyer and political novice, picked for prime minister by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League seeking to create a coalition government, was given the green light to form his cabinet on Wednesday, but he still had to present a list of ministers that the head of state would agreed to before his government could seek approval in parliament.

“I have given up my mandate to form the government of change,” said Conte to reporters after leaving failed talks with President Sergio Mattarella.

Conte’s decision to step aside leaves Italy in a political crisis nearly three months after March’s inconclusive general election.

Following the collapsed talks, Mattarella has summoned Carlo Cottarelli, former director of the International Monetary Fund’s fiscal affairs department, for talks on Monday, with a temporary technical government now looking inevitable as Italy faces the strong possibility of new elections in the autumn.

Cottarelli, 64, worked at the International Monetary Fund from 2008 to 2013 and became known as “Mr Scissors” for making cuts to public spending in Italy.

Mattarella confirmed that the nomination by the Five Star Movement and the League of Paolo Savona for economy minister saw the end of Conte’s brief mandate.

In his latest book, Like a Nightmare and a Dream, 81-year-old Savona calls the euro a “German cage” and says that Italy needs a plan to leave the single currency “if necessary”.

“I accepted every proposed minister apart from the minister of the economy,” Mattarella told reporters.

A former judge of Italy’s constitutional court, Mattarella has refused to bow to what he saw as “diktats” from the two parties which he considered contrary to the country’s interests.

He had watched for weeks as Five Star and the League set about trying to strike an alliance that would give Italy’s hung parliament a majority.

The president said that he has done “everything possible” to aid the formation of a government, but that an openly Eurosceptic economy minister ran against the parties’ joint programme promise to simply “change Europe for the better from an Italian point of view”.

“I asked for the (economy) ministry an authoritative person from the parliamentary majority who is consistent with the government programme … who isn’t seen as a supporter of a line that could probably, or even inevitably, provoke Italy’s exit from the euro,” he added.

Mattarella said Conte refused to support “any other solution” and then, faced with the president’s refusal to approve the choice of Savona, gave up his mandate to be prime minister.

The leaders of Five Star and the League, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, were infuriated by Mattarella’s refusal to accept Savona, a respected financier and economist.

“Why don’t we just say that in this country it’s pointless that we vote, as the ratings agencies, financial lobbies decide the governments,” a livid Di Maio said in a video on Facebook.

“When the people give more than 51 per cent of consensus to political forces that want to represent the interests of the Italian people, they find a way to block everything. It’s unacceptable.”

Salvini, who was Savona’s biggest advocate and a fellow Eurosceptic, said on Sunday that Italy wasn’t a “colony”, and that “we won’t have Germany tell us what to do”.

He told supporters: “Either we can work to give a future to this country and to our children, or else, in a democracy, if we are still in a democracy, there is only one thing to do: give the floor to the Italians.”

Italian president's powers limited but key in a crisis

The president of Italy, an institutionally respected figure, has limited powers but ones which have often proved crucial during political crises.

The current President Sergio Mattarella refused to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister, even though he was the choice of the prime minister-designate and had the backing of the majority of parliamentarians.

His decision to exercise this right, which is enshrined in Article 92 of the Italian constitution, enraged the far-right League of Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Luigi Di Maio.

It is not the first time that an Italian president has refused to appoint a minister supported by the majority of lawmakers - it has happened at least three times before, most notoriously with Silvio Berlusconi.

After winning elections in 1994, the media magnate, who was already in the crosshairs of the Italian justice system, proposed to president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to nominate his personal lawyer Cesare Previti as Minister of Justice.

Scalfaro refused and Berlusconi accepted defeat.

This time, the Italian populists have refused to accept that the country’s head of state is simply exercising his prerogative, instead denouncing what they claim is meddling by Brussels or financial lobbyists.

It is on this basis that Di Maio has raised the possibility of impeaching Mattarella for treason - something that would require an absolute majority in both chambers of parliament in a joint session.

The president has very limited powers but can appoint heads of government and their chosen ministers.

The constitution also gives the president the power to dissolve parliament, a deterrent force which has played a part in numerous prior political crises in Italy - a country which has had 64 governments since 1946.

During the financial crisis in 2011, when global markets turned on Italy, President Giorgio Napolitano supported a move to oust Silvio Berlusconi and replace him with former European Commissioner Mario Monti.

Berlusconi denounced what he said was a state coup and demanded early elections - but in vain.