STRASBOURG (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called on Tuesday for a less austere European Union more in tune with popular demands for economic growth, but he faced a barrage of criticism after his keynote speech in the EU legislature.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addresses the European Parliament during a debate on the future of Europe in Strasbourg, France, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as part of a series of contributions by national leaders to a debate on the future of the Union, Conte stressed the continued commitment of Rome’s populist government to EU integration – a commitment some doubted after the coalition’s election last year.
But in renewing Italian calls for more flexibility in euro zone budget rules, common debt instruments for the EU currency area, an EU unemployment fund and a change in rules intended to avoid new bank collapses, he said years of austerity had driven a wedge between elites and people that endangered the project.
“The powerful opposition that the European people, in its various forms, is demonstrating in the face of the elites speaks to our consciences and reminds us that politics, too assertive on economic rationales, has not done its homework and has given up on its mission,” Conte told the assembled lawmakers.
Insisting his administration was keeping its “accounts in order”, he said it was also seeking to stimulate growth.
He called for the Union to end long arguments over how to handle migrants arriving by sea across the Mediterranean — a longstanding Italian complaint — and to play a stronger, more united role in global affairs while maintaining dialogue with other powers such as the United States, Russia and China.
But leaders of mainstream political groups, whose Italian allies found themselves excluded from power in Rome by the rise of the populist League and 5-Star Movement coalition, lined up to criticize Conte’s government for straying from euro zone budget rules, passing measures against asylum-seekers or siding with Moscow to thwart EU support for the opposition in Venezuela.
The sharp exchanges with a prime minister who, as an academic and political novice, is seen as the moderate face of a government dominated by radical voices, illustrated themes that will be aired in elections to the EU assembly this coming May.
After weeks of tension with France after senior figures in his government hailed protesters opposed to President Emmanuel Macron, Conte offered a veiled rebuff to Paris’s complaints, which culminated in recalling the French envoy from Rome.
“We should not be afraid of conflict,” he said. “We should show that we can control it. We should not oppose change with sterile and damaging conservatism,” Conte said.
“Instead, we should allow conflict to emerge, to demonstrate — in democratic forms — its propulsive force.”
Manfred Weber, the German leader of the main conservative bloc in the parliament, accused Conte of running an economic policy based on high borrowing and slow growth. Socialist leader Udo Bullmann accused it of showing “the ugly face of inhumanity” toward asylum seekers landing on Italy’s shores.
Speaking Italian, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal leader, said his “love for Italy”, a founder member of the Union, made it “painful” for him too see what he called the country’s “political disintegration” since the administrations of conservative Silvio Berlusconi.