Dispute in Italy’s government: tact and ignite

There is a crunch in the Italian government – there is a dispute about finances, about overcoming the Corona crisis. Ex-Prime Minister Renzi takes on his successor Conte – does he want to risk the break?

By Lisa WeiƟ, ARD-Studio Rome

It is Advent when the argument begins. In any case, it is not a quiet time for Italy’s politicians this year. You have your hands full, in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic, you are late with many decisions: Which anti-Covid rules should apply over the Christmas period? What should Italy’s budget look like? And: How does the country want to spend the grants and loans from the EU’s reconstruction fund? That’s 209 billion – a lot of money.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte finally presents a plan: It is called “Next Generation Italia” and provides billions in spending on environmental protection and sustainability as well as on digitization, culture and innovation. Then, around St. Nicholas Day, things should go very quickly: the draft has only just been drawn up and the ministers in the cabinet are supposed to vote on it.

Discussion about the “control center”

Matteo Renzi is going too fast. The former prime minister is now head of Italia Viva, a splinter party that has split off from the Italian social democrats, the Partito Democratico. Italia Viva is part of the multi-party government, has two ministers and is often enough to tip the scales. And now, too, Renzi wants to exert his influence. He attacks Conte, brings him close to a dictator. Conte wants to determine everything himself and does not properly involve either the governing parties or the parliament, he says.

There are also differences in terms of content, Renzi, for example, considers the expenditure on the health system to be far too low, nine billion are planned for this. A big point of contention: the planned “cabina di regia”, a kind of control center for the reconstruction after the Corona crisis. Besides Conte himself, only two other politicians should sit in it. Italia Viva would not have been considered.

Renzi presents project “CIAO”

After Renzi’s protests, the control center idea is now history in this form, but the former prime minister cannot be reassured by it. With media coverage, after Christmas he describes Conte’s strategy paper as soulless and disappointing. And presents its own strategic plan with the title “CIAO”. Actually, these are the first letters of the Italian words for culture, infrastructure, environment and possibilities. But Italian journalists are already asking: Shouldn’t that mean “Ciao, Conte”, that is: “Goodbye, Prime Minister”?

Renzi flirted quite openly with leaving the government, but also emphasized again and again: People are open to negotiations and would like to sit down together at the table. Does he really want the break?

One thing is clear: There has been dissatisfaction in this government since it was formed, and the coalition partners are sometimes miles away in terms of content. At that time they only got together under the leadership of the non-party Contes to prevent new elections. Because then there would probably have been a right-wing government with Matteo Salvini, the former interior minister from the right-wing Lega, as prime minister.

New elections – not very tempting at the moment

However, none of the governing parties would really benefit from new elections at the moment, the five-star movement, the Partito Democratico or the small parties like Italia Viva. Finding other majorities without re-voting will also be difficult.

It is more likely that Renzi simply wants to put pressure on the government in order to become even more visible to implement his ideas. After all, there is a lot of money at stake, billions that Italy should get from the EU if Italy manages to agree on how to use them in good time. Renzi is a player who knows how important he is to tip the scales.

More than just power games

But to reduce Renzi’s approach only to power games would be too short-sighted. In terms of content, his plan is more pointed and more innovative than Conte’s strategy paper, his suggestions are partly also well received by members of the Partito Democratico – they just don’t want to lean as far out of the window as Renzi.

An example: Italia Viva demands that Italy should finally accept the 36 billion euros from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). In other words, the money that is intended to finance the health system. This would not only secure the expansion of the health system, it would also free the nine billion that are planned for the health system in Conte’s strategy paper.

The ESM is highly controversial in Italy, the five-star movement in particular rejects it, fearing that Italy will become a second Greece – “externally determined by the EU”. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, repeatedly point out that these billions can be called up under completely different conditions than in the case of Greece.

Is the Conte III government coming?

But how can this smoldering crisis be resolved? You keep hearing that Conte just wanted to sit them out. It is questionable whether this can succeed. In any case, at his traditional annual press conference shortly before New Year’s Eve, the Prime Minister said that this government had the chance to make it to the end of the legislative period, but that it should not gamble away its credibility. And, with a view to Renzi: ultimatums are not part of his political tools.

The prime minister rejected the rumors that he wanted to found his own party: he had to plan the future of Italy, he said he had no time for an election campaign.

Perhaps what some Italian political experts suspect will also happen: the government will be reshaped, some important ministers will be replaced by others. And that both sides can go on like this without losing face.

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