Europe looks for deeds, not words, from Italy's populists

Europe looks for deeds, not words, from Italy's populists
Italian Premier-designate Giuseppe Conte is approached by journalists as he leaves his home, in Rome, Thursday, May 24, 2018. Italy's President Sergio Mattarella Wednesday asked political neophyte Conte to try to form a government, giving the euroskeptic 5-Star Movement and anti-immigrant League a shot at running western Europe's first populist government. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

ROME (AP) — Italy’s premier-designate Giuseppe Conte spent his first day on the job Thursday finalizing his proposed cabinet list as European officials vowed to judge deeds, not words, from a decidedly euroskeptic and populist Italy in their ranks.

Conte, a law professor and political unknown, received a mandate from President Sergio Mattarella on Wednesday to try to form a government after the 5-Star Movement and anti-immigrant League pitched him as their candidate for premier following two months of political deadlock.

Speculation swirled Thursday over his proposed cabinet list, which he must present to Mattarella before the government can be sworn in and put to confidence votes in parliament. League leader Matteo Salvini doubled down in insisting on his pick for economy minister, Paolo Savona, saying Italians should cheer that someone will finally represent their interests in Brussels.

“It seems that in the past he had some doubts about the use or effectiveness of the euro,” Salvini said in a Facebook Live post. But Salvini said he would be proud to work alongside someone with Savona’s experience: The 81-year-old was industry minister in the 1990s and has held a series of positions in government, industry and banking.

Conte, meanwhile, spent Thursday in scheduled consultations with a steady stream of political leaders, with both left and right expressing concern about the 5-Star-League government program he has vowed to implement.

Beatrice Lorenzin, former health minister and head of a small leftist party, urged the incoming health minister to make decisions based on science and evidence — a reference to the 5-Star pledge to undo the expanded obligatory vaccination program that was a hallmark of Lorenzin’s tenure and passed during a deadly measles outbreak.

The head of the small, far-right Fratelli d’Italia party that was part of a right-wing bloc that ran in the election together with the League, said they would support the incoming government on the flat tax, immigration curbs and security matters, but would otherwise vote on the merits of each proposal. She expressed doubt about the basic income proposal from the 5-Star Movement.

“We tried to understand what would be the priorities of Professor Giuseppe Conte from the many that were included in this famous government contract,” Giorgia Meloni said. “If this government is formed, it will be the Conte government, not the Di Maio government or Salvini government.”

In Brussels, meanwhile, finance ministers gathering for a Eurogroup meeting expressed relief at Conte’s pledge to respect Italy’s European commitments.

“We all took positive note of the first declarations of the president of the Italian council (of ministers) who committed to respect the European rules,” said French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire. “It is a positive signal and we want to work constructively with Italy, and we will judge it on its actions.”

As recently as last week, Le Maire had warned that the eurozone’s financial stability could be threatened if a populist government blows Italy’s deficit commitments.

The 5-Star-League government program calls for a host of budget-busting measures, with little detail on financing, including a basic income for needy Italians and a two-tier flat tax that is expected to add to Italy’s debt load, already Europe’s heaviest after Greece.

Emerging from Mattarella’s office Wednesday, Conte vowed to implement the program, saying Italians were waiting for a “government of change” and that he couldn’t wait to get to work to deliver it.

But he also sought to reassure allies and markets that Italy would respect its European and international obligations, particularly as the EU begins budget negotiations.

“Deeds count more than words,” responded Margaritis Schinas, spokesman of the European Commission, when asked at the daily briefing about Conte’s assurances.