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Renzi pushes Italian government closer to brink



ROME — The stand-off inside the Italian government deepened on Wednesday as former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi continues to hold an axe over premier Giuseppe Conte’s head.

Renzi, once nicknamed Rottamatore — Demolisher— because of his ambitious reform program, scheduled a press conference for Wednesday afternoon that could trigger the end of the government if his two Cabinet ministers resign as expected.

After weeks of wrangling over the plan for spending the €209 billion in grants and low-interest loans Italy expects to receive from the EU’s recovery fund, the government finally managed to approve the country’s post-pandemic recovery plan on Tuesday.

But at a heated late-night Cabinet meeting, two ministers from Renzi’s small Italia Viva party, responsible for agriculture and family, abstained from voting. They demanded new changes — crucially, that the plan include accessing the European Stability Mechanism’s pandemic funding to improve healthcare.

This is a red line for the 5Star Movement, the coalition’s largest party, which made dismantling the ESM a core policy in its Euroskeptic days.

Renzi told Rai3 TV on Tuesday night that the changes to the recovery plan were “an improvement” so far, but weren’t enough to keep Italia Viva from walking without the ESM funds for health.

“Our ministers, Elena Bonetti and Teresa Bellanova, do not want to be in government at all costs. If you want them in government you have to listen to some of their ideas,” he said. “I am not available to be complicit in the greatest waste of public money in the history of the republic.”

In the middle of a health and economic crisis, following the largest annual loss of life in Italy since World War II, the stand-off is incomprehensible to many voters. Half do not understand the reasons behind the crisis, according to a poll by Ipsos for La7, and seven out of 10 believe Renzi is acting in his personal interest.

Francesco Clementi, professor in the political science department at Perugia University, said Renzi’s “primary motive is visibility.”

“So from that point of view, he has already won. If he succeeds in gaining ministries, that is a bonus. He can alternatively go to the opposition where he can complain about the government more comfortably,” he said.

If Renzi does withdraw his ministers, the number of options for Conte is narrowing. The prime minister seemed to rule out leading another government supported by Renzi on Tuesday, with leaks from his office insisting that another government with the small centrist party would be impossible.

Renzi and Conte could still pull back, even if that appears unlikely. Italia Viva’s Ivan Scalfarotto, undersecretary for foreign affairs, told Rai News on Wednesday that “dialogue is always possible.”

Meanwhile, Conte is attempting to gather support for a new majority from independents and small parties in the parliament, such as former minister Maurizio’s Lupi’s Noi con L’Italia, dubbed “the responsible ones.”

It is unclear whether there are enough “responsible ones”. In reality, a majority is difficult to achieve without help from at least a part of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which looks unlikely.

Timing could be everything; former Justice Minister Clemente Mastella said recently that “responsible ones” are “like the Vietcong — they pop up when you least expect them.”

If Conte cannot find the support he needs he would need to submit his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who would open consultations to find a new prime minister, perhaps with the same majority.

A new government leader could come from the Democratic Party, who would favour Culture Minister Dario Franceschini. If no majority can be found, Mattarella could appoint a government of national unity led by a technocratic figure such as Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, to steer the country through the economic and health crisis until elections can be held — probably not before June.



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