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Italy to decide on new PM for eurosceptic government

ROME (AFP) - 

Italy's president was tasked on Tuesday with deciding whether to approve little-known lawyer Giuseppe Conte as prime minister of a coalition government set up by anti-establishment and far-right groups.

The presentation of Conte, 54, for the post takes the parties a step closer to setting up a eurosceptic, anti-austerity government in the eurozone's third-biggest economy.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League put his name forward late Monday in a bid to end two months of political deadlock.

President Sergio Mattarella hosted the speakers of the lower house and the Senate on Tuesday morning to discuss Conte's nomination.

He has to agree to the parties' candidate and ministerial team before they can seek approval for the new government in parliament.

A spokesman for the president said he would not announce a decision on Tuesday. Italian media said that he could make an announcement tomorrow.

- EU warning -

Installing a prime minister is a key step in Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and League chief Matteo Salvini's efforts to set up a joint government.

The two groups unveiled their joint policy programme on Friday.

As well as planning to speed up expulsion of illegal immigrants, it contains anti-austerity measures including drastic tax cuts, pension reform rollbacks and a monthly basic income.

European authorities warned them Tuesday morning to be "responsible" in their budget measures.

"The European Commission does not interfere with national policy on principle, but we view it as important that the Italian government remains on course in pursuing a responsible budget policy," Valdis Dombrovskis, the body's vice-president for the euro, was quoted as saying by the German business daily Handelsblatt.

Italy's 2.3 trillion euros of debt is 132 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the highest ratio in Europe apart from Greece.

The EU forecasts that Italian public debt will remain at 130 percent of its GDP this year -- more than double the bloc's 60-percent ceiling.

"We can only advise it to stay on course in terms of economic and fiscal policies, to stimulate growth through structural reforms and to keep the budget deficit under control," said Dombrovskis.

Hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, Italy has one of the eurozone's lowest growth rates.

On Tuesday morning, national statistics agency Istat announced a GDP growth forecast of 1.4 percent in 2018. At the end of April the outgoing government estimated 1.5 percent growth for the year.

Salvini said on Tuesday that the new government "wants to grow and relaunch Italy, respecting rules and commitments". But he has already reacted coldly to criticism from Brussels.

On Monday conservative European People's Party leader Manfred Weber was quoted as saying by German news agency DPA that Italy was "playing with fire" with the coalition government programme.

Salvini replied: "Let him think about Germany, and we'll think about Italy".

- Necessary authority? -

Conte's CV boasts study and research positions at some of the world's most prestigious universities.

But some observers expressed concern that Conte would not have the necessary authority, within the government or in external relations.

"He's in a very difficult situation because he has to deal with two groups who have formed a difficult compromise," said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome's John Cabot University.

"What remains to be seen is whether he's going to be able to control the various political directions in which this coalition was formed."

Di Maio and Salvini are tipped for key ministerial posts in the new cabinet.

Left-wing newspaper La Repubblica branded Conte "a prime minister who will not count".

"What authority will he have when he goes to meet Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron?" the paper said in an editorial.

© 2018 AFP