PM urges pro-EU lawmakers to back Italy's fragile govt

Rome (AFP) –


Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appealed to liberal, pro-European lawmakers Monday to support his teetering government or risk handing power to the nationalist right.

The coalition has been on the brink since former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party last week, depriving Conte of his majority in the Senate, parliament's upper house.

In an address to the lower chamber, the day before a crucial Senate vote, Conte warned now was not the time for a new government.

"We risk losing touch with reality... All our energies should be focused on the urgent crisis facing the country," he said, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated Italy's economy and left more than 82,000 dead.

He insisted his coalition with the Democratic Party (PD) and Five Star Movement (M5S), which was formed in September 2019, could carry on without Renzi.

He urged lawmakers from "the highest European tradition -- liberal, popular and socialist" to join him, adding: "Now we have to turn the page."

Italy "deserves a cohesive government" -- one with "an essential European mission, pursuing a clear choice of field against nationalist tendencies", he said.

Opinion polls suggest that if the current turmoil leads to snap elections, a centre-right coalition including the anti-immigration, anti-European League party would take power.

"Go home!" shouted opposition lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies, even as Conte received applause from supporters.

"A government with a slim or non-existent majority is not what Italy needs to face the difficult challenges of the coming months," warned League leader Matteo Salvini.

The test for Conte will come on Tuesday, when he addresses the Senate and faces what will effectively be a vote of confidence.

He no longer controls the 321-seat upper chamber after Renzi withdrew Italia Viva's 18 senators.

- Unifying dream -

Renzi for weeks has criticised Conte's handling of the pandemic, from the months-long closure of high schools to support for small businesses threatened with ruin.

Conte told parliament his government had acted with the "utmost care," taking "decisive action" where needed.

New measures were introduced Sunday to try to slow the spread of Covid-19, with shops and restaurants shut and residents urged to stay at home in a number of regions -- including Lombardy, comprising Milan.

Italy has been among the worst hit European nations in the pandemic, and is one of the main beneficiaries of a 750 billion euro ($904 billion) EU economic recovery fund.

But Renzi has accused the government of wasting the opportunity, judging its 220 billion euro plan too focused on vote-winning handouts instead of addressing long-term structural issues.

He has also been calling for Italy to make use of the eurozone's rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) -- a move fiercely resisted by the M5S, which fears it would bring with it tough conditions on public spending.

Conte amended the recovery plan following Renzi's criticisms, but the Italia Viva politician said Monday it was "still not working".

What was needed, Renzi wrote in his regular newsletter, was a "unifying dream for the country and not a hunt for a single vote in Parliament".

- More turbulence ahead -

Renzi has said his party will abstain in Tuesday's vote -- but if Conte and his partners cannot show they have a solid parliamentary majority, the premier may still have to resign.

The PD and M5S could patch things up with Renzi, and form a reshuffled government, with or without Conte at the helm.

The premier gave some ground to Renzi on Monday, agreeing to delegate control of the security services -- a long-running cause of criticism.

Another option before snap elections could be a grand coalition government, probably led by a non-partisan figure.

According to Lorenzo Pregliasco, a political analyst at the University of Bologna, Conte expects to survive Tuesday’s vote even "with very low numbers," but hopes some lawmakers may cross over to his side, consolidating his majority, in the weeks to come.

"He is convinced that the 'yesses' will outnumber the ‘nos’," Pregliasco told AFP.