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Italian PM faces anger after calling for change in Europe

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Italian PM faces anger after calling for change in Europe
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Strasbourg on February 12. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP
10:47 CET+01:00
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was called a "puppet" and slammed over his government ministers' behaviour after his speech to MEPs in Strasbourg yesterday.

The EU has "lost contact with the people" and needs to change, Conte had said in his speech to an ften hostile audience in Strasbourg.

Conte called for a less austere European Union more in tune with popular demands for economic growth.

He was speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg as part of a debate on the future of the Union.

But the Italian PM faced a barrage of criticism from MEPs over his government's conduct after his keynote speech, with one calling him a “puppet” of the two ruling populist parties.

Conte's speech mixed pro-bloc rhetoric with some criticism as he faced an often hostile audience at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"The European project seems to have lost some of its momentum," said Conte, who heads a populist coalition government, regretting what he perceived as passivity in the face of economic crisis.

"Politics, if it is only at the service of the economy, misses its mark," the Italian head of government said in charging that the EU had "lost contact with the people" and was "incapable of understanding (their) true needs."

He urged European lawmakers to show a united front on migration, with the issue set to dominate the run-up to European elections in May.

"We cannot go on" dealing with migrant flows via a series of emergency measures, Conte insisted.

He said the bloc required instead "a structural approach for a stable and efficient solution," including a mechanism forcing EU states to share out the burden.

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Manfred Weber, leader of the European People's Party centre right grouping, responded by stating the assembly backed a fairer and more effective asylum policy that would provide greater solidarity and end the requirement to apply for asylum only in the first EU country reached.

However, fellow German Udo Bullmann, leader of the Socialists and Democrats grouping, blasted what he termed Italian "cynicism" in refusing to take in NGO migrant rescue boats at its ports.

That policy has earned Rome heavy criticism and Conte drew more of the same over his country's spending plans and high public deficit, which led to a standoff with Brussels last year prior to the budget plan being watered down.

"Italy suffered badly from austerity," said Belgian Green lawmaker Philippe Lamberts, but "rather than seek to form alliances ... your government chose confrontations which were theatrical and sterile," he chided Conte.

Conte meanwhile defended a recent meeting in France between deputy prime minister Luigi di Maio and French anti-government "yellow vest" protestors which caused a row between Rome and Paris, saying the visit was made merely as a "party leader."

L-R: Luigi Di Maio, Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini in Rome. Photo: AFP

European Socialists and Democrats caucus leader Udo Bullmann said "I am very saddened by the senseless escalation between Italy and France. In contexts like this no one comes out a winner, it is a classic lose-lose situation."

One MEP had particularly harsh words for Conte and his government.

"I wonder how much longer you will be the puppet moved by Salvini and Di Maio," Liberals leader Guy Verhofstadt asked Conte following the speech.

Verhofstadt also said Di Maio had "abused" his office by meeting with French Yellow Vests protesters last week.

Verhofstadt told Conte: "I'll speak in Italian, I'm in love with Italy, for me it is a country, it is an entire civilisation, Italy is where our European civilisation was born.”

"That is why it hurts me to see Italy's political degeneration, which did not start yesterday, or a year ago, but 20 years ago.”

“This beautiful country has become, from a convinced defender of Europe, a laggard in the Union".

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