Italy’s populists lash out at Brussels over EU’s debt warning

Italy's populist Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio on Wednesday dismissed Brussels' formal warning over the country's excessive public spending as "too easy".

Italy's populists lash out at Brussels over EU's debt warning
Luigi Di Maio, deputy PM and head of the Five Star Movement. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

“For years we've been giving without receiving, or we receive less than what we were due, we've been completely ignored for years on the matter of migrants, for instance,” said Di Maio, from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

“We bear all the weight, and as if that were not enough, they're lecturing us. This won't work, it's too easy,” Di Maio wrote on Facebook. “We will go to Europe and discuss responsibly, so we can construct and not destroy. But it's tough, when you see that every day they find another reason to say bad things about Italy and this government.”

The European Commission on Wednesday formally put Italy on notice over its deteriorating budget deficit and a huge debt mountain equal to more than 130 percent of total economic output, way above the EU's 60-percent limit.

READ ALSO: EU threatens sanctions over Italy's spend-happy budget

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The move by the EU's executive arm begins a complicated process that, if approved by eurozone ministers, could result in an unprecedented fine of more than €3 billion.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, named to the job by Di Maio and nationalist leader Matteo Salvini, said he wanted to “continue constructive dialogue” with Brussels. Conte said in a statement that he “took note” of the Commission's decision but recalled that Italy planned on reducing deficit to 1.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2022.

Fellow Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, from the League party, criticised austerity policies which he said “increased debt and poverty”.

“The only way to reduce debt from the past is to lower taxes and allow Italians to work more and better,” the anti-migrant Salvini said in a statement. Salvini has said he wants to apply a so-called “flat tax” of 15 percent on annual income of €50-60,000 but the details have not been finalised.


“Cuts, fines and austerity have increased debt, poverty, financial insecurity and unemployment; we have to do the opposite,” said Salvini, whose party won 34 percent of votes in last month's European parliament elections. “We're not asking for money from anyone else, we just want to invest in jobs, growth, research and infrastructure. I'm convinced that Brussels will respect this desire,” he said.

Di Maio insisted that the public debt had been accumulated by the previous centre-left government of the Democratic Party (PD). “Now they're talking a lot about this possible infraction procedure and you know what that's about. That's about the debt accumulated by the PD in 2017 and 2018,” Di Maio wrote.

The Commission has, however, only cited the deficit increase under M5S and Salvini's Lega since they formed a coalition government a year ago.

“It's inconceivable for a country with six million unemployed and thousands of businesses producing less than their potential to be crucified because it wants to invest in growth, employment and lowering taxes,” Di Maio said. 

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What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production.