EU: Top budget job offered to rule-breaking Italy

Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was nominated on Tuesday for the key role of European Commissioner for Economic Affairs, where he will oversee public spending in member states, most notably in Italy.

EU: Top budget job offered to rule-breaking Italy
Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

The choice of Gentiloni was a surprise move by Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming head of the European Commission, who named her new team of top officials from a list of nominees proposed by all EU member states apart from Britain.

Gentiloni will take over from Pierre Moscovici, a former French finance minister who spent most his five-years as commissioner in battle with Italy over its colossal debt and chronic overspending.

Pierre Moscovici. Photo: AFP

The EU has strict rules on public spending, with countries expected to deliver national budgets with deficits that do not exceed three percent of GDP with debt not over 60 percent.

Italy's public debt currently stands at a daunting 132 percent of GDP and the new government in Rome will struggle to meet belt-tightening commitments already made to Brussels, potentially leaving Gentiloni in the delicate role of enforcing rules against his own country.

READ ALSO: Four key economic challenges facing Italy's new government

Rome's new government, which brings together the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party, has indicated that it wants to pursue an “expansive” economic policy, but “without jeopardising” sound public finances.

Plans tabled by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte include a demand to reform the EU budget rules, a gambit that will face fierce pushback by Germany and the Netherlands that cherish balanced budgets across Europe.

In introducing her new team on Tuesday, von der Leyen described Gentiloni as “very experienced”.

“He knows the difficult issues we face,” she added.

According to her organisational plans, Gentiloni will be overseen by Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister who returns to the commission as Executive Vice President over economic affairs.

The politically right-of-centre Dombrovskis held a similar role in the last commission and was often tussling behind the scenes with Moscovici.

READ ALSO: Italy's prime minister calls for reform of EU spending rules

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.