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Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her allies on Tuesday began what is set to be a weeks-long process of forming a new government, with crises looming on several fronts.

Italy's Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win
(From L) Giorgia Meloni, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini have begun talks on forming a government after their right-wing coalition won a majority at Sunday’s elections. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, which triumphed in Sunday’s elections, has no experience of power but must assemble a cross-party team to tackle sky-high inflation and energy prices, and relations with a wary Europe.

The 45-year-old is hoping to be the first woman to lead Italy as prime minister, but needs her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and former Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for a majority in parliament.

The division of the top jobs – notably economy, foreign affairs, the defence and interior ministries – will always be political but now, more than ever, “will have to reflect areas of expertise”, the Stampa daily noted.

President Sergio Mattarella will begin consultations on who should lead the new government only once the Senate and Chamber presidents have been elected by parliament, which meets on October 13th.

In the past, it has taken anything between four and 12 weeks for a new administration to take office.

But the first deadline for action is coming up fast, with Italy due to submit its draft plan for next year’s budget to Brussels by October 15th.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new government

The parties have said they want to make major changes, with a manifesto promising to slash taxes, roll back welfare, and “revise” the terms of Italy’s recovery fund agreement with Brussels – potentially putting the rest of the deal, worth a total of almost 200 billion euros to Italy, at risk.

EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said he urged “the next Italian government to ensure that this opportunity is seized”, saying the fund was key to putting Italy on a path to “strong and durable growth”.

Agnese Ortolani, senior Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she expected Meloni “to continue to reassure the markets by picking a non-controversial figure for the role of finance minister”.

“She will also want to avoid reputational damage by nominating someone who is not perceived as credible by the markets,” she said in a note.

READ ALSO: Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Meloni’s allies have been pitching for heavyweight positions, Salvini wanting his old job as interior minister back, and Berlusconi eyeing president of the Senate.

Their parties’ disappointing performance in the polls, however, with neither reaching 10 percent while Brothers of Italy’s secured 26 percent, means Meloni may already be planning to sideline them.

League leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni are set to form a government together following the election. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Salvini and Berlusconi do not see eye-to-eye with Meloni on several fronts, including on Russia and public spending to relieve the cost of living crisis.

With all the potential friction ahead, winning the elections “was almost the easy part”, commented Luciano Fontana, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera daily.

Berlusconi downplayed concerns he would rock the boat Tuesday, claiming his party was ready to make compromises “in the country’s interests”.

His ally Antonio Tajani, a former European parliament president, is tipped as possible foreign minister, an appointment which could both appease Berlusconi and assuage international fears that Meloni’s Eurosceptic populist party plans to pick fights with Brussels.

Salvini may prove more difficult. He is currently on trial for allegedly abusing his powers as interior minister in 2019 to block migrants at sea, which some say could rule him out returning to the job.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“Defusing Salvini” without sparking a backlash that could weaken the government is “Meloni’s first test”, the Repubblica daily said.

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MIGRANT CRISIS

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”

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