Italy’s far-right League is pressing the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to embrace tougher positions towards the EU, as a split between the two populist parties over their approach to Europe convulsed their talks to form a government.
Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, has been more confrontational towards Brussels than Luigi Di Maio, his more conciliatory Five Star counterpart. Officials close to the negotiations said this had become a source of strain as the Eurosceptic parties attemp t to forge a populist alliance to run the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
“We are still negotiating and it is still possible we have a deal but there is a lot of confusion over Europe — this is a risk,” said Guglielmo Picchi, an MP and senior foreign policy adviser for the League.
Five Star and the League have often depicted Brussels as a source of excessive budgetary austerity, oppressive banking regulations, damaging economic sanctions against Russia and migration rules that place a huge burden on Italy. Both parties have demanded a revision of EU treaties but disagree on how to reach that goal.
“We want to play a very active role to change Europe. Five Star are more passive. It is like they are part of the Franco-German axis. We are prepared for talks on issues like the EU budget that will constrain this government and the next — they say ‘Let’s see what happens’,” Mr Picchi added.
Mr Salvini and Mr Di Maio emerged as the big winners of Italy’s general election in early March after voters issued a rebuke to the country’s traditional political parties amid widespread dissatisfaction with weak economic growth and surging migration.
After 10 weeks of political stalemate, the two leaders began negotiating a possible coalition deal to govern together last week — and claimed to have reached agreement on key issues at the weekend. But on Monday negotiations experienced a setback after the pair failed to agree a choice of prime minister to present to president Sergio Mattarella, who is refereeing the talks.
They pleaded for more time to reach a deal.
Mr Salvini emerged angry from his meeting with Mr Mattarella, suggesting he may be having second thoughts about the tie-up. “Italy’s new position on Europe is a delicate argument — and either there is agreement there or there will be none,” said Mr Salvini.
He said he wanted more freedom for the government to spend money in defiance of EU budget rules, and a “free hand” to tackle immigration.
“Either I can give life to a government that can review these external constraints, or it is a fairytale, I do not want to take anyone for a ride,” he added.
On Tuesday, he increased his criticism of Brussels after Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, said he hoped Italy’s migration policy would not change under the new government.
“This is yet another interference by the unelected. We have welcomed and supported way too many — now is the moment for legality, security and pushbacks,” Mr Salvini wrote on Twitter.
Five Star officials sought to minimise the dispute.
“We want balance and the wellbeing of the country within the European framework, we’ve always said this,” Carla Ruocco, a Five Star lawmaker, told reporters in a video posted on La Repubblica’s website. “I don’t think our positions are so different. Europe needs to be respected, and Italy needs to be respected,” she said.
As well as the approach to the EU, League officials have said that there are still disagreements over judicial reform — where their party is pushing for a new law on self-defence — and infrastructure.
Five Star has traditionally resisted big projects such as high-speed rail links and gas pipelines, which the League generally supports. Staff of Five Star and the League met again on Tuesday to try to iron out divisions, with Mr Di Maio and Mr Salvini expected to hold another face-to-face summit later in the day.
Mr Mattarella has given them until Monday to strike a full agreement — including the choice of prime minister. Both parties have said they would put any deal to their members for their approval.