ROME — Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Wednesday asked Giuseppe Conte to oversee the creation of a new government made up of two populist parties.
Conte, 53, said he wants to be “the defense lawyer of the Italian people” at home and abroad and is “fully aware of the challenges we face” as he prepares to become prime minister at the head of a governing coalition of the anti-establishment 5Star Movement and the far-right League.
In a brief acceptance speech that seemed aimed at reassuring nervous investors and the EU, Conte said he is “aware of the need of confirming Italy’s European and international standing.”
The little-known law professor will have a lot more reassuring to do, as Brussels gets ready for a nightmare scenario — a Euroskeptic government in one of the EU’s largest countries.
A 5Star-League government would be the biggest challenge to Brussels since Brexit. The two parties’ coalition agreement contains proposals to renegotiate Italy’s massive public debt, throw off the yoke of austerity and reopen the EU’s treaties to reduce the bloc’s powers. It also states that Russia is “not a military threat.”
Conte was keen to strike a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday evening, citing ongoing negotiations on the EU budget, rules on asylum and the completion of the banking union as the most urgent matters to deal with for Europe.
“Outside of here there is a country that is awaiting the birth of a new government and is expecting answers,” Conte said after his first meeting with the president at the Quirinal Palace, which lasted two hours. “The government that will be formed will be a government for change.”
The next step for Conte is to draw up a list of Cabinet ministers and submit the names to the president, who must give his approval before the team takes office, likely by the end of next week.
The president’s backing for Conte came despite questions over his lack of political experience and allegations that he lied about his resume.
The New York Times raised questions about at least one entry on his CV: While Conte said he had “perfected and updated his studies” at New York University, a spokesperson for the university said that “a person by this name does not show up in any of our records as either a student or faculty member.”
In a statement, the 5Stars rejected the report, saying that Conte “improved and updated his studies” in New York.
An arduous process
It took the best part of three months to come up with a coalition deal after the March 4 election, with the 5Stars and League overcoming their differences only after the president threatened to form a “neutral” government led by technocrats in order to break the impasse.
Mattarella, who had raised doubts about having a professor with limited political experience at the head of a populist Cabinet, could still push back against the choices for ministerial positions. The most controversial potential appointment is that of a new finance minister. The League has been pushing for that role to go to Paolo Savona, a former minister who is a fierce critic of the euro.
Savona’s appointment would be a sign that Mattarella has given in on even the most controversial requests from the two parties, raising doubts about his ability to steer the entire process, an Italian official said. Italian news agencies reported Wednesday that an investment fund that Savona chaired has announced his resignation because of “important public commitments in Italy,” an indication of his impending appointment as a minister.
The two parties’ leaders could also get plum jobs in the Cabinet, according to Italian media. Matteo Salvini, head of the League, wants the interior ministry, which would allow him to implement the tough security and immigration measures he campaigned on — including detaining irregular migrants and sending around half a million back to their countries of origin.
The leader of the 5Stars, Luigi Di Maio, could be given control of the powerful labor ministry, according to political analysts.
The new government “contract” struck by the parties is an ambitious manifesto based on ideas and electoral promises that they have been championing for years. It includes cutting taxes, amending a costly 2011 pension reform and introducing a “universal basic income,” a kind of insurance for job-seekers. However, analysts reckon the new government’s plans will be complicated by institutional and financial constraints and the bureaucratic inertia that has often stopped Italian governments in their tracks.
Even though the two parties have toned down their rougher edges of late, a 5Star-League government will likely maintain a strong Euroskeptic line and seek confrontation with Brussels on key themes, such as eurozone economic governance, the EU budget, Russia sanctions and migration.
Before Wednesday evening’s announcement, the 5Stars called for action if Conte was not given a mandate. One of the 5Star leaders, Alessandro Di Battista, went on Facebook to “invite all citizens to make their voice heard.”
Officials in Rome said that Mattarella’s powers would be further eroded if the 5Stars called for supporters to storm the presidential palace every time he has a delicate decision to make.
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed to this article.