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Who’s in charge in Italy? New leader faces test at summit

June 8, 2018
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FILE - In this Wednesday, June 6, 2018 filer, Italian premier Giuseppe Conte, center, flanked by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, right, and Labour Minister Luigi Di Maio, left, claps his hands as he delivers his speech at the Lower House, ahead of a confidence vote on the government program, in Rome. Italy will be represented at this week's summit of the world's wealthiest democracies by a political novice whose powers in the new populist government remain to be tested: At best, as an executor of a program he didn't help draft, at worst, as a mediator between two disparate political blocs joined in a marriage of convenience. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File )

MILAN (AP) — When Italy’s new premier attends a summit of world leaders this week, his counterparts may wonder whether they are speaking with the person truly in charge.

Premier Giuseppe Conte was a law professor and political novice when he was tapped for the job as a compromise by the leaders of two populist parties — 5-Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Matteo Salvini — who relinquished their leadership claims for the sake of creating a government.

While Italy’s constitution invests the premier with full powers, the fact that Conte neither participated in the election campaign nor drafted the electoral program adopted by the two governing parties has raised questions at home about whether his role is that of a mere executor.

Despite a lengthy resume that raised eyebrows with inflated academic credentials, little remains known about the professor with a specialty in mediation who rose from obscurity to head Europe’s fourth-largest economy in a matter of weeks.

“Conte is a question mark,” said Giuseppe Orsina, deputy director of the school of government at Rome’s LUISS University.

Rarely has a world leader been slotted in to an annual global summit at such late notice — just a week after being tapped and two days after passing the final confidence vote. But when such last-minute switches have happened it has usually been Italy with its postwar tradition of fragile coalition governments, said John Kirton, director of the G-7 Research Group at the University of Toronto. For the 1988 G-7 summit in Toronto, organizers prepared leather wallets engraved with each leader’s name, only to wind up with one bearing the name of Italian Premier Ciriaco De Mita’s predecessor after a last-minute government change, Kirton recalled.

But the real novelty of Conte’s position is that he heads a populist government comprised of parties “of very different ideological persuasions,” Kirton said.

“We don’t know to what extent he has any freedom to represent Italy, or whether he will be standing by his iPhone to see if the two leaders agree on anything but mush before he speaks,” Kirton said.

Italians got a glimpse of Conte’s relative position during his speech to the lower house of parliament Wednesday, when he submitted passages to 5-Star leader Di Maio for approval. Speeches to both houses largely resembled the coalition government’s program, which he inherited and did not design. The impression so far is that he is not an autonomous leader, Orsina said.

“The problem is to understand with time if there are occasions like the G-7 where he could increase his autonomy,” Orsina said. “He will need to play along there and in some way learn. He will need to take decisions, and can’t always go ask Di Maio and Salvini.”

Political commentator Stefano Folli said Conte’s main job will be to get to know the other leaders given that “so much on the international stage is done on a personal level.”

“If he doesn’t become an interlocutor with the other leaders, it would be a huge damage to Italy. It is important that he is seen as credible, trustworthy person, otherwise we risk to be cut out,” Folli said. “He is the head of a government that solicits many questions and many worries around the world. I think the other leaders will want to get a better sense of this government, and his political goals.”

That includes the government’s intentions on Russia, having declared that it wants to loosen sanctions imposed for the annexation of Crimea, and where its loyalties lie in terms of the traditional alliances within the European Union, where it is a founding member, and across the Atlantic. League leader Salvini threw some loyalties into question by contacting Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, this week to discuss a common challenge to Brussels over migration rules.

As far as the G-7 agenda points, Conte is likely to find agreement with other leaders, aside from Germany’s Angela Merkel, on the benefits of increasing government spending to boost economic growth, Kirton said. And declarations that Italy will not leave the euro have calmed those concerns, for now.

Italy is also likely to back one of Canadian leader Justin Trudeau’s priorities of creating “jobs of the future,” given the high youth unemployment rate in Italy.

“I don’t think that in this particular case, the inexperienced Italian novice is going to have any discernable effect on the stuff that counts,” Kirton said.

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