Italy budget under pressure over plan to ‘abolish poverty’

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A lone voice? Italy’s economy minister is at odds with his government on how much there is to spend

A vow by Italy’s populist leaders to “end poverty” is in jeopardy because of a clash with the economy minister.

Technocrat Giovanni Tria wants to stick to lower spending to avoid adding to Italy’s debt of €2.3tn (£2tn),

But his political colleagues, who ran on a promise of a guaranteed minimum income for the poor, as well as tax cuts, want to free up money.

The coalition government, made up of Five Star and the League, is due to unveil the budget later on Thursday.

Its ambitious spending plans have already put the government in conflict with European powers, who, like Mr Tria, want Italy to stick to lower spending.

But Mr Tria, a university professor not affiliated with either party, is understood to want to set spending at about 1.6% of debt above GDP – even lower than the 3% limit imposed by the European Union.

Italy’s leaders, on the other hand, want to increase that by a percentage point or two so they can fund their populist pledges surrounding basic income, tax cuts and pensions.

“We, in a decisive manner, with this budget law, will have abolished poverty,” Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister and leader of the Five Star party, said of his plans.

But if the plans result in the economy minister losing his job, or the EU spending limits being broken, it could have a knock-on effect on markets in Italy and in Europe.

What have the populists promised?

Italy’s populist government needs to fulfil campaign promises and appease its voters while balancing its books.

Five Star and the League swept to power promising a series of tax cuts, new social welfare policies and better pensions – all expensive programmes.

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Luigi Di Maio, left, and Matteo Salvini, far right, brought their parties to power

Among the ambitious plans at election time were:

  • A guaranteed basic income for poor families of about €780 (£695) a month – at a projected cost of €17bn (£15bn)
  • Tax reform for rates of just 15% and 20%, down from 23%-43%, which could cost up to €50bn (£45bn)
  • Abolishing plans to raise retirement age over several years, and setting minimum pensions

It is widely thought that implementing those pledges will push the government expenditure higher – and closer to EU spending limits.

What’s the big problem?

Italy is bound by European fiscal responsibility rules, preventing its government from clocking up too much debt compared to its economic output in any one year. This is measured by the budget deficit to GDP ratio – and is set at 3%.

The rule, handed down from the European Commission, is supposed to ensure the collective stability of EU countries. Historically, it has often been broken – but has been watched more closely since the 2008 global financial crisis.

That leaves the joint populist leaders Matteo Salvini, of the League party, and Mr Di Maio with unwelcome limits on what they can spend to reach their lofty goals.

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Mr Salvini has questioned why Italy should be shackled by European limits, hampering what he sees as vital reform projects.

And on the European side, the 3% spending limit is seen as just that – a limit, not a target. Many EU finance experts believe Italy should be targeting much lower figures, and Italy is under intense pressure from Europe to do so.

A voice of dissent

To make matters worse, there are strong voices within their own government calling for even less spending.

Mr Tria, who is writing the budget, is an independent economist. He was appointed as part of the complicated negotiations to form the government (in which the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is also an independent).

And Mr Tria believes the debt ratio should be far below the EU 3% limit – initially proposing just 1.6%, somewhat crippling the government’s big spending plans.

That’s because Italy’s economy, the third largest in the Eurozone, also comes saddled with huge debts.

In raw numbers, it tops the table with €2.3tn, and when adjusted for the size of the economy, it comes second only to Greece.

Even if Mr Salvini and Mr Di Maio respect the EU rules, they have called for spending in the region of 2%-2.5%.

On Wednesday, Mr Di Maio said there were no plans to fire the economy minister over the disagreement – but a senior figure from his own party, Riccardo Molinari, seemed to disagree in a media interview.

“If Tria is no longer in the project , we will find another Minister of Economy,” he told Rai television.

The cabinet are due to present their plans later on Thursday. Once decided, they must be approved by the parliament in October.

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