Berlusconi's Pick for Premier Says Allies No Longer Euroskeptic

(Bloomberg) -- Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president floated by Silvio Berlusconi as Italy’s next prime minister, says their coalition partners would cease threatening to exit the European Union and the euro zone once they’re in government.

Both the anti-immigrant Northern League and far-right Brothers of Italy parties, who would form a center-right administration if Berlusconi leads them to victory in March 4 elections, have softened their stand on European issues, Tajani said in an interview in Rome Friday.

Berlusconi's Pick for Premier Says Allies No Longer Euroskeptic

“There’s an evolution in the policies of the Northern League and Brothers of Italy, they have changed from euroskeptic to ‘euro-critical,’" said Tajani, 64, of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. “Then, as we all know, there are things which people say because we’re in an election campaign.”

The coalition led by Berlusconi, who has said Tajani would be “an excellent solution” as premier, is the biggest such bloc in opinion polls, but it is not currently seen as achieving a parliamentary majority, making a hung parliament likely. Berlusconi and League leader Matteo Salvini especially have clashed on issues from the euro to pension reform, with Salvini saying that leaving the euro area is still an option.

Pushback

Tajani’s remarks caused more tension with the League. "The euroskeptic label is a label we’ve been given by outsiders, we’ve never used it, and to say we’ve become ‘euro-critical’ is simplifying things,” party spokeswoman Iva Garibaldi said in a phone interview. "Nothing has changed," she said. Brothers of Italy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Berlusconi himself cannot serve as premier because of a 2013 tax-fraud conviction, but could play a role as kingmaker after the vote. The ban expires in 2019.

Tajani, who has served as an air force officer, a spokesman for Berlusconi as premier, and a European commissioner, said the media mogul’s Forza Italia party, like its coalition allies, wants to change the EU to make it more accountable to citizens.

But leaving the EU “would make Italy irrelevant in Europe and globally, and we’d make massive harm to our economy,” Tajani said. “The center-right has approved its program and must apply that program.”

Tajani Critique

Tajani however is “not a fan” of the EU’s budget deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product, a rule that Salvini has also criticized. “Rules should be respected but if we realize a rule doesn’t work, that rule must be changed,” Tajani said. “Not for lax finances but to make more investments.”

In a rare foray into the campaign, Tajani listed a center-right government’s priorities as focusing on Italian businesses, seeking to boost economic growth and attract foreign investors by cutting taxes and bureaucracy, reducing public debt and speeding up the judicial system.

“These are the things Italy must do it if it wants to attract foreign investors, if it wants to calm the markets because the day after the elections, the markets will make an assessment on Italy,” said Tajani.

Tajani declined to say whether he would agree to serve as premier. “I’m honored by Berlusconi’s words but now I am president of the European Parliament, I’m not involved in the election campaign,” he said. “The coalition party with the most votes will indicate a premier, and then it will be up to President Sergio Mattarella to decide.”

Asked if he could lead a grand coalition with the center-left Democratic Party of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Tajani replied in a separate interview with Bloomberg Television’s Flavia Rotondi: “Stability is crucial for Italy, for more investments in my country. Stability is important everywhere in Europe, it is important for Italy, for Europe, we have the same problem in Germany, in Spain.”

Tajani added that latest polls show “it is impossible to have this big coalition in Italy.”

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