Italy Talks on Return for Conte Near Collapse, Officials Say

Talks aimed at patching Giuseppe Conte’s fractured Italian coalition back together appeared near collapse on Tuesday, after a junior ally refused to support the comeback attempt, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential deliberations.

Roberto Fico, speaker of the lower house of parliament, was meeting with President Sergio Mattarella Tuesday evening after being asked last Friday to evaluate whether the outgoing coalition could strike a deal on a Conte comeback.

Ex-Premier Matteo Renzi, leader of the small Italy Alive party which pulled out of Conte’s government on Jan. 13, rejected the idea of a third Conte government in a phone call with Fico, officials said. Renzi failed to obtain concessions after demanding a break from the past in the negotiations, ranging from judicial reform to the use of European Union recovery funds to the handling of the virus emergency.

Italy’s major political players are at loggerheads despite two rounds of talks -- one led by Mattarella, one by Fico -- since the prime minister stepped down Jan. 26. Tensions have also risen due to a dispute over a role in a future government for Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede, who’s close to Conte.

The result is a near-standstill, just as the government needs to focus on the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused almost 90,000 deaths, and an economic recession.

Political leaders are also bickering over how to manage and spend the country’s 209 billion-euro ($251 billion) share of the EU recovery package. Italy’s economy shrank 2% in the last quarter of 2020, the worst performance among large European countries.

Renzi ramped up his demands during the Fico-led talks, focusing on both ministries and policies, officials said. The ex-premier demanded that officials including Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri be replaced, but both Conte and Gualtieri’s Democratic Party are standing by the minister, officials said.

In public, Renzi has kept Italy guessing on whether he would agree to Conte’s return, saying only that he isn’t vetoing anyone as the next premier. But in private, he has floated several other names including former European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi, the officials said.

Graziano Delrio, the Democrats’ leader in the lower house, held out hope that a compromise could still be reached. “We’re confident the work to breach the distances can be carried out by whoever forms the government and writes the program,” Delrio said in comments cited by Ansa news agency.

Mattarella will now have to weigh possible next steps. The head of state has not yet decided what to do if there isn’t adequate backing for a Conte return, the officials said. Options for the president include holding a new series of talks with party leaders to find out if partners in the outgoing coalition can agree on an alternative to Conte.

The president could also still decide to give Conte a mandate to try to form a government, or he could opt for a broader government, bringing in some opposition parties and a technocratic figure to lead it.

Alternatively, Mattarella could decide to appoint a government with the role of leading the country to early elections possibly in June.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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