Italy election frontrunner Giorgia Meloni says she will not put Covid funds at risk

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Italian nationalist leader Giorgia Meloni has denied that her rightwing coalition would jeopardise Italy’s access to €200bn in EU Covid recovery funds if it comes to power in elections next month.

Meloni — whose Brothers of Italy party is tipped to emerge as the dominant partner in a new rightwing government — said the EU-funded investment and reform programme needed to be updated to respond to new challenges emerging from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But in an opinion piece in the Il Messaggero newspaper she rejected rivals’ claims that any tinkering could lead to Italy losing the promised EU funding, slamming the suggestion as “manipulated”.

She said her alliance would operate within the rules set by Brussels, invoking flexibilities already written into the plan if, as polls indicate, it wins the September 25 vote.

“Brothers of Italy is aware of the importance of the [plan] and knows these resources cannot be wasted, as happened too many times before with European funds,” Meloni wrote.

Italy is set to be the largest single recipient of the EU’s €750bn Covid recovery and resilience fund. Under plans drafted by Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his team, and agreed with the European Commission, Italy aims to use the funds to improve productivity and reboot Italy’s chronically underperforming economy, including investment in green energy and digitisation.

But the collapse of Draghi’s government has fuelled concerns about Italy’s ability to meet the recovery programme’s ambitious reform and investment targets.

Meloni said a review of the plan was a priority for her new coalition, which includes Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

“Our strong intention is to create the conditions — in compliance with European regulations and in agreement with the commission — so that the resources of the [funds] would encourage the growth, innovation and development of Italy,” she added.

Italian business organisations are also agitating for changes to the programme. Carlo Bonomi, president of Confindustria which represents Italy’s industry, has repeatedly called for revisions to account for surging prices of energy and raw materials, which will push project costs well above original estimates. He has also suggested that Italy needs more time to meet green energy targets.

In the article published on Friday, Meloni did not offer details of what her coalition might seek to change but said the plan did not offer a response to the “needs and social and economic priorities that surfaced after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine”.

“Italy’s productive and industrial sectors, already tested by Covid, suddenly had to face even greater difficulties,” she wrote. “New priorities emerged from the energy supply to the water emergency.”

Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economic commissioner, has already warned that Brussels would be unwilling to renegotiate the fundamentals of the deal with a new Italian government, and emphasised that Rome would have to implement the agreed programme to receive the next tranches of funds.

Luciano Monti, of Rome’s Luiss University, said he did not expect Meloni to seek major changes to the structure of the Covid recovery plan but said she could look to modify some investment targets.

“A real revision would not be realistic, and I am sure she will not follow that road,” Monti said. “But she is right when she said we have to revise some investments. It is reasonable and probably a good thing to do.”

Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome

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