Italy’s Conte hammers home plea for German solidarity
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pleaded with Germans on Thursday to collaborate on “appropriate instruments for an unprecedented situation” to cushion the European economy from the “tsunami”-like impact of the novel coronavirus.
“If we are a union, now is the time to prove it,” Conte wrote in weekly Die Zeit.
“Even the efforts of the strongest European economies would bring modest results compared to what we can achieve if we support one another,” he added.
Following an appearance on public broadcaster ARD’s widely-watched nightly news Wednesday, Conte’s article kept up a charm offensive on Europe’s top economy as leaders puzzle over a politically acceptable backstop for the bloc’s businesses and workers.
Italy and other European Union members including France and Spain have so far failed in attempts to convince fiscally conservative northern nations like the Netherlands, Germany and Austria to issue joint debt to fund a rescue programme, quickly dubbed “coronabonds”.
German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier last week rejected such calls as “reruns of long-discarded concepts”.
Talks on an EU response must proceed “without prejudices and without vetos posed going in,” Conte wrote.
Highlighting Italy’s difficult course of fiscal consolidation since the 2008-09 financial crisis, the Italian premier said no country can “exploit this crisis to lay the burdens of the past on others’ shoulders”.
But it would be “unjust” to punish Italy for perceived profligacy after it has spent a decade doing its budget homework, he added.
Italians have been outraged by reports in Dutch media that Netherlands Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra has blamed southern EU nations for not saving more in the years ahead of the pandemic and even called for a European investigation into their spending.
“Membership in our union must mean that we can use its strength to fight the damage caused by the pandemic,” Conte urged.
“If Europe manages to react quickly and decisively, it will emerge stronger from this deep crisis,” he added.
Despite an acknowledgement from Hoekstra on Tuesday that he had not been “empathetic enough” to southern countries, other options for intra-European assistance still appear more likely than joint bonds.
Speaking to the Financial Times on Wednesday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire proposed a common recovery fund limited to five or 10 years and using the existing EU budget to support hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain.
Meanwhile, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggested an EU-wide scheme to support workers whose hours are slashed by struggling companies, similar to Germany’s “Kurzarbeit” programme credited with saving hundreds of thousands of jobs during the financial crisis.