Italian eurosceptics in difficulty as EU fund deal boosts PM Conte

ROME, July 22 (Reuters) - Italian eurosceptics seemed to be on shaky ground on Wednesday after the European Union approved a massive stimulus plan to help the bloc’s coronavirus-hit economy, with Rome set to receive a large chunk of the money.

Rome expects to get 209 billion euros in grants and loans from the 750 billion euro ($869 billion) Recovery Fund agreed by the bloc on Tuesday after a marathon four-day summit.

In a parliamentary debate on the deal, several lawmakers lambasted the League and accused its anti-EU allies across the continent of acting against Italy’s national interest by opposing the unprecedented stimulus scheme.

“If there is something good for Italy we are all happy, but we will see,” Matteo Salvini, chief of the right-wing, eurosceptic League told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in parliament, after warning that the recovery fund could be a “scam”.

Senator Julia Unterberger, from the small SVP party which fights for German-language minorities in Italy, told Salvini that eurosceptics abroad said the recovery fund was a boon to Italy to the detriment of northern taxpayers.

“Eurosceptics need to clear their minds. Either the recovery fund is a big scam or it is a gift for Italy and a scam for frugal countries,” she said.

The deal was announced after heated discussion, with Italy often quarrelling with a group of ‘frugal’ northern states, including the Netherlands, who wanted to base the package on loans rather than non-repayable grants.

Alberto Bagnai, the League’s economic spokesman, said he did not find in EU documents any evidence Italy would get 209 billion from the fund.

The Recovery Fund has helped Conte, who leads the coalition of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party, overturning widespread scepticism in Italy that he could clinch a favourable deal.

Conte, who has no party affiliation, is Italy’s most popular politician with an approval rating well above 50%. The League is the most popular party on 25%, but it has steadily lost support since leaving its coalition with the 5-Star last August. ($1 = 0.8630 euros) (Reporting by Angelo Amante and Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Gavin Jones and Hugh Lawson)