Italy dispute with EU escalates as Renzi hits back

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Italy’s dispute with the European Union heated up on Friday as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi rejected calls by the head of the bloc’s executive to tone down his criticism of EU policies on migration, banking and the budget.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gives a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 15, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman

“We won’t be intimidated by sound bites,” Renzi said in a pre-recorded interview with Canale 5’s evening television news to be shown later on Friday, according to a Tweet by the channel’s director.

“Italy deserves respect,” Renzi reportedly added.

He was responding to comments from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker earlier in the day.

“I think that the Italian Prime Minister, whom I respect a lot, is wrong to criticise the Commission at each street corner,” Juncker told reporters in Brussels, hinting at possible domestic reasons for the criticism.

“I keep my bitterness, which is big, in my pocket,” Juncker added.

Caught between the crossfire of two anti-euro opposition parties in Rome and wrestling with stubbornly low economic output after three years of recession, Renzi has opened up disputes with the EU on several fronts.

Italy on Friday stood by its position to block an EU plan to set up a 3-billion-euro fund to help Turkey stem the worst inflow in decades of asylum seekers into Europe.


Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, following a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels, said resources to help Turkey can come from the EU budget and there needs to be more certainty on how the money is spent.

In recent weeks, 41-year-old Renzi has openly attacked Europe and Germany for policies that he sees as biased towards Berlin, and Renzi criticised German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an EU summit in December.

Italy is also in talks with the Commission on whether it can be granted more fiscal leeway in its 2016 budget.

“We have introduced a dose of increased flexibility against the will of some member states. Italy benefits from all the flexibility that has been introduced,” Juncker said.

In his interview with Canale 5, Renzi said the EU opened up to the idea of loosening the budget reins only after much insistence on Italy’s part, Canale 5 director Clemente Mimun said on Twitter.

The Commission will take a formal decision on the Italian budget in spring. To calm relations, Juncker will go to Italy at the end of February, in what will be his first visit to the country as president of the EU Commission.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Alastair Macdonald and Steve Scherer; Editing by Ralph Boulton