Italy PM vows not to nationalise firms as EU head demands unity

MILAN (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Rome would not nationalise businesses during the coronavirus crisis on Thursday as the European Commission’s head promised affected countries up to 100 billion euros ($110 billion), starting with Italy.

FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addresses the Senate, the upper house of parliament, on the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rome, Italy, March 26, 2020 REUTERS/Alberto Lingria/File Photo

Conte’s pledge in an interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper reflects concerns in his ruling coalition government that investors could try to take advantage of collapsing share prices to snap up assets such as banks or insurers.

Rome has the option of using “golden powers” which give the government the right to veto stake building in strategic industries and Conte reiterated he would use such instruments, which should also “be strengthened at the European level”.

At the moment the golden powers apply to companies in the infrastructure, defence, energy and telecoms industries, but Rome is considering extending them to other sectors.

Meanwhile, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, in a separate letter to daily la Repubblica, called for more solidarity at the EU level to fight the health crisis.

And she added that the EU would allocate up to 100 billion euros ($110 billion) to the hardest hit countries, starting with Italy, to cover wage cuts and to help preserve jobs, she added.

The EU executive proposed the wage-subsidy scheme on Wednesday, but did not give financial details.

Conte said he felt “the wind was changing” and called on Germany and the Netherlands, which have so far blocked calls from Italy, Spain and France for joint debt to help finance a recovery, to “think with a European perspective”.

Von der Leyen said too many countries had focused on their own problems in the initial days of the coronavirus emergency, which “was harmful and could have been avoided”.

Italy, the epicentre of the coronavirus emergency in Europe, was the first Western country to introduce sweeping bans on movement and economic activity, having first confirmed the presence of coronavirus almost six weeks ago.

Since Feb. 23, when Rome imposed the first set of measures to contain the outbreak, Milan's blue chip index .FTMIB has fallen more than 30% and the lockdown, which will be extended until at least April 13, has brought the economy on its knees.

Conte added that he would like a planned second emergency decree that will include additional measures to mitigate the impact of the health crisis on Italy’s economy to be passed before the Easter holiday in mid-April.

Von der Leyen said the European Commission had also proposed that “every euro still available in the EU’s annual budget” be spent on tackling the coronavirus crisis.

“Only solidarity will allow us to emerge from this crisis,” she said. “The distance between European nations ... puts everyone at risk”.

Reporting by Agnieszka Flak; Editing by Alexander Smith