BRUSSELS, Sept 23 (Reuters) - European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has warned Italy of consequences should it veer away from democratic principles, issuing a barely veiled threat ahead of Sunday's election that a rightist bloc led by Giorgia Meloni is expected to win.
The comments highlighted concern in some European capitals over the forthcoming election and suggested that relations between Brussels and Rome could get turbulent if Meloni and her partners secure victory.
"My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we're working together," von der Leyen said at Princeton University in the United States on Thursday, responding to a question on whether there were any concerns with regard to the upcoming elections in Italy.
"If things go in a difficult direction, I've spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools," she added.
Matteo Salvini, the head of the League and a part of Meloni's conservative alliance, denounced her comments as "shameful arrogance".
"What is this, a threat?" he wrote on Twitter. "Respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people!"
Von der Leyen apparently was referring to last Sunday's recommendation by the European Commission to suspend some 7.5 billion euros in funding for Hungary over corruption, the first such case in the 27-nation bloc under a new sanction meant to better protect the rule of law.
The EU introduced the financial sanction two years ago in response to what it says amounts to the undermining of democracy in Poland and Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban subdued courts, media, NGOs and academia, as well as restricting the rights of migrants, gay people and women during more than a decade in power.
Von der Leyen also came under criticism from the Polish government, with the deputy justice minister accusing Germany of running the EU.
"The President of the European Commission suggests that if the Italians elect a government that Brussels does not like, they may have funds blocked," Polish Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta said on Twitter.
"Further proof that the "rule of law" is pure blackmail to impose EU, or rather German, dictates. Such is "democracy"," he added.
Kaleta belongs to the arch-conservative United Poland party, a junior member in government, whose leader is Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of judicial reforms that Brussels says undermine the independence of the courts.
Eric Mamer, spokesman for the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels that von der Leyen had not been looking to interfere in Italian politics.
"She was stressing the role of the Commission as guardian of the (European) treaties with regard to the rule of law," he said on Friday.
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