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22nd Feb 2024

Italian President clashes with Lega Nord in EU assembly

  • Napolitano: 'We have to fight against national egoism and anachronistic conservatism' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has denounced eurosceptic “propaganda” in the run-up to elections, while urging EU leaders to tackle a genuine “crisis in popular support.”

The 88-year-old politician faced noisy jeers from MEPs in Italy’s far-right Lega Nord party during his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday (4 February).

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The deputies held up placards saying “Basta euro [enough of the euro],” while party leader Matteo Salvini yelled out: “Napolitano has no shame.”

The Italian President said the election, in May, will be a “moment of truth” for the EU due to the “crisis in popular support.”

He described people who call for the break-up of the Union as being guilty of “vacuous propaganda … [and] disarming simplicity.”

"We have to fight against national egoism and anachronistic conservatism,” he said.

He also accused pro-Europeans of “hesitations, delays and disagreements,” however.

“Voters are faced with a misleading choice between tired, defensive rhetoric, in a Europe that has shown major shortcomings as it has moved towards integration, and on the other hand destructive agitation against the euro and against the Union,” he noted.

Napolitano said austerity was necessary in the first phase of the crisis in order to restore financial stability.

But he warned that its social cost, especially in terms of youth unemployment, and the lack of democratic oversight on EU economic governance, have alienated voters.

“A main source of disenchantment, lack of trust and rejection of the European construction and what the institutions are doing, lies in deteriorating living conditions,” he said.

“But I believe that it is the democratic deficit of EU decisions that has played a major role,” he added.

He called for EU leaders to start investing in economic growth via “well-targeted” public projects.

"The policy of austerity at all costs, which was the prevalent response to the eurozone crises, no longer stands up," he said.

He noted that new EU budgetary rules, as enshrined in the 2012 fiscal compact, should be taken out of “intergovernmental and international agreements” and “placed … within the institutional framework of the Union,” so that elected MEPs can have more say.

Napolitano played down the Lega Nord protest as a "marginal” event.

But the German centre-left President of the EU assembly, Martin Schulz, described it as an “abuse” of the EU platform for national politicking.

Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian head of the centre-left S&D group, went further, drawing parallels with 1930s Europe on the road to World War II.

“The last time when democracy failed in Europe, it started with attacks on people and politicians, and that is what is happening now,” he said.

Graham Watson, a leading member of the liberal Alde group, linked Lega Nord to British and French populists, Ukip and the Front National.

“In every society we have the political equivalent of some of the hooliganism we see at football matches,” he noted.

But with recent polls putting British and French eurosceptics ahead of mainstream parties, he added that the next EU legislature is likely to contain more anti-EU deputies than ever.

“I recognise that we will have growing numbers of MEPs here from populist or extremist parties,” he said.

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