AP Interview: Italy wants to shift but stay in EU’s orbit

International
Luigi Di Maio

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio listens to questions during an interview with The Associated Press in his studio in Rome, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2019. Di Maio says there is no risk his country will leave the European Union but is calling for reforms to give more weight to European lawmakers since they are directly elected by citizens. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

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ROME (AP) — Italy is not looking to leave the European Union but wants reforms that would shift the Britain-less bloc’s “center of gravity” away from bureaucratic institutions in Brussels to elected bodies like the European Parliament, the country’s populist foreign minister said Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio also expressed incredulity that an increasing percentage of Italians are Holocaust deniers, as indicated by a recent survey.

Di Maio, 33, a leader of the populist 5-Star Movement that has had a role in governing Italy since mid-2018, deplored the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in his country and described Holocaust deniers as an “enormous problem.”

His Movement, which has taken stances that lean toward the euroskeptic, became the largest force in the Italian Parliament two years ago. But since then, it slumped badly in the EU parliament election and in regional elections and opinion polls in Italy.

Asked about the potential power of populists to pull more member nations out of the EU now that the U.K. has departed, Di Maio defended the 5-Stars’ brand of populism.

“In some way we have tried to intercept the anger of the people,” he said, adding that populists haven’t “fueled hatred.”

While populist politicians fill a large swath of Italy’s legislature, Di Maio dismissed the idea of them creating the momentum to drag one of the European Union’s founding nations out of the economic bloc. Italy also is one of the EU countries that use the euro as the official currency.

“There is no risk of an ‘Italexit’ because there’s no (political) group in Parliament that has dangled that possibility,” he said.

But Di Maio said that reforms could revitalize the bloc. “Reform of the institutions should shift the center of gravity on those who are directly elected by the people, that is, the European Parliament,” as compared to the European Commission and Council.

The 33-year-old Di Maio was one of two deputy premiers in an all-populist Italian government led by Premier Giuseppe Conte. The other was Matteo Salvini, whose right-wing, anti-immigration League consistently ranks in opinion polls as Italy’s most popular party.

In a botched move to trigger an early election, Salvini pulled the League out of the coalition and collapsed Conte’s government. Conte formed another government five months ago that kept the 5-Star Movement as the senior coalition partner but replaced the League with center-left Democrats.

Lately, though, infighting has plagued Di Maio’s 5-Stars, and he recently stepped aside as the Movement’s political leader while concentrating on his foreign ministry post.

Last week, a survey by the Italian think-tank Eurispes last week showed 15.6% of respondents saying they don’t believe the Holocaust happened, a steep jump from the 2.7% who held that view in 2004.

Di Maio said: “I struggle to truly imagine” a person who denies the Holocaust but “among his many defects must be total ignorance.”

The minister called for heavy government education spending in schools as “the only antidote to this great problem.”

Before the 5-Stars became a power broker in national Italian politics, populist tirades by its co-founder, comic Beppe Grillo, were largely viewed as a benign outlet for disgruntled voters.

But when the Movement emerged in 2013 as kingmaker in the formation of a Italian government, Grillo’s history of anti-Semitic statements raised concerns outside Italy, including from the Anti-Defamation League.

In the interview, Di Maio sidestepped a question about possible internal scrutiny for anti-Semitic elements among the 5-Stars.

Anti-Semitism monitoring groups in Italy have noticed a sharp uptick in incidents. Last month, when ceremonies in Europe, Israel and elsewhere commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp operated by Nazi Germany, Italy saw a rash of incidents .

They included graffiti painted on doors of homes to indicate the people living there were Jewish families or descendants of those who fought Italian fascism after dictator Benito Mussolini’s rise to power.

Humanitarian groups last week decried the Italian government extending a deal with Libya that facilitates the return of migrants to detention centers in the northern Africa country where they are at risk for rape, torture and other maltreatment.

In the AP interview, Di Maio revealed that Italy has asked Libya to modify the deal to give humanitarian groups responsibility for migrants who are intercepted by the Libyan coast guard so they won’t end back up in the detention centers.

Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler, for decades boasted of strong economic and energy ties with the northern Africa county, including generally good relations with Moammar Gadhafi during the Libyan strongman’s 1969-2011 rule.

But as Italy focused its relations with Libya mainly on stopping asylum-seekers from trying to reach Italian shores in human smugglers’ boats – an annual flow that reached into the hundreds of thousands several years ago – its geopolitical influence in that country waned.

Di Maio acknowledged that countries such as Turkey and Russia that got involved in arming or otherwise supplying Libya’s warring factions have eclipsed Italy.

He also lamented the difficulties in being an influential world power for a country like his, where governments often don’t last long.

Having “four (foreign) ministers in 4 1/2 years, this doesn’t help,” Di Maio said ruefully. He has held the post since September.

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