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Italy’s prime minister is in Strasbourg on Tuesday for an encounter with MEPs that could turn ugly. There could hardly be a worse time for Giuseppe Conte to come to the EU to defend his anti-establishment government formed less than nine months ago from a coalition of the Five Star Movement and the far-right League. 

In the last month, Rome has delayed migrants disembarking at its ports, attacked France for its colonialist legacy in Africa, fraternised with the leadership of the gilets jaunes, seen Paris recall its ambassador to Italy, and squabbled over protecting the independence of the central bank, after senior politicians threatened to remove its leadership. 

It’s a far cry from the December detente with Brussels, when Mr Conte was instrumental in brokering a deal with Jean-Claude Juncker that eventually led the European Commission to back down over Rome’s rules-busting draft budget. The lawyer-turned-premier celebrated the “sustainable equilibrium” Italy forged with the help of the commission.

In an interview with Politico ahead of Tuesday’s Strasbourg speech on the future of Europe, the technocrat Mr Conte again cast himself as a reformist trying to help out the EU: 

Being anti-establishment and pursuing change doesn't mean being anti-EU. On the contrary, because we do care about Europe, we want it to become a Europe of the people, closer to the needs of the people".

Mr Conte will have some sympathisers in the chamber on Tuesday — among them Hungary’s Fidesz contingent and Poland’s Law and Justice party. But even as he tries to bat away attacks from mainstream parties, his position as the face of an increasingly chaotic government raises the question: whom does Mr Conte really represent?

A political novice with no experience holding public office, he is neither a man from the rightwing League nor the anti-establishment Five Star — the real sources of the EU’s ire.

Italy’s internal government tensions are likely to worsen in the run-up to May’s pan-European elections. Matteo Salvini's League is expecting to win big and is already notching up regional victories at the expense of Five Star. It has left Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio fighting for relevance at home and in the EU. His flirtation with the gilets jaunes earlier this month was part of a search for allies in the European Parliament after the polls in May.

Mr Di Maio’s weekend comments about senior executives at the central bank also feels like an attempt to reconnect with voters. Having ditched an Italian eurozone exit as official policy, Five Star turned instead to bashing the country’s central bankers — the most prominent of whom, Mario Draghi, runs the ECB. In response, Salvini upped the ante on Monday by suggesting the government could seize control of the central bank’s gold reserves. 

All in all, whatever “vision” he sets out for Europe on Tuesday, Mr Conte isn’t the one that MEPs or Brussels should be worried about. 

Chart du jour: the Brexit effect

The UK economy ended 2018 on a damp note as quarterly growth cooled to 0.2 per cent from 0.6 per cent in the previous three months. The FT analyses the “shuddering blow” delivered by Brexit to British economic data. (FT)

Planet Europe

The European Parliament Building in Strasbourg, France
© Dreamstime

A populist paradise 
An anti-establishment surge will mean populists will occupy a third of the seats in the European Parliament this year, according to analysis from the European Council on Foreign Relations. The authors think that if troublesome parties can get their act together they could reverse the EU’s Russia sanctions policy and undermine its commitment to the rule of law. George Soros in Project Syndicate pleads with EU policymakers to realise the magnitude of the threat facing them, and fast:

“The dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.”

Munich moves 
The high-profile annual security conference that starts in the Bavarian capital on Friday has turned from transatlantic love-in to emblem of global tensions. (FT)

Broken Hartz 
Germany’s SPD leadership has formally renounced the Schroeder-era Hartz IV labour market reforms credited with reviving the economy over a decade ago (Handelsblatt). Still, Lisa Capari at Die Zeit thinks leader Andrea Nahles isn’t quite ready to break with Mr Schroeder’s legacy by embracing more radical leftwing economics.

Sanchez’s snaps? 
El Mundo reports
Spain’s centre-left PM is pondering a snap election on April 14 to appease rightwing opposition parties who took to the streets last weekend.

Transparency police 
Frans Timmermans wants the European Parliament and its governments to subscribe to the Berlaymont’s rules on lobbying transparency (Euractiv):

“While the ‘not on the register, no meeting’ principle applies to Commissioners, it still does not apply to MEPs or the Council Presidency. In fact, it is still possible for lobbyists who have not registered to meet MEPs or the Council Presidency. The truth is that a Transparency Register that is only voluntary fails to live up to what citizens rightly expect from their institutions.”

Passerelle to nowhere 
EU finance ministers will on Tuesday give short shrift to Brussels’ plan for them give up their veto power over tax policy. The idea to use a special EU treaty legal clause to move to majority voting was roundly dismissed at a bloc ambassadors meeting last week. 

Tory majority? 
The pollster who predicted a hung parliament in the 2017 UK general election has done another big constituency survey for The Times. It shows the Tories winning a majority, but one so slim it would barely change Brexit politics in Westminster. (The Times)

Irishman in Frankfurt 
Eurozone finance ministers have given their blessing to Philip Lane, Ireland’s central bank governor, taking up the post of ECB chief economist after a short one-man race for the post.

Coming up on Tuesday 
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and deputy PM David Lidington meet MEPs in Strasbourg this afternoon. Jean-Claude Juncker sees Giuseppe Conte before his Future of Europe speech at 1700 CET. EU finance ministers meet for their regular monthly talks in Brussels to discuss financial supervision and tax. 


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