Italian opposition chief demands €10 bil virus aid

Salvini says the virus underlines how urgently Italy needs to close its ports to North African migrants. (AP pic)

ROME: Italian opposition leader Matteo Salvini accused Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of underestimating the threat of the coronavirus outbreak and urged the government to earmark at least €10 billion for emergency measures to help businesses and families hit by the disease.

Salvini, who leads the right-wing populist League, said the virus underlined how urgently Italy needs to close its ports to migrants arriving from North Africa.

“We cannot turn Sicily into a quarantine island,” Salvini, 46, said in an interview Wednesday at his Senate office in Rome.

“We have to stop people from docking because they should all be put into quarantine. Europe should take charge, should distribute them in other countries, Italian ports should be closed.”

He warned of the risks of the migrants bringing the virus and other diseases with them because of poor African health services.

So far, only two African countries have reported coronavirus – Egypt and Algeria, and very few nationals from either country are immigrants to Europe through Italy.

Rich northern regions, the League’s electoral stronghold, have been hardest-hit by the spread of the virus and are in virtual lockdown, as the number of people infected by the virus nationwide has risen above 300.

About a third of Italy’s output comes from Lombardy and Veneto, the worst-affected regions.

Salvini has long campaigned on an anti-migrant platform. As interior minister in Conte’s first coalition, he repeatedly blocked ships carrying migrants from entering Italian ports.

Despite riding high in opinion polls, Salvini has been forced to put his bid for the premiership on hold ever since the summer, when his attempt to trigger early elections by pulling the plug on Conte’s first coalition failed.

Conte replaced the League with the centre-left Democratic Party and remained premier.

Salvini took Conte to task over the virus.

“The first request for quarantine and controls from League lawmakers are from late January. The first measures were only taken on Feb 21, and those 20 days were lost,” Salvini said in his attic office at the Senate in which 78 rosaries given to him by supporters have been nailed to a wooden beam.

“Conte underestimated the emergency, and not just him.”

‘Suspend everything’

The viral outbreak that began in China has so far infected more than 300 people nationwide. (AP pic)

Underscoring Italy’s already sluggish economy, Salvini urged the government to provide financial support to help business and families hit by coronavirus, including exonerating companies from paying sales tax for six months, delaying tax payments, and help for mortgage payments and with temporary layoffs.

“We ask the European Union to agree to exemptions for state help to many businesses,” Salvini added.

He said he has been forced to “suspend everything” and stop his constant campaigning across Italy because of concerns that public events spread the virus.

Following last summer’s debacle, Salvini suffered another misstep when his centre-right bloc failed to win the Emilia-Romagna region, a leftist stronghold, despite the League leader turning the contest into a referendum on himself with a high-profile campaign.

Nationally, the League is credited with 31% of the national vote against about 21% for the Democratic Party and 14% for the Five Star Movement.

Open arms

Salvini now faces possible trials for blocking migrant ships.

A Senate panel is due to vote Feb 27, in a non-binding decision on whether he should be prosecuted for refusing access to the Open Arms ship during his tenure as interior minister.

Prosecutors charge him with kidnapping.

“This Opens Arms was a Spanish ship which had picked up migrants in Maltese waters and had two Spanish ports available to it,” Salvini said, adding that the captain had ignored this and headed to Italy instead.

“The captain should be prosecuted, not the minister,” Salvini said his actions had been coordinated with Conte.

In a similar case, the full chamber of the Senate gave the go-ahead earlier this month to a possible trial of Salvini over the Gregoretti coast guard ship, which he blocked from docking in Sicily in July.

Salvini invoked the economy when asked whether he had a plan to try and force early elections.

“It is the economy which will cause early elections,” Salvini said.

“Italy is 27th out of 27 European Union countries, with growth which will be negative this year because this government has no economic policy.”

“As the opposition, we can make amendments, propose laws, hold demonstrations, win regional elections but it is the negative data on the economy and on jobs which I hope will force this government to go home,” Salvini said.