‘It would be a disaster’: Is Italy at risk of losing EU recovery funds?

There are rising concerns that Italy will lose billions of euros offered in EU post-pandemic recovery funds amid delays, changes to the spending plan, and questions about why Italy is using the money to build two sports stadiums.

'It would be a disaster': Is Italy at risk of losing EU recovery funds?
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said plans to spend Italy's portion of the EU recovery fund must be reviewed. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

When Mario Draghi left Italy’s government last year, there were concerns about the fate of the EU recovery funds he had negotiated for his country.

Now, fears are rising that billions of euros are at risk of being lost as the new government aims to negotiate changes to spending plans drawn up more than two years ago.

READ ALSO: What’s changing under Italy’s post-pandemic recovery plan?

Out of all member states, Italy is taking the biggest chunk of European Union aid for economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic, with 191.5 billion euros in grants and loans to be paid in instalments until 2026.

The first two instalments progressed smoothly, but the third payment from the EU is now frozen as Brussels asks for clarification about some aspects of Italy’s plans – particularly to spend the cash on building two sports complexes.

“I’m not worried about delays,” Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who took over in October, insisted on Monday, adding that any issues with the plan “are not the result of choices of this government”.

OPINION: Italy has a big chance to improve digital infrastructure – but will it take it?

Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank, quit last summer after his coalition government fell apart and he was succeeded as premier by Meloni, the untested leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party.

The EU has frozen the third scheduled payment to Italy, worth 19 billion euros, until at least the end of April pending clarification of some of the 55 objectives due during the second half of 2022.

Stadiums and beach concessions

Brussels has issues with some of Italy’s plans for the money, including the renovation of Fiorentina’s 1930s football stadium in a wealthy neighbourhood of Florence and the construction of a new sports stadium in Venice.

The EU funds were supposed to be focused on projects that boost digitalisation, the transition to a more environmentally friendly economy, and infrastructure, notably the rail sector, as well as revamping neglected urban areas, and European officials say the sports stadium projects do not fit the bill.

Another point of contention is Meloni’s decision to delay by at least a year plans to open up Italy’s many beach concessions to public tender, a decision that drew a rebuke from the government’s own independent judicial body.

READ ALSO: Why are so many of Italy’s beaches privatised?

Nero's palace in Rome, Italy

Plans for EU-funded redevelopment measures include work at many of Rome’s historical sites. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Spending is also behind schedule, with Italy originally hoping to spend more than 40 billion euros by the end of 2022. 

But just 12 billion has been committed, six percent of the total EU fund, according to Italy’s Court of Auditors.

“There are clearly delays as far as spending and construction are concerned, not so much in achieving objectives,” Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury, told AFP.

“There is zero chance of getting agreement from Brussels on extending the deadline beyond 2026. Italy has to deliver all milestones and targets by that time,” he added.

The credibility of the entire EU scheme, worth 800 billion euros, is now at stake.

READ ALSO: How one dying Italian village plans to spend €20m in EU recovery funds

EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, himself a former Italian prime minister, warned in March that “we Italians cannot be responsible for the failure of the first eurobonds at the European level, it would really be a disaster from a European point of view”.

“We need to roll up our sleeves in Brussels and Rome and make this stuff work,” Gentiloni said.

If the project fails, Italy “would have wasted a unique opportunity” and in the future, “the EU will become more austere” in applying stricter budgetary rules, said another former Italian premier, economist Mario Monti.

Italy’s EU Affairs Minister Raffaele Fitto has said the government is in talks with Brussels to replace some projects from its original plan, which it now says it cannot complete by the 2026 deadline.

These would be replaced with less ambitious projects that can be completed on time, while the original ones could be financed using separate European Union funds that can be spent until 2029, he said.

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Italian PM Meloni blasts judge who rejected ‘unconstitutional’ anti-migrant law

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Monday she was 'stunned' after a Sicilian judge ruled her government's latest decree was not compatible with either Italy's constitution or European law.

Italian PM Meloni blasts judge who rejected 'unconstitutional' anti-migrant law

Faced with a surge in the numbers of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores, Meloni’s coalition – elected a year ago vowing to stop illegal immigration – has issued a series of decree laws, including one it says will speed up the deportation of those who would not normally qualify for asylum.

READ ALSO: Italy to detain migrants for longer as arrival numbers surge

On Friday, a judge in Catania released a detained Tunisian migrant after ruling that a September decree law, which included requiring certain migrants to pay 5,000 euros in bail to avoid transfer to a detention centre, violated EU and Italian law.

Meloni, who leads the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy party, on Monday railed against the judge on social media, writing that she was “stunned” by the ruling.

The judge “freed an illegal immigrant, already the recipient of an expulsion order, unilaterally declaring Tunisia an unsafe country… and lashing out against the measures of a democratically elected government”, she wrote.

The government has sought to fast-track deportations.

It has created an “accelerated” repatriation centre in the Sicilian city of Pozzallo to hold recently arrived migrants from Tunisia and Egypt, which both have deals with Italy that help to speed deportations.

Rome considers Tunisia a “safe country” whose citizens are not escaping war or persecution, hence rarely qualifying for international protection.

IN NUMBERS: Five graphs to understand migration to Italy

In Friday’s court’s decision, seen by AFP, the judge ruled the government decree was unlawful as it did not provide for asylum claims from migrants from safe countries to be assessed on an individual basis.

Moreover, the judge found the decree did not allow third parties, such as migrant associations, to pay the 5,000-euro bail on behalf of the migrant, as allowed under European Union law.

Italy’s Association for Legal Studies on Immigration (ASG), which studies case law related to migrants, said the government’s recent measures amounted to “a bad way of legislating that stems from a wrong political approach and an irrational response to an ordinary phenomenon in our society”.

“The current government, in just one year, has intervened with nine regulatory acts on immigration and asylum law, transposing into the legal system political confusion, administrative inability to deal with the migration phenomenon and authoritarian impulses worthy of the darkest historical eras,” it said.   

READ ALSO: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

The leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Elly Schlein, charged that Meloni, in taking on a judge, was “spurring a clash between institutions that damages the country”.

“Stop looking for an enemy every day to hide your responsibilities,” she wrote.

Italy’s hard-right government, she said, “writes blatantly unconstitutional laws and then takes it out on the judges who do their job”.

The interior ministry plans to challenge the judge’s decision, according to news agency AGI.