Italy’s new populist coalition was sworn in on Friday as Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, apologised for remarks suggesting that Italians in the south of the country were work-shy and corrupt.
The swearing-in took place in the Quirinale Palace, once the home of popes but now the residence of Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who clashed with the populists during tortuous negotiations to form an administration after three months of post-election deadlock.
Western Europe’s first populist, Eurosceptic government plans to slash taxes, spend billions on increased social welfare measures and demand the reform of EU rules on budgets and migrants.
Giuseppe Conte, a law professor whom Italians had never heard of until 10 days ago, was sworn in as prime minister, along with 18 ministers, five of them women.
Mr Conte will face a stiff challenge in mediating the competing demands of Luigi Di Maio, the head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and Matteo Salvini, who heads the hard-Right, anti-immigration League.
Mr Di Maio was sworn in as labour and economic development minister, where he hopes to deliver on an electoral promise of providing a €780 monthly income to Italy’s unemployed, as long as they seek work.
Click Here: West Coast Eagles Guernsey
Mr Salvini was appointed interior minister, a key position that will enable him to spearhead his pledge to expel up to half a million undocumented migrants who have arrived in recent years from Libya.
He wants to reduce funding for migrant reception centres and steer it towards repatriating migrants whose asylum applications have been turned down.
“Five billion euros to look after migrants that live in Italy and receive breakfast, lunch and dinner is way too much, let’s see if we can cut it,” he said after the swearing-in ceremony.
Asked how long the coalition would last, he said: “At least 10 years”.
Both leaders have been appointed deputy prime minister.
The incoming coalition’s already fractious relationship with Brussels reached new lows when Mr Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said Italy should stop blaming the EU for its economic problems.
“Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness,” he said on Thursday, just as the coalition deal was being hammered out.
The remarks prompted an angry rebuke from Mr Salvini.
"Italians corrupt and lazy?" he wrote on Facebook. "Shameful and racist words, with the next government we will see we get the rights and dignity of 60 million Italians respected. (They) expect collaboration, not insults from Europe".
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said Mr Juncker “deeply regrets” the comments, which she said had been interpreted in "a misleading way”.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, congratulated Mr Conte on his appointment as prime minister, but said the EU needed "unity and solidarity more than ever".
"Your appointment comes at a crucial time for Italy and the entire European Union," Mr Tusk said in a letter.