Report. Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini briefly met with President Sergio Mattarella on Monday after putting forward their nominee for prime minister, a law professor who until now was a political unknown.

Italian president holds off on M5S nominee for prime minister

Editor’s note: Since publication of this article in Tuesday’s Italian edition, new information about Giuseppe Conte’s academic credentials has emerged suggesting he padded his resume.

Barring any shocking new development, the 5 Star Movement lawyer Giuseppe Conte will almost certainly be charged with putting together a new government and will serve as prime minister. Contrary to expectations, however, he was not officially charged with this task Tuesday. One must wait 24 hours longer.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella called a surprise meeting Tuesday morning of the presidents of both chambers of Parliament. This, he said, was partly because, after he had involved them in the exploratory discussions, it would be “disrespectful” to name Conte without having first consulted them. In fact, this is mostly meant to send out an unmistakable symbolic message.

The president is signaling he does not intend to rubber stamp the choices of the leaders of the M5S and the Lega, as if his task was only to sign whatever they brought him. It is therefore only natural that, after days of negotiations between the parties of the newfound majority, he would also take his time, calling for a “pause for reflection”—which, however, does not seem to imply any serious doubts on his part regarding the naming of the law professor from Apulia to form the new government.

It is clear, however, that in emphasizing his intention to fully exercise his powers, the head of state is setting the stage for future interventions on his part that could be much more forceful, regarding the appointment of ministers and the presentation of the government’s program to the joint chambers of Parliament. Two parties having reached a private agreement is one thing; the official launch of a government program is something else entirely, which has to set out the timing of the reforms that the majority has in mind before Parliament. But the negotiations in this regard will really only start after Conte’s appointment.

On Monday, the two meetings with the president, by the M5S delegation led by Di Maio and by the Lega delegation headed by Salvini, were over in a flash. Not a word about the future ministers, and nothing more from the two leaders except the long-awaited decision on the fateful name of Conte. And this was not the name that Mattarella would have preferred. The President is afraid that Conte will not have enough power to distance himself from the diktats of the parties in the majority coalition, and that, as a consequence, he will inevitably be in a position of maximum weakness in negotiations with the EU. But in Mattarella’s view, Conte is not the worst of the possibilities either. He will certainly give a green light to this choice in the end.

Given the situation, Mattarella took the time to explicitly remind the two delegations of the contents of Article 95 of the Constitution, which sets out the powers of the Prime Minister. This is the beginning of a long process aimed at ensuring the autonomy of the Prime Minister from the parties that appointed him. This is a provision that the President considers of utmost importance, both because otherwise Giuseppe Conte would not have the authority required to have a powerful voice outside the country, and because, at this extremely difficult and delicate political juncture, the President wants to have a head of government with a sufficiently broad profile so that he could be responsive to influences from both sides.

Fears of a possible crisis in the relationship with Europe, which could affect Italian public finances and Italians’ savings, overshadowed the brief talks held Monday. For his part, Mattarella was full of admonishments, stresses and warnings. Di Maio, coming out of the meeting, glossed over the point, insisting on the “historic moment” and repeating several times that the proposed prime minister is not technocratic but political, and will lead a “political government.” Salvini tried to strike a reassuring tone: “No one has anything to fear from our economic policies, which will be very different from those of the past,” adding that some people abroad should change their perspective. Later, on Facebook, he was back to his usual provocations: “We are free to say to Brussels: No, sir.”

This is not the tone that the President was hoping to hear, and it must have stoked even further the already highly potent fears. Therefore, it is expected that Mattarella will make full use of his constitutional prerogatives and will try to convince the two leaders to rethink the choice of Paolo Savona as Minister of the Economy. The appointment of Savona, who is certainly highly qualified but who makes no effort to hide his strongly held critical views (albeit for very good reasons) of the Maastricht Treaty, would certainly make a very bad impression in Brussels, and would add fuel to a flame that is already threatening to flare up and become a wildfire.

In any case, in the end, there will certainly be a government, but one which—despite Di Maio’s insistent touting of its “historical importance”—will be weak from the start: the Senate majority of the coalition is small, consisting of only six senators. This explains Salvini’s last-minute attempt to add the FdI to the coalition. On Monday, the leader of the Lega met with Giorgia Meloni, but no deal was reached. “Sister Giorgia” said that his entreaties came “too late.” But this is likely only the start, and the Lega’s courtship of the FdI will certainly continue.

A good reason for that is because without them, the fate of the government would mostly lie squarely in the hands of Berlusconi and Forza Italia, which Monday did not have a very welcoming reaction to the naming of the likely premier: “This is how M5S and the Lega are disappointing expectations” was the curt statement by the leader of the Forza Italia Senate caucus, Anna Maria Bernini.

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