ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker met in Rome on Friday to try to mend recently tense relations, keeping any lingering differences under wraps at a news conference afterwards.
Italy and the Commission have clashed in recent months on areas from bank rescues to fiscal policy and immigration, with Renzi repeatedly attacking Brussels and Juncker admitting his “bitterness” with the Italian’s behavior.
After the encounter the two leaders exchanged compliments and stressed what they had in common, while carefully avoiding going into detail regarding their dispute over Italy’s budget.
“There are more points of agreement than those of partial disagreement, which have sometimes been dealt with clumsily by both sides,” Juncker told reporters.
Italy’s approach to dealing with migrants from Africa and the Middle East has been “exemplary”, he said, while “on financial matters the positions of Commission and the Italian government are not so far apart.”
The Commission has said Italy’s 2016 budget risks breaking the EU’s fiscal rules after Renzi hiked previous targets for the budget deficit and the debt. It will give a definitive verdict by May and is likely to ask for adjustments.
Juncker rebutted an image of the Commission as being obsessed with budget rigor, as it has often been portrayed by Renzi in his demands for more “flexibility” in EU fiscal rules.
“The Commission is not a commission of bureaucrats in favor of silly and blind austerity,” Juncker said, a remark which Renzi offered his own interpretation of.
“Jean-Claude said austerity policies are stupid. I agree,” he said.
However, Renzi also stressed that Italy was committed to bringing down its public debt - the highest in the euro zone after Greece’s as a percentage of national output - and would respect the Commission’s decisions on its budget.
“On the subject of fiscal room for maneuver our reference point from a technical point of view is the Commission .... we will use whatever flexibility it gives us,” he said.
Shortly after the news conference the Commission issued a report on EU countries' challenges and reform efforts, in which it warned that Italy's structural economic weaknesses and low growth were hurting the EU's recovery and growth potential. (here)
Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Hugh Lawson