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13 Feb, 2019 12:18

‘I am not a puppet’: EU war of words erupts as Italian PM rejects Verhofstadt’s claims

‘I am not a puppet’: EU war of words erupts as Italian PM rejects Verhofstadt’s claims

Italian PM Giuseppe Conte has hit back at claims made by a chief EU lawmaker that he is a “puppet” of his country’s coalition party leaders, after declaring the bloc had “lost contact” with its people.

The EU Parliament witnessed ill-tempered exchanges between Conte, who was making his debut speech, and leading MEPs. Guy Verhofstadt addressed the PM, saying that he regrets Italy has gone from being a big defender of Europe “to the back of the line."

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Bemoaning what he sees as the “political degeneration of Italy,” Verhofstadt accused Conte of being a “puppet” of the Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio and the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini. He also claimed that Italy, at times, “behaves in an anti-European way, openly spiteful against other member states.”

The senior Belgian MEP later suggested on social media that Italy is being unduly influenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, causing EU division on the issue of Nicolas Maduro’s legitimacy as president of Venezuela.

Verhofstadt was responding to Conte’s assertion that the EU was dithering on the issue of migration, insisting that Europe could not continue with “an emergency footing” strategy on the highly polarizing issue – adding that the bloc had lost its connection to the people it serves.

Conte rejected Verhofstadt’s characterization, contending that MEPs need to be careful about the language they use, and maintaining that he was not beholden to powerful special interest groups.

“I am not a puppet, I am very pleased to represent my people. The puppets are those who work for lobbies and other powers, and that’s not the case here,” Conte said.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has responded on Twitter calling the treatment of Conte as "shameful" and urged voters to "send them [MEPs] home" in May's European elections.

It comes after a diplomatic row between France and Italy. Last week, France recalled its ambassador from Rome after a meeting was held between Italy’s deputy prime minister and leaders of the French Yellow Vest protester movement, who have been calling for French President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation.

Salvini said on Monday that he was ready to meet his French counterpart “this week” for talks following the spat between the two EU member nations.

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