Berlusconi claims win for center-right in Sicily vote

This file photo taken on May 22, 2014 shows Former Italian Prime Minister and president of the Italian center-right Forza Italia (FI) party, Silvio Berlusconi during a rally. (AFP)
Updated 07 November 2017
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Berlusconi claims win for center-right in Sicily vote

PALERMO, Italy: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was poised for for a stunning political comeback on Monday, as he claimed victory in an election in Sicily that puts him and his rightist allies in pole position for a national vote due by next May.
With about 85 percent of the votes counted, a center-right bloc backed by the four-times prime minister was running five percentage points ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, with the center-left a distant third.
“Sicily, just as I asked, has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,” the 81 year-old said in a video posted on Facebook.
The result puts Berlusconi back on the political map after years of sex scandals and graft allegations. By contrast, it deals a stinging blow to another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, head of the ruling Democratic Party (PD), which is locked in feuding with erstwhile leftist partners.
After a raft of vote setbacks in recent years, Renzi has many critics inside the PD who may now try to mount a challenge to his leadership.
The regional Sicilian ballot, held on Sunday, is seen as a dry run for the national vote, with many of the island’s problems reflecting those of the country as a whole — high unemployment, a debt mountain and sluggish economic growth.

“A WINNING MODEL“
Sicily is traditionally a center-right stronghold which was poached by the PD in 2012 thanks to splits in the conservative bloc. This time Berlusconi reunited the coalition behind a widely respected leader with a far-right background.
Nello Musumeci, the center-right’s candidate for governor of the island, had 39.8 percent of the vote, while the 5-Star’s Giancarlo Cancelleri had 34.7 percent. The center-left’s Fabrizio Micari was lagging on 18.5 percent.
“From Sicily we will demonstrate that this is a winning model that can triumph at a national level,” said Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party which is the junior partner in the center-right alliance.
The maverick 5-Star, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, had campaigned relentlessly for months in Sicily, looking to take charge of its first region after a string of successes in municipal ballots in recent years, including in Rome and Turin.
Its leader Luigi Di Maio said the party had been penalized in Sicily by low turnout — less than half of those eligible cast a vote.
“In two or three months I think many of those who abstained will regret not going to vote,” Di Maio said, insisting that if turnout had been 3 or 4 points higher it could have tilted the result in the movement’s favor.
Although defeat is a blow, the 5-Star can take comfort from the fact that it is the largest single political force, taking at least 30 percent of a separate vote on Sicily for party lists against less than 15 percent for its nearest rival — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!)


May heads to EU to push for Brexit breakthrough

British Prime Minister Theresa May to meet with EU top official Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Updated 14 min 48 sec ago
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May heads to EU to push for Brexit breakthrough

  • May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal
  • Meetings seek to break impasse in the London Parliament

BRUSSELS: Prime Minister Theresa May will meet top EU official Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Wednesday, pressing on with efforts to find a way to get their Brexit deal through Britain's Parliament.
A raft of meetings between EU and British officials in recent days has yet to produce a breakthrough after May's Parliament resoundingly defeated the divorce deal she had agreed with the bloc in November.
While May's spokesman said the meeting was a “significant” part of a process of engagement with the EU, sources said it was far from certain that this week's meetings would come up with a concrete way to break the impasse in the London Parliament.
The main sticking point is the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of extensive checks on the sensitive border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
“The EU 27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, we cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” said Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the EU's executive European Commission.
“Further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council,” he told a regular news briefing.
“We are listening and working with the UK government ... for an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on March 29.” May's spokesman again said it was the prime minister's intention to persuade the EU to reopen the divorce deal.
“There is a process of engagement going on. Tomorrow is obviously a significant meeting between the prime minister and President Juncker as part of that process,” the spokesman told reporters.
Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox met the bloc's chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday evening and were due back in the EU's political hub again mid-week.
The EU says the backstop is essential for peace on the island of Ireland. Should no better way be found, it would keep the UK in a basic customs union with the bloc to prevent Irish border checks on goods.
But Cox's legal advice that Britain could find itself trapped in the backstop indefinitely fuelled fears among some eurosceptics as that would undercut a key Brexit promise of pursuing an independent global trade policy.
In her phone call last week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May stressed the central role of Cox in unlocking parliamentary ratification of the Brexit deal, EU sources said.
Barclay and Cox want to discuss “legal text” with Barnier later this week that would give Britain enough assurances over the backstop, according to British sources.
May has until Feb. 27 to secure EU concessions on the backstop or face another series of Brexit votes in the House of Commons where lawmakers want changes to the withdrawal deal.
The bloc refuses to reopen the already-negotiated legal withdrawal treaty for Britain. EU and UK sources said London could accept other guarantees on the backstop.
The EU has offered to change the accompanying political declaration on new EU-UK ties after Brexit or to produce separate legal assurances or clarifications over the backstop.
But it does not want another effort to sink in Britain's lower house of Parliament and so, 38 days to go, it is still not clear what shape Brexit would take, or whether it would be delayed.
Juncker on Monday gave the EU's clearest signal yet that London could seek a long delay of its exit date of March 29.
But that would require Britain to organize European Parliament elections on its soil in May, a prospect ruled out on Tuesday by a junior Brexit minister.
The protracted Brexit uncertainty raises the risk of the most-damaging, abrupt split, triggering contingency plans increasingly from governments on both sides, as well as businesses.