Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella address a joint press conference following their meeting on March 22, 2019 at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, as part of Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Italy. (AFP)
Updated 24 March 2019

Italy endorses China’s Belt and Road plan in first for a G7 nation

ROME: Italy endorsed China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” infrastructure plan on Saturday, becoming the first major Western power to back the initiative to help revive the struggling Italian economy.
Saturday’s signing ceremony was the highlight of a three-day trip to Italy by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the two nations boosting their ties at a time when the United States is locked in a trade war with China.
The rapprochement has angered Washington and alarmed some European Union allies, who fear it could see Beijing gain access to sensitive technologies and critical transport hubs.
Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio played down such concerns, telling reporters that although Rome remained fully committed to its Western partners, it had to put Italy first when it came to commercial ties.
“This is a very important day for us, a day when Made-in-Italy has won, Italy has won and Italian companies have won,” said Di Maio, who signed the memorandum of understanding on behalf of the Italian government in a Renaissance villa.
Taking advantage of Xi’s visit, Italian firms inked deals with Chinese counterparts worth an initial 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion). Di Maio said these contracts had a potential, future value of 20 billion euros.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies at the heart of China’s foreign policy strategy and was incorporated into the ruling Communist Party constitution in 2017, reflecting Xi’s desire for his country to take a global leadership role.
The United States worries that it is designed to strengthen China’s military influence and could be used to spread technologies capable of spying on Western interests.
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Italy’s populist government, anxious to lift the economy out of its third recession in a decade, dismissed calls from Washington to shun the BRI and gave Xi the sort of red-carpet welcome normally reserved for its closest allies.
Some EU leaders also cautioned Italy this week against rushing into the arms of China, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying on Friday that relations with Beijing must not be based primarily on trade.
There was not even universal backing for the BRI agreement within Italy’s ruling coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League, warning against the risk of China “colonialising” Italian markets.
Salvini did not meet Xi and declined to attend a state dinner held in honor of the visiting leader on Friday.
Di Maio, who leads the 5-Star Movement, says Italy is merely playing catch up, pointing to the fact that it exports significantly less to China than either Germany or France.
Italy registered a trade deficit with China of 17.6 billion euros last year and Di Maio said the aim was to eliminate the deficit as soon as possible.
After talks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Di Maio in the morning, Xi flew to the Sicilian city Palermo for a private visit on Saturday afternoon.
He is due to head to Monte Carlo on Sunday before finishing his brief tour of Europe in France, where he is due to hold talks with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


German finance minister plans ‘debt brake’ suspension

Updated 27 February 2020

German finance minister plans ‘debt brake’ suspension

  • Scholz has long backed plans to lift a near-unbearable burden of repayments from 2,500 municipalities by shifting €40 billion ($43.5 billion) of their debts to Berlin

BERLIN: German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz plans to temporarily suspend a government “debt brake” to hand out tens of billions of euros to struggling municipalities, weekly Die Zeit reported on Wednesday.

With years of fat budget surpluses, Germany has long faced calls at home and abroad to loosen its purse strings, but the spread of the novel coronavirus and its likely impact on economic growth have given them new impetus.

“Scholz will present a plan in March,” Die Zeit wrote without citing its sources.

Scholz would need two-thirds majorities in both parliament’s directly elected lower house and the upper house representing the states to suspend the debt brake.

Anchored in the German constitution at the height of the financial crisis in 2009, the rule prevents government from running a deficit of more than 0.35 percent of the gross domestic product in normal times.

Finance Ministry spokeswoman Katja Novak declined to comment on “speculation,” telling AFP “the finance minister will present his proposals for dealing with old debt early this year.”

“At present various options are being discussed,” Novak added.

Scholz has long backed plans to lift a near-unbearable burden of repayments from 2,500 municipalities by shifting €40 billion ($43.5 billion) of their debts to Berlin.

He hopes it would lift a major hurdle to increasing infrastructure spending and eliminating financial and planning bottlenecks in municipalities responsible for projects like roads and schools.

Many of the towns affected are in deindustrializing “rust belt” zones, like Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia.

After years of a no-new-debts policy known as the “black zero,” economists and EU partners are increasingly pressuring Berlin to upgrade aging infrastructure and stimulate its flagging economy with new spending.

A manufacturing slowdown in Europe’s top economy and the looming impact of the coronavirus have added urgency to such calls.

What is more, the European Central Bank’s monetary policy is already extremely loose, with negative interest rates and mass bond purchases under a “quantitative easing” scheme.

With little room to maneuver in Frankfurt, eurozone governments are on the hook to stimulate flagging economic growth, especially in case of a potential hefty shock stemming from an unforeseen event like the virus.