Napolitano calls for end to austerity in EP address
President met with Northern League protest in Strasbourg04 February, 17:35
The head of State was greeted in Strasbourg with a protest by Italy's anti-immigrant and anti-EU Northern League party, which slammed Napolitano for defending the European single currency, the euro, saying it had "destroyed" jobs and wages.
"The policy of austerity at all costs, which was the prevalent response to the eurozone crises, no longer stands up," Napolitano told MEPs.
Napolitano's message is in line with a call from Premier Enrico Letta for the European Union to control "austerity ayatollahs", after EU-mandated fiscal consolidation in many countries hit by the eurozone debt crisis caused a great deal of economic pain.
In Italy, for example, unemployment has reached record levels of over 12%, with over four in 10 under-25s jobless, after moves to put the country's financial house in order deepened its longest postwar recession.
Letta has said Italy, which is now emerging from the downturn, will use its duty presidency of the EU in the second half of this year to get the union to focus more on promoting growth and job creation.
Napolitano said May's European Parliament elections, when Euroskeptic parties are expected to do well, would be a key test for the EU.
"What we are experiencing today is a moment of truth for the future of European integration," he said. "EU citizens are moving away from the EU integration process and unemployment has played a role, but I believe that it is the democratic deficit of EU decisions that has played a major role".
Napolitano said the EU still has a future despite showing many limitations in its handling of the eurozone crisis and the related global economic crisis.
"The new mission of the EU is to show that we live together in the flow of globalisation as a unified nation," he said.
"We have to fight against national egoism and anachronistic conservatism.
"How can people talk about the end of the European experience? "Despite the difficult last years, we have to defend the euro and looking to the mistakes of the past should be the first step".
The Northern League did not agree.
"Napolitano is without shame," said party leader Matteo Salvini. "Anyone who still defends this euro that has destroyed jobs, wages and pensions is in bad faith". The League leader said the EP elections would "sweep away these euro follies".
EP Speaker Martin Schulz said the Northern League's protest was "deplorable". "These MEPs used the plenary assembly...for purely electoral ends and that is an abuse," the German Social Democrat said. But he said the anti-euro regionalist party was "totally isolated" in the EP.
Napolitano also dismissed the protest as "marginal and modest".
Back in Italy Napolitano has been facing relentless pressure from Beppe Grillo, the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), and his followers who have accused the president of being part of a "coup d'état".
The M5S has staged a series of high-voltage protests in parliament over measures they are opposed to over the last week, including a new election law, and has demanded that Napolitano be impeached, saying he favours the established parties and is no longer a fair arbiter. The 88-year-old statesman is serving an unprecedented second term as president after reluctantly agreeing to be re-elected last spring to help overcome the political deadlock resulting from inconclusive parliamentary elections in February.