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Renzi vows sweeping reforms in first confidence test

'Radical' economic and election changes pledged

24 February, 19:18
Renzi vows sweeping reforms in first confidence test (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, February 24 - Premier Matteo Renzi vowed sweeping political and economic reforms on Monday, urging the Senate to vote confidence in his fledgling government, as it is expected to do. Italy "needs to have the courage to make radical choices," said Renzi, ahead of his first of two confidence votes late Monday, to be followed Tuesday by one in the Lower House. Promising to act fast on new economic reforms, the 39-year-old vowed to deal with high unemployment that is "merciless and devastating" to Italians struggling to pull out of the country's worst recession since the Second World War.

The country's youngest premier in history also said repaying all government debt to firms to help revive the economy is "the first pledge" of his new administration. Renzi said the government investment and loan fund, the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), would be used "differently" in order to achieve this.

In a second pledge, he said his government will "implement and sustain" guarantee funds to make credit accessible to small and medium-sized businesses, possibly "through renewed use of the CDP.

A following pledge to "immediately" cut income and labour taxes was immediately cheered by the powerful industrial confederation Confindustria.

Turning to parliamentary reforms, the outgoing mayor of Florence said he hoped to be "the last premier" imploring the Senate for its nod of approval, as he seeks to pass election reforms that include stripping the Upper House of its lawmaking powers and turning it into a leaner assembly of local-government representatives.

The law, negotiated with ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi earlier this year, marked a crucial turning point in the center-left Democratic Party (PD) chief's ascent to premier. Leading up to his swearing-in Saturday, pundits and politicians alike remarked that the accord with the center right signaled Renzi's prowess at reaching across the aisle and moving deals through Italy's complicated political machinery faster than his party colleague and predecessor Enrico Letta, ousted as premier in a PD coup two weeks ago for perceived ineffectiveness. In his address to the Senate Monday, Renzi said he would respect the timetable of the deal with Berlusconi to streamline government. "We will meet the terms and timetable of the deal that goes beyond the ruling majority," he said. Critics of Renzi have expressed scepticism that he will make good on his promise to pass the law before the end of the month - in just four days' time. Looking ahead, Renzi said the government would last until the end of the parliamentary term in 2018 if parliament recognised the "urgency" of the political reforms, which require changes to Italy's Constitution, along with a raft of measures to cut red tape and taxes to jumpstart growth after two decades of recession.

He also outlined initiatives to improve the country's school system and its slow-moving judiciary. Starting in Treviso in the north later this week, Renzi said he would visit a school every Wednesday, moving to the south next week, because education is "the engine of growth". "It's essential the government is not only in Rome," Renzi, who is married to a teacher, told the Senate. As for the justice system, the new premier pledged streamlining reforms by the end of June.

He said clashes between left and right since Berlusconi came to power 20 years ago had led to "calcified" positions. Giving one example of the peculiarities of the present three-tiered system, Renzi noted that a drunk driver who kills someone gets the same sentence as a petty thief.

"All this must change," he said. Justice reform to speed and simplify the system while bolstering defence rights has been proposed by several Berlusconi-led governments but stymied by the magistrates the three-time premier says are persecuting him on ideological grounds. The billionaire media magnate, who has been banned from office after a tax-fraud conviction, is appealing a sentence for sex with an underaged prostitute and on trial for allegedly bribing a Senator to switch sides.

After the hour-long speech interrupted by 15 rounds of applause, Renzi made his first phone call as premier to United States President Barack Obama. Asked if the call had gone well, Renzi replied "yes", in English.