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Obama 'has confidence' in Renzi

Italian premier wants EU-US free-trade deal by end of year

27 March, 19:34
Obama 'has confidence' in Renzi (updates previous) (ANSA) - Rome, March 27 - United States President Barack Obama said Thursday that he had "confidence" in the reforms Premier Matteo Renzi wants to introduce to revive the weak economy and overhaul the country's political system. "The premier will know how to take Italy forward," Obama told a press conference in Rome after meeting Renzi, who became Italy's youngest premier at 39 after unseating his Democratic Party (PD) colleague Enrico Letta last month.

Obama added that he was "favourably impressed by the energy" of Renzi and that his arrival was positive for Italy and for a new generation of European leaders.

He also said he was "anxious" to receive Renzi at the White House.

Renzi, meanwhile, said Obama was a "source of inspiration" for him and his cabinet. "Today's talks confirm the great friendship and partnership (between the US and Italy)," the centre-left Italian leader said.

He said Obama's campaign slogan "Yes we can" also applies in today's Italy and that he was modelling his economic policy on the US president's. "We opted to use the same name, Jobs Act, to find work for young people," he said.

Italy's youth-unemployment rate currently stands well above 40%. Obama said that it's essential to "redouble" efforts to train and find jobs for young people, but added that "I know that the Italian government is doing this".

Renzi responded that "the US is a model but Italy needs to do its own homework through structural reforms". Shortly after becoming premier, Renzi unveiled reforms aimed to boost growth and productivity after emerging from recession, Italy's worst since World War II.

He has presented plans to cut personal income and business taxes by over 12 billion euros, invest 1.74 billion euros in social housing programs, spend 3.5 billion euros on schools and repay 68 billion euros in outstanding bills, among other things.

The countries' two economies were brought into sharp focus given a proposed free-trade treaty between the US and the EU, which Italy chairs from July through the end of December in its duty presidency of the 28-member union. Renzi told Obama that "we hope to finalize the free-trade treaty" at that time, "or in 2015". The proposed free-trade agreement, which would encompass nearly half of the world's economy, could add $100 billion to economic output in both the US and Europe, officials in Washington and Brussels say. Public support has dwindled since talks began eight months ago in the aftermath of reports the US spied in Europe. Recently, however, analysts say the climate to negotiate has improved amid tighter EU-US cooperation in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea. Speaking in Brussels Wednesday, Obama announced he had authorized the export of American natural gas to Europe, lessening the continent's dependence on Russian energy.

On Thursday he thanked Italy for its commitment to NATO and its contribution to disposing of Syrian chemical weapons. "The USA will continue to be by Italy's side, there's a lot to do and there will be difficult choices," Obama said.

He also warned Europe against cutting too much from defence budgets, saying that the gap between spending by the US and NATO allies in Europe is too wide.

That gap "has become too significant," and instead, everyone must take their share of the joint defence burden, Obama said. Renzi has raised the possibility of cutting defence spending, including the multi-billion-euro budget for the F-35 fighter-jet program that has been trimmed once before, and possibly selling some 385 military barracks. For now, spending on the F-35 has been frozen, pending a parliamentary review of military spending.

Obama suggested he could understand government efforts to trim costs, but if countries are serious about their role in NATO, "there is a certain commitment countries must have". The Italian government's Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets' budget is currently about 11.8 billion euros over 45 years, beginning in 2015. In 2012, Italy announced plans to cut its order to 90 from the 131 fight jets originally agreed in 2002, saving the country some five billion euros at that time.

Renzi went on to ask Obama for further support in Italy's initiative to bring home two marines held for two years without charge in India for allegedly killing two fishermen on an anti-piracy mission. The case has tattered ties between Italy and India, an important US ally. Italy has recently been appealing to international bodies such as NATO and the United Nations on the matter. To cap off his first presidential visit to Italy on Renzi's watch, Obama said he was "proud to announce" that the US will participate in Milan Expo 2015, the next World's Fair. "We'll come back to Milan with a pavilion".