Junker apologises for suggesting Italians are corrupt and lazy
The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker says he "deeply regrets" comments he made that suggested that Italians in the south of the country were corrupt and lazy.
At a conference in Brussels, Mr Juncker said Rome needed to stop blaming the EU for its economic problems and that "Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness."
The remarks earned a furious response from Matteo Salvini, the head of the hard-right League party, who was sworn in as deputy prime minister and interior minister in Italy's new populist coalition yesterday.
EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said that Mr Juncker's words had been interpreted in "a misleading way, because President Juncker loves Italy".
She listed recent initiatives Mr Juncker had taken which were beneficial to Italy, including his support to rebuild a medieval basilica in Norcia in Umbria, in the wake of a 2016 earthquake.
"There are words and there are facts and we prefer to focus on the facts, which in this case speak much louder than words," the spokeswoman said.
The row erupted between Brussels and the new coalition government before it was even sworn in.
As the new administration was in the process of being formed, Mr Juncker was asked about the economic situation in Italy, which has the second highest debt per capita in the EU after Greece.
"I'm in deep love with Italy. Bella Italia. But I can no longer accept that everything that is wrong in southern Italy is explained by the fact the EU, the European Commission won't do enough," he said in a question and answer session.
"Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness.
"We will help them as we always did. But don't play this game of loading with responsibility the EU. A country is a country, a nation is a nation. Countries first, Europe second."
He added: "I have full confidence in the genius of the Italian people."
The remarks prompted an angry rebuke from Mr Salvini of the League. "Italians corrupt and lazy?" Mr Salvini wrote on Facebook. "Shameful and racist words, with the next government we will see we get the rights and dignity of 60 million Italians respected. [They] expect collaboration, not insults from Europe".
It was the latest spat between Brussels and the populists, who have edged back from threats to quit the eurozone but bridle at what they say is frequent and patronising lecturing by EU officials.
Both parties were angered this week when Guenther Oettinger, the EU's Budget Commissioner, suggested that turmoil on the financial markets could teach Italians not to be seduced by populists.
Such turbulence "could be a possible signal to voters not to choose populists from left and right," Mr Oettinger said.
Five Star were outraged by the remarks.
"The words of Commissioner Oettinger are absurd," Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star leader, wrote on Twitter.
"These people treat Italy as though it is just a summer colony where they spend their holidays."
The new government will be led by Giuseppe Conte, a law professor with no political experience who was plucked from obscurity to be made prime minister.
He and his 18 new ministers were sworn in yesterday afternoon.
Mr Conte has promised "a government of change".
The formation of the government comes after 88 days of political deadlock following the inconclusive election of March 4, when no single bloc or party won enough votes to command a majority.
© Daily Telegraph London