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INTERVIEW-Italy's Northern League vows to paralyse next government

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 13 Feb 2013 15:37 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Berlusconi ally vows to block legislation

* Calls for Europe of maxi regions, not states

* Maroni rebuilt Northern League after graft scandal

By Barry Moody and Sara Rossi

MILAN, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Italy's centre-right plans to obstruct the government expected to emerge from an election in less than two weeks time and block legislation, Northern League leader Roberto Maroni said on Wednesday.

The vow by Maroni, the closest electoral ally of former premier Silvio Berlusconi, could cause instability and government paralysis if the centre-right wins enough votes to control the balance of power in the Senate after the Feb 24-25 vote, which is expected to be won by the centre-left.

Maroni's federalist League has its stronghold in Lombardy, which returns the largest number of Senators, and he is standing for governor of the region in a separate election coinciding with the national vote.

The last opinion polls allowed before the election and published on Friday suggested the centre-right was narrowly ahead in Lombardy. The League was polling around 5 percent nationally and the centre-right 29 percent to Bersani's almost 35 percent.

The Senate upper house is elected on a regional basis, giving the centre-right a greater chance of holding the balance of power.

In an interview with Reuters, Maroni, 57, also said the Europe of nation states was dead and should be replaced by maxi regions, including Catalonia and Scotland, and that the European Commission should resign.

It should be replaced by a popularly elected president governing a federal Europe composed of regions, he said.

Outgoing technocrat prime minister and centrist candidate Mario Monti, who is seen likely to join a coalition with the centre-left after the election, should give up politics, said Maroni, who has rebuilt the League after a disastrous corruption scandal last year.

"The best thing for Italy is that he resigns and goes back to university. He is a representative of financial powers and made all his economic policy to favour the banks," Maroni said.

According to the last opinion polls, Bersani is expected to win control of the lower house easily but fall short in the Senate, which has equal legislative powers and where he would need Monti's support.

The centre-right's aim is to prevent the combination of Monti and Bersani from obtaining a workable majority in the Senate where seats are decided on a regional basis.

Italy, deep in a recession and with one of the world's biggest debts, can ill afford paralysis or instability. Businessmen, investors and foreign governments are clamouring for Monti's reforms to continue, with more emphasis on stimulating growth while maintaining fiscal rigour.

If Berlusconi and Maroni won Lombardy and only one other populous region, they could prevent centre-left control of the upper house.

The centre-right is traditionally strongest in the populous northern regions, where the League has most support.

BLOCKING LEGISLATION

Asked if the centre-right strategy was to prevent Bersani governing, Maroni replied: "Yes. That is the role of a serious opposition," adding that this would include blocking legislation.

But he said international markets would not be spooked by a centre-right government including the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, who was forced out in November 2011 and replaced by Monti after Italy's borrowing costs soared to danger levels.

"We don't run the risk that this will happen again...financial markets in my opinion will sustain the new government whether it is right or left," said Maroni, who named Margaret Thatcher as his political hero.

Maroni said Italy would have to hold a second election if Bersani-Monti failed to get a workable majority. Otherwise he didn't expect their government to last more than two years.

He speaks good English after working for 10 years as a legal affairs manager for the giant U.S. cosmetics firm Avon, before entering politics in 1992.

Maroni, a former interior minister, took over the leadership of the League last April when its founder and leader, Umberto Bossi, was forced out in a giant graft scandal involving his family.

Maroni, who wears distinctive red and black glasses - he says to show support for AC Milan soccer team owned by Berlusconi - has rebuilt support with a more sober line that contrasts sharply with Bossi's rough image and notorious foul language.

Maroni also fought hard to persuade rank and file League members - who opposed Berlusconi because of his sexual and other scandals - to agree to a coalition with the billionaire media magnate, on condition that he did not stand as the centre-right's prime ministerial candidate.

Maroni wants 75 percent of taxes in Lombardy, Italy's industrial power house, to be under regional control and has called for a northern maxi region also including Piedmont, Friuli and Veneto.

He shrugged off possible European opposition, saying the issue was an Italian matter.

"We are not against Europe, we are for a new Europe...which will not be made of 27 member states but a different number of European regions, Catalonia, Scotland, the north of Italy; regions which have common feeling, situation, economy."

Asked if this would mean the disappearance of European nations, Maroni replied: "The nations have already disappeared. When a nation has no responsibility in currency, foreign policy and control of the borders...what remains of the state?"

EUROPEAN COMMISSION A "FAILURE"

Austerity policies pushed by European leadership were a failure and the European Commission had no power to take urgent measures in a crisis.

"The European Commission does not have the power to act or react. We have to change deeply the government of the European institutions and we think that the macro region or the euro region is the first part of the new project."

Maroni said Europe's "fiscal compact", enforcing balanced budgets in EU members, took away power from local parliaments and was undemocratic. He was also scathing about Monti's labour and pension reforms and said both must be repealed.

Maroni said Bersani's government would be pushed to the extreme left by its ally Nichi Vendola and his small SEL party.

The League, like Berlusconi, has launched a vituperative campaign against Monti's widely hated housing tax and wants to stimulate small and medium businesses with easier credit, as well as cutting central government bureaucracy.

Many League supporters are anti-immigrant and the party sees Rome and the undeveloped South as a drag on the rest of Italy, surviving on revenue from northern taxes.

Maroni said immigrants could only stay in Italy if they had regular employment contracts. Thousands of immigrants from Africa and Asia work in Italy illegally, especially in agriculture, after entering the country clandestinely.

(Additional reporting by Michael Stott; writing by Barry Moody)

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