Italy's right-wing Salvini sees referendum as vote against Europe

December 1, 2016 8:06 AM EST

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini gestures during the "Europe of Nations and Freedom" meeting in Milan, January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo


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By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - A 'No' vote in Sunday's referendum on constitutional reform would be a slap in the face to Europe, said the head of the rightist Northern League, pledging to pull Italy from the euro if he wins the next national elections.

Matteo Salvini, who has said he would run for prime minister, has helped lead the campaign against the government's planned overhaul of the constitution, saying it does not address Italy's main problems.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says his reform will boost political stability in a country that has had 63 governments since 1948, and has promised to resign if he loses the vote.

Opinion polls suggest that he is set for defeat.

In an interview with Reuters, Salvini said that if the 'No' camp won, Italy should hold elections in 2017, a year ahead of schedule.

"This 'No' vote will also be a 'No' vote against the rules and regulations of Europe, which have been disastrous for Italy," Salvini said, adding that EU austerity measures had shredded the Italian economy.

EU leaders, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, have thrown their weight behind Renzi, fearful that his resignation might unleash political and economic turmoil.

The 43-year-old Salvini said Europe had let Italy down, limiting its ability to salvage its debt-laden banks and doing little to help it deal with an influx of almost half a million migrants over the past three years.

A vocal supporter of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and a fierce critic of mass immigration, Salvini said he would place quitting the single euro currency at the heart of his election manifesto.

"We want a more just currency, which would probably be valued 20 percent lower than the actual euro, giving our companies 20 percent more chance to export," he said.

A survey published by La Stampa newspaper last week said 71 percent of Italians thought leaving the euro would make Italy's fragile economy even worse, but Salvini dismissed the polls and said he was working with economists on a plan for withdrawal.

"I am not mad. We have thought things through, because if I am elected, I will have to do this," he said.

LEAVING THE NORTH

The Northern League is the third largest political force in Italy, garnering support of around 13 percent against roughly 30 percent for both Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-system 5-Star Movement, which is also opposed to the euro.

The once dominant Forza Italia (Go Italy) party of former premier Silvio Berlusconi lies just behind the Northern League. Analysts say center-right parties would have an outside chance of victory if they could create a united front, as in the past.

Berlusconi, who turned 80 this year and survived major heart surgery, has said he wants to return to front line politics at the head of the center-right, challenging Salvini for supremacy. He has also adopted a eurosceptic stance, saying that Italy should introduce a second currency to run alongside the euro.

The bearded Salvini said he wanted to see primary elections for the center-right, like those that have just anointed Francois Fillon as France's conservative presidential candidate.

"If Italians want him (as leader) then I will bow to their will, but for what it is worth, my feeling is that Italians have a different view," he said.

To bolster his electoral standing, Salvini plans to drag his party far from its northern roots, dropping the word "Northern" from its name and campaigning across the country.

The party's veteran founder Umberto Bossi has denounced the plan and said Salvini should be dropped as leader. But Salvini said it made no sense to remain closed in one region.

"The battle for jobs, taxes, pensions, immigration, schools and justice is fought from the south to the north. (The League) will be found in every square and courtyard in the country. I don't want to exclude anyone," he said.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Richard Lough)



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