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Thursday June 24th, 2021 2:02PM

Italy's Draghi urges unity, sacrifice in fighting the virus

By The Associated Press
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ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Mario Draghi urged Italy’s polarized politicians Wednesday to unite behind his new government to help the country confront the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought, saying Italy has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a more sustainable, equitable and healthy nation for future generations.

Draghi vowed during a speech before the Italian Senate to lead an environmentally conscious and digitally reformed government program. His Cabinet faces mandatory confidence votes that Draghi is expected to win in both the Senate and lower Chamber of Deputies after securing broad-based support for a technical-political government Italy's president asked him to form as an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Today, unity isn’t an option, it's an obligation,“ Draghi said to applause. “A duty guided by what unites us all: love of Italy.”

Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who is widely credited with having saved the euro, pledged a similar all-out effort to bring the country out of the pandemic, which first erupted in Italy at this time last year.

He said the principle aim of his administration was to confront the pandemic and safeguard Italians “with all means," including reinforcing the public health care system, bringing the civil protection and armed forces into the nation's vaccination campaign and ensuring that families can weather the economic fallout from lockdowns.

“The virus is the enemy of all of us,” Draghi, 73, said, urging politicians to put aside their personal and political interests and assume the same spirit of sacrifice that their parents and grandparents took on after World War II.

The premier said Italy had an opportunity not seen since then to rebuild the country from the ground up using the more than 200 billion euros ($241.2 billion) in European Union recovery funds. Draghi said his government would be “convincingly” pro-EU and pro-U.S., and that he envisaged reinforcing bilateral relations with France and Germany, in particular.

Draghi’s government was sworn in over the weekend, capping a remarkable few weeks that saw Giuseppe Conte, Italy's popular premier since June 2018, resign after a key ally yanked his support over Conte's pandemic response. After efforts to forge a third Conte government failed, President Sergio Mattarella asked Draghi to form a high-profile, non-political government.

Draghi’s 23-member Cabinet includes politicians in most ministries but puts technical experts in key roles, especially those responsible for ensuring that the funds Italy expects to receive are spent according to EU criteria. Some 37% of the allocated recovery funds must go toward environmental goals, while 20% must he devoted to digital transformation.

Italy has one of the EU's worst records on making use of designated EU funds, a trend Draghi seems intent on ending.

"Everything wasted is a crime that we commit against future generations," he said.

Draghi made clear that Italians who have lost their livelihoods as a result of virus-related closures would be a top priority, citing women, young people and other precariously employed workers who have borne the brunt of lockdown measures. But he said some activities would be protected more than others, in a sign that the government would prioritize industries and jobs that fit its environmental and technology-driven focus.

He said a focus on training workers for sustainable, high-tech jobs, particularly in Italy’s underdeveloped south, would combat the dual problems of unemployment and the need to transform Italy’s economy, which contracted 8.8% last year.

Draghi quoted Pope Francis in calling for a new approach to preserving the environment and Italy's cultural and natural treasures. He said Italy’s tourism sector, which is responsible for some 13% of GDP, must be helped to recover, but sustainably.

He laid out a host of planned reforms, including a wholescale overhaul of the income tax system, greater investments in education and research, and making public administration more digitally friendly to ordinary citizens.

Draghi also promised to respond to EU calls for a reform of Italy’s notoriously slow civil justice system, which has long been a key deterrent to attracting foreign investment.

He drew sustained applause when he honored predecessor Conte for his leadership through the pandemic, and was interrupted more than a dozen times by applause from various quarters. He made one gaffe when he misstated the number of people currently in intensive care with COVID-19, and apologized after being corrected.

Draghi's government has won support from longtime political foes, with the right-wing League sitting alongside the center-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement in the mix of the Cabinet as well. The drama of the confidence votes is expected to focus on how many 5-Star lawmakers abstain or vote against Draghi, given that his appointment as premier badly split the movement.

___

Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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