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Italian prosecutor says Salvini should not be tried in Gregoretti migrant case

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A prosecutor said on Saturday (10 April) that Italy’s right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini (pictured) should not be sent to trial over illegally detaining migrants in a case being considered by a court in the Sicilian city of Catania, writes Giulia Segreti.

The high-profile case, for which former Prime Minister Conte was also asked to testify, centres on an incident in July 2019, when Salvini, then interior minister, blocked more than 100 people aboard a coastguard ship for six days as he waited for European allies to agree to resettle them.

Magistrates have argued that Salvini kidnapped the migrants, not allowing them to disembark the Gregoretti but rather keeping them at sea in fierce heat off of the port of Augusta.

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Prosecutor Andrea Bonomo said on Saturday that the former minister should not be tried, as his decision did not violate international treaties and was not to be considered kidnapping, given that the coastguard ship was a so-called place of safety where migrants were given medical assistance and support.

Bonomo, speaking at a court hearing, added that the government backed Salvini’s decision and his policy overall, given the coalition had asked Europe to discuss a different mechanism to allocate migrants in the bloc.

A decision on whether or not to proceed with the trial will be taken by a judge on May 14.

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Salvini, who heads the anti-immigrant League party, has always argued that he was acting in the national interest and that the entire government backed his initiative, something Conte has disputed.

In a separate case, in Palermo, a prosecutor has formally called for Salvini to be indicted for kidnapping over his decision in August 2019 to prevent migrants from disembarking from another ship, a rescue ship operated by charity Open Arms.

A final decision on whether to proceed with that case rests with a senior judge.

coronavirus

Commission approves €31.9 billion Italian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €31.9 billion Italian scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “Many companies in Italy have seen their revenues significantly decline because of the coronavirus outbreak and of the measures necessary to limit its spread. This €31.9bn scheme will enable Italy to support these companies by helping them meet their liquidity needs and cover the fixed costs that are not covered by their revenues. We continue working in close cooperation with member states to find workable solutions to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, in line with EU rules.”

The Italian support measures

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Italy notified to the Commission under the Temporary Framework a €31.9bn aid scheme to support companies affected by the coronavirus and the restrictive measures that the Italian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus.

The scheme consists of two measures: (i) limited amounts of aid; and (ii) support for uncovered fixed costs incurred during the period between March 2020 and December 2021 or parts of that period.

The scheme will be open to all companies, irrespective of their size and of the sector where they operate (with the exception of the financial sector).

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Under the scheme, limited amounts of aid will take the form of (i) tax exemptions and reductions; (ii) tax credits; and (iii) direct grants.

Given that most of the aid will be automatically granted and the aid ceilings will apply not only to the direct beneficiary but also to its affiliates, eligible beneficiaries will have to indicate in an ex ante self-declaration the amount of limited amounts of aid and support for uncovered fixed costs applied for. This should also allow the Italian authorities to better monitor compliance with the Temporary Framework, particularly for companies of the same group.

The Commission found that the Italian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular:

  • When it comes to limited amounts of aid, the aid (i) will not exceed €225,000 per company active in the primary production sector of agricultural products, €270,000 per company active in the fisheries and aquaculture sector and €1.8 million per company active in all the other sectors; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.
  • When it comes to support for uncovered fixed costs, the aid (i) will not exceed the overall amount of €10m per company; (ii) will cover uncovered fixed costs incurred during a period comprised between March 2020 and December 2021; (ii) will be granted only to companies that were not considered to be in difficulty already on 31 December 2019, with the exception of micro and small companies that are eligible even if already in difficulty; and (iii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021.

The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.

On this basis, the Commission approved the aid measure under EU state aid rules.

Background

The Commission has adopted a Temporary Framework to enable member states to use the full flexibility foreseen under state aid rules to support the economy in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The Temporary Framework, as amended on 3 April, 8 May, 29 June, 13 October 2020 and 28 January 2021, provides for the following types of aid, which can be granted by member states:

(i) Direct grants, equity injections, selective tax advantages and advance payments of up to €225,000 to a company active in the primary agricultural sector, €270,000 to a company active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €1.8 million to a company active in all other sectors to address its urgent liquidity needs. Member states can also give, up to the nominal value of €1.8m per company zero-interest loans or guarantees on loans covering 100% of the risk, except in the primary agriculture sector and in the fishery and aquaculture sector, where the limits of €225,000 and €270,000 per company respectively, apply.

(ii) State guarantees for loans taken by companies to ensure banks keep providing loans to the customers who need them. These state guarantees can cover up to 90% of risk on loans to help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iii) Subsidised public loans to companies (senior and subordinated debt) with favourable interest rates to companies. These loans can help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iv) Safeguards for banks that channel State aid to the real economy that such aid is considered as direct aid to the banks' customers, not to the banks themselves, and gives guidance on how to ensure minimal distortion of competition between banks.

(v) Public short-term export credit insurance for all countries, without the need for the member state in question to demonstrate that the respective country is temporarily “non-marketable”.

(vi) Support for coronavirus related research and development (R&D) to address the current health crisis in the form of direct grants, repayable advances or tax advantages. A bonus may be granted for cross-border cooperation projects between member states.

(vii) Support for the construction and upscaling of testing facilities to develop and test products (including vaccines, ventilators and protective clothing) useful to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, up to first industrial deployment. This can take the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one Member State and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(viii) Support for the production of products relevant to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one member state and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(ix) Targeted support in the form of deferral of tax payments and/or suspensions of social security contributions for those sectors, regions or for types of companies that are hit the hardest by the outbreak.

(x) Targeted support in the form of wage subsidies for employees for those companies in sectors or regions that have suffered most from the coronavirus outbreak, and would otherwise have had to lay off personnel.

(xi) Targeted recapitalisation aid to non-financial companies, if no other appropriate solution is available. Safeguards are in place to avoid undue distortions of competition in the Single Market: conditions on the necessity, appropriateness and size of intervention; conditions on the State's entry in the capital of companies and remuneration; conditions regarding the exit of the State from the capital of the companies concerned; conditions regarding governance including dividend ban and remuneration caps for senior management; prohibition of cross-subsidisation and acquisition ban and additional measures to limit competition distortions; transparency and reporting requirements.

(xii) Support for uncovered fixed costs for companies facing a decline in turnover during the eligible period of at least 30% compared to the same period of 2019 in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The support will contribute to a part of the beneficiaries' fixed costs that are not covered by their revenues, up to a maximum amount of €10m per undertaking.

The Commission will also enable member states to convert until 31 December 2022 repayable instruments (e.g. guarantees, loans, repayable advances) granted under the Temporary Framework into other forms of aid, such as direct grants, provided the conditions of the Temporary Framework are met.

The Temporary Framework enables member states to combine all support measures with each other, except for loans and guarantees for the same loan and exceeding the thresholds foreseen by the Temporary Framework. It also enables Member States to combine all support measures granted under the Temporary Framework with existing possibilities to grant de minimis to a company of up to €25,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the primary agricultural sector, €30,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €200,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in all other sectors. At the same time, member states have to commit to avoid undue cumulation of support measures for the same companies to limit support to meet their actual needs.

Furthermore, the Temporary Framework complements the many other possibilities already available to member states to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, in line with EU State aid rules. On 13 March 2020, the Commission adopted a Communication on a Co-ordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak setting out these possibilities. For example, member states can make generally applicable changes in favour of businesses (e.g. deferring taxes, or subsidising short-time work across all sectors), which fall outside state aid rules. They can also grant compensation to companies for damage suffered due to and directly caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Temporary Framework will be in place until the end of December 2021. With a view to ensuring legal certainty, the Commission will assess before this date if it needs to be extended.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.62668 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the Competition Weekly e-News.

More information on the Temporary Framework and other action the Commission has taken to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

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Germany

Two decades on, Waigel and Prodi still differ on euro pact

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Former German Finance Minister Theo Waigel in Berlin, September 28, 2010. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz/File Photo

One is the German conservative who insisted the euro be based on tough budget rules; the other, a founding father of Italy's centre-left who famously attacked those rules as "stupid", write Andreas Rinke and Gavin Jones.

With the European Union embarking on major reform of its Stability and Growth Pact of fiscal governance, Reuters conducted interviews with Theo Waigel and Romano Prodi (both pictured), both crucial players in the 1999 birth of the euro.

As European Commission chief in the early 2000s, it was Prodi's job to police the national deficit and debt rules which former German Finance Minister Waigel had been instrumental in designing a few years earlier.

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But coming from opposite ends of the mainstream European political spectrum, they were never likely to see completely eye-to-eye on those rules and how they should be enforced. Two decades later, the two elder statesmen still don't.

These are their historical perspectives on how the Pact has worked - and how it should be changed.

Waigel: "All members have profited from monetary union, including the weaker countries ... The Stability Pact was the answer to the fact that sustainability is not only necessary in climate and environmental policy, but also in fiscal policy. It is not a question of a country fulfilling the criteria for a year or two. It must be permanently the case to avoid friction."

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Prodi: "It's hard to say. It was a defective instrument because it didn't have any economic foundation, which is why I called it stupid ... It was useful as a warning (for countries not to overspend) but it was clear that it became a problem when exceptions needed to be made. Then it couldn't be applied."

Prodi: "It's called the stability and growth pact, so in future it mustn't only put the accent on stability but also on growth ... I would suggest three things: increase the flexibility; give special treatment for investments that increase productivity; and also give special treatment to the investments needed to reach our climate goals."

Waigel: "It would be a mistake to relax the rules now. This would also be my warning for the new (German) Federal Government. The Stability Pact has sufficient flexibility, it does not need to be relaxed ... In fact, because of the huge demographic changes taking place, we need surpluses in our national budgets."

Prodi: "Reaching net zero by 2050 is an ambitious target that will need huge investments to modernise our industries. This should be taken into account under the new rules."

Waigel: "Germany has refrained from the demand to exclude the costs of its (1990) reunification – even though it has spent 4 to 5 percent of its economic output annually on it. If we can cope with such a challenge, other countries will have to deal with the rules as well."

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Italy

Pope Francis launches consultation on Church reform

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Pope Francis (pictured) has launched what some describe as the most ambitious attempt at Catholic reform for 60 years.

A two-year process to consult every Catholic parish around the world on the future direction of the Church began at the Vatican this weekend.

Some Catholics hope it will lead to change on issues such as women's ordination, married priests and same-sex relationships.

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Others fear it will undermine the principles of the Church.

They say a focus on reform could also distract from issues facing the Church, such as corruption and dwindling attendance levels.

Pope Francis urged Catholics not to "remain barricaded in our certainties" but to "listen to one another" as he launched the process at Mass in St Peter's Basilica.

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"Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey? Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: 'It's useless' or 'We've always done it this way'?" he asked.

The consultation process, called "For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission", will work in three stages:

  • In the "listening phase", people in parishes and dioceses will be able to discuss a wide range of issues. Pope Francis said it was important to hear from those who were often on the fringes of local Church life such as women, pastoral workers and members of consultative bodies
  • The "continental phase" will see bishops gather to discuss and formalise their findings.
  • The "universal phase" will see a month-long gathering of the bishops a the Vatican in October 2023

The Pope is expected then to write an apostolic exhortation, giving his views and decisions on the issues discussed.

Discussing his hopes for the Synod, Pope Francis warned against the process becoming an intellectual exercise that failed to address the real-world issues faced by Catholics and the "temptation to complacency" when it comes to considering change.https://emp.bbc.co.uk/emp/SMPj/2.44.0/iframe.htmlMedia caption,"If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The initiative has been praised by the progressive US-based National Catholic Reporter newspaper, which said that while the process might not be perfect "the Church is more likely to address the needs of the people of God with it than without it".

However, theologian George Weigel wrote, in the conservative US Catholic journal First Things, it was unclear how "two years of self-referential Catholic chatter" would address other problems the Church such as those who are "drifting away from the faith in droves".

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Much of the reporting of this two-year consultation has focused on some of the issues that often appear to dominate reporting on the Catholic Church: the role of women for example, and whether they will ever be ordained as priests (the Pope says "no").

While those topics are often of concern to some Catholics, other areas which traditionally dominate Catholic social teaching, such as alleviating poverty, and increasingly, climate change, will likely play a greater part, as will how the Church is run. In reality, any issue can be raised.

Don't expect any sudden changes to Church rules though. It's true that some Catholics do want to see a different kind of institution, but for Pope Francis, allowing ordinary worshippers to have their concerns (eventually) raised at the Vatican - even if their bishops disagree with them - is a huge step change for this 2,000 year-old religion.

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