By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) – Italy will only hit the NATO goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence in 2028, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Thursday, confirming it will miss an original target of 2024 after opposition from within his ruling coalition.
The government currently earmarks around 1.4% of economic output for military spending and would have had to increase its defence budget by 12 billion euros ($13.4 billion) over the next two years to reach a goal established by members of the Atlantic alliance in 2014.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, no one had expected Italy to meet the 2024 timeline, but the conflict has piled pressure on NATO states to beef up their armed forces.
Draghi has said Italy would honour its international commitments, but the ruling 5-Star Movement had threatened to torpedo any spending splurge, saying the money would be better used to alleviate poverty.
Stepping back from a potential political bust-up, Draghi told foreign correspondents that the 2024 deadline should be seen as “an indication, not as an objective”, adding that 2028 was a more achievable target.
“This is a goal which we must aim for with continuity and realism,” he said.
The 5-Star said this week that spending should be increased gradually over the next eight years, and signalled that 2028 was an acceptable compromise.
“Today we can finally all agree, thanks to 5-Star, that this objective is a trend and must be spread out well beyond 2024,” the party said in a statement.
Of the other heavyweights within the multi-party coalition, the centre-left Democratic Party also favoured a 2028 target date while the far-right League expressed no preference in public.
Italy was sixth from bottom in the 29-nation NATO in terms of defence spending by GDP in 2021, NATO has said. Some 60.5% of the budget went on salaries, the second highest ratio within the alliance, leaving proportionally less cash for military procurement, training, maintenance and infrastructure.
The dispute over military spending comes as parties jostle for position ahead of elections set for next year.
The 5-Star, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte but struggling in the polls, has pacifist roots and is looking to tap into strong opposition within Italy to boosting arms purchases.
An EMG opinion poll released on Tuesday showed 54% of Italians were against hiking the defence budget to 2% of GDP, while just 23% were in favour.
Draghi told reporters that the ideal would be for European Union nations to pool military spending. “If we are serious about European defence we must immediately coordinate action and understand who spends how much and for what,” he said.
($1 = 0.8974 euros)
(editing by John Stonestreet)