By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) -Giancarlo Giorgetti, Italy’s new economy minister, is a veteran political wheeler-dealer viewed as a moderate and relatively pro-European member of his right-wing League party.
A low-key counterweight to the party’s fiery, eurosceptic leader Matteo Salvini, Giorgetti has spent most of his 26 years in parliament behind the scenes, negotiating on others’ behalf and making influential friends in finance, including outgoing premier Mario Draghi.
The 55-year-old career politician was not, however, the first choice for a job that, despite having served as industry minister in Draghi’s outgoing government, he told Reuters he wasn’t sure he was capable of doing.
Prime Minister-designate Giorgia Meloni, who will govern at the head of a potentially fractious coalition of right-wing parties, wanted a technocrat and offered the post to European Central Bank board member Fabio Panetta, political sources said, but he turned her down.
Tim Jones, euro zone analyst for market consultancy firm Medley Advisors, said “long-time League fixer” Giorgetti was a better fit.
“Initially, parts of the market may recoil at the League badge, but after 20 years of failure under mostly technocratic economy ministers, it’s well past time for a politician to give it a go,” Jones said.
Giorgetti inherits a chronically weak economy that the Treasury says is in recession, hit by record-high inflation and surging energy costs.
He may lack Panetta’s economic training, but he brings other assets to the job. As lower house budget committee head for 10 years between 2001-2013, Giorgetti has learned Rome’s legislative processes inside out, and his renowned networking skills extend from politics through business to Italy’s powerful Roman Catholic church, say politicians who know him well.
“He has managed to build relations in sectors where the League was viewed with suspicion and where he has acquired a lot of credibility,” said League lawmaker Andrea Crippa.
Giorgetti tends to communicate in gruff monosyllables and unlike his recent predecessors in the role, he speaks little English. He is known for playing down his own importance and for giving little away.
Last week, hours before Meloni backed him to be economy minister, he told Reuters: “If you’re asked to do something you reflect and ask yourself if you’d be able to do it. I don’t know if I’d be able to be economy minister.”
Against the grim economic backdrop, he will have to try to keep the right-wing coalition’s tax-cutting promises without pushing up Italy’s huge public debt worth around 150% of national output.
While Giorgetti’s admirers highlight his mediating skills, experience and contacts, his detractors – including some inside the League – say he lacks political convictions and could operate just as well in any other party.
With Italy embroiled in a mounting debt crisis in 2011 Draghi, then European Central Bank head, enlisted Giorgetti’s help to ensure parliament frontloaded spending cuts and added a balanced budget requirement to the constitution.
The two have stayed close and Giorgetti – in the face of Salvini’s opposition – backed Draghi’s unsuccessful bid in January to become president.
As industry minister, he helped block a number of Chinese takeover bids in strategic sectors of Italy’s economy.
POST-FASCIST TO NORTHERN LEAGUE
Born in a village near the Swiss border, Giorgetti studied business economics and trained as an accountant. In the 1980s he joined the youth arm of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement, something he has in common with Meloni.
In the mid-1990s he switched to the Northern League – the precursor of today’s League – and headed its operations in the Lombardy region from 2002 and 2012.
He kept a senior role when party founder Umberto Bossi was ousted by Roberto Maroni in 2012 and again when Salvini replaced Maroni a year later and turned the League into a more national, anti-immigrant party, dropping “Northern” from its name.
A member of the old Lombard League who has known Giorgetti for more than a decade says he has always played for himself.
“He backed Maroni when he got rid of Bossi, he backed Salvini when he got rid of Maroni and then he backed Draghi who undermined Salvini,” said the source, asking not to be named.
Tellingly, when Meloni proposed Giorgetti as economy minister, Salvini said he should be counted as an external figure, rather than part of the League’s quota of ministers, a party source said.
A supporter of unashamedly unglamorous English soccer team Southampton, Giorgetti likes to use sporting analogies to sum up his behind-the-scenes political style.
“Since everyone wants to be a striker and score goals, people are needed to stay behind in midfield and that’s what I’m good at,” he told weekly news magazine Panorama in 2018.
Now, as the most important minister in Meloni’s cabinet, Giorgetti will have to score some goals of his own.
(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante, Giuseppe Fonte, Giselda Vagnoni and Emilio Parodi; editing by John Stonestreet)