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Italy's Salvini angers Conte by muscling into budget debate


By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini met leading economic players on Monday to discuss the forthcoming 2020 budget, angering Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who accused him of trespassing onto his own political territory.

Salvini, who also serves as interior minister and is head of the far-right League, sat down with union chiefs and business leaders in his office to layout the possible priorities of the budget which has to be approved by the end of the year.

Such a meeting is traditionally organized by the prime minister and Conte staged an unusual, impromptu news conference outside his official residence to voice his anger.

"...This is not right at all. Institutionally, this is not correct," said Conte, whose relations with Salvini have grown increasingly peevish in recent months.

Salvini is under fire on the domestic front because of allegations his party sought illegal funding from Russia. He has denied the charges, but with the controversy rumbling on, he sought on Monday to switch the focus onto his economic plans.

"I want to give our country a much quicker budget than before. October, November, December no. Rather we will work in July and throughout August," he told reporters.

His efforts to set a new timetable for the most sensitive piece of legislation the government has to draw up, also clearly irked Conte, a law professor who has no party affiliation and was new to politics when he became premier last year.

"The budget is done here by the prime minister and the economy minister, with all the relevant ministers. It is not done elsewhere. It is not done today and it is not up to others to decide the timetable," he said.

Salvini is looking to slash taxes next year, saying this is the best way to boost Italy's perennially underperforming economy, which is forecast to expand by just 0.2 percent in 2019, the lowest growth rate in the 28-nation European Union.

However, the government looks likely to face fierce resistance from the European Union if it tries to finance the cuts with public borrowing and the League's coalition partner the 5-Star Movement is unlikely to give Salvini a blank check.

"We want a budget based on 'yes'," Salvini said in an apparent warning to 5-Star. "Any type of block will not be accepted."

In a clear snub toward his government allies, Salvini was flanked in Monday's meeting by League stalwart Armando Siri, who was thrown out of the government by Conte in May after he was engulfed in a corruption scandal.

"If this was a party meeting, then Siri's presence is fine. If this was a government meeting, then the presence of Siri was not good," Conte said.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante, Editing by William Maclean)

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