By Giuseppe Fonte and Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte threatened on Monday to resign, telling his two coalition partners to end their constant feuding or seek new elections.
Conte, an academic with no political support base, called a news conference to make the extraordinary ultimatum after months of bickering inside his year-old coalition of right-wing populists and anti-establishment lawmakers.
“I’m not here just to scrape by or drift,” Conte told reporters at his official residence. “If they do not clearly assume their responsibilities…then I will resign.”
The leaders of both the League and 5-Star Movement, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio respectively, swiftly issued statements reaffirming their commitment to the government, while denying that they were to blame for the political turmoil.
The two parties have been squabbling over everything from major infrastructure projects and immigration to the historical significance of national holidays and who was to blame for a cruise ship accident in Venice at the weekend.
The feud has intensified since European parliamentary elections last month in which the League won 34 percent of the vote, leap-frogging above 5-Star and fuelling speculation that Salvini could ditch his struggling coalition partner.
Salvini took to Twitter even as Conte was talking, saying he wanted to carry on. “We are ready, we want to move forward and don’t have any time to lose. The League is in,” he tweeted.
Di Maio responded shortly afterwards, saying he was ready for a government meeting as early as Tuesday to discuss issues such as tax cuts dear to the League and the introduction of a minimum wage, which 5-Star wants.
“This is the only government possible which can best serve the nation,” he wrote on Facebook.
Conte told reporters his cabinet faced a complex 2020 budget and said Italy needed the confidence of financial markets.
During the recent government infighting, investors sold off Italian bonds, raising fears for Rome’s ability to manage its enormous public debt of around 2.3 trillion euros (2 trillion pounds).
“We must not let sterile controversies and pointless arguments waste our precious energy or distract from government objectives,” Conte said.
Italy faces the possibility of European Union disciplinary procedures this week for a breach of EU fiscal rules, which Salvini says are outdated and harmful to the Italian economy.
Conte said any EU sanctions would be very harmful, adding that the government had to abide by EU budget rules until such time as they could be changed. Repeated sniping from within coalition ranks only undermined his position, he said.
“All problems, even the thorniest, can be tackled, but a climate of cooperation and mutual help is needed. Without this, it is difficult to face such delicate challenges.”
Since the EU election, Salvini has demanded swingeing tax cuts for Italy and dismissed EU calls for fiscal discipline.
Italian media reported on Monday that if Conte could not restore order to his government, President Sergio Mattarella would probably dissolve parliament in July and set a new election for September.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, Giselda Vagnoni and Angelo Amante; Editing by Mark Heinrich)