By Giselda Vagnoni and Gabriele Pileri
ROME/GENOA (Reuters) – Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini threw some support behind motorway operator Atlantia on Friday after a government partner vowed to revoke its toll-road concession, highlighting growing divisions within the ruling coalition.
“(Atlantia) is a company that employs thousands of people, is listed on the stock exchange and has a turnover of dozens of billions of euros,” he told daily newspaper La Stampa.
“I want to be very careful before giving summary judgment,” he added.
Salvini’s comments follow criticism of the company on Thursday by his co-deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, who vowed to revoke Atlantia’s concession, saying the firm would lose market value and be “cooked” as a result.
Di Maio and his anti-establishment 5-Star party, which shares power with Salvini’s League party, has been pushing for the concession to be revoked since last August when a bridge on Atlantia’s network collapsed in Genoa, killing 43 people.
Di Maio accuses Atlantia of shoddy maintenance, which the company strongly denies. Top officials of Atlantia and the government’s transport safety watchdog are under investigation by prosecutors looking into the cause of the collapse.
Atlantia shares fell about 1.5 percent in early trading, with investors counting on the League to block 5-Star’s attempts to revoke the concession, worth 58 percent of group revenue.
Before Thursday’s comments by Di Maio, the stock had clawed back almost all of its losses since the collapse.
But a trader said on Friday that there were few buyers for the shares: “As long as there are doubts about the concession, you won’t buy this stock.”
Di Maio made his comments on Thursday in seeking to explain why Atlantia, controlled by the Benetton family, would be an undesirable partner for troubled flagship carrier Alitalia, which the government is trying to rescue.
He said Atlantia without its concession would be worth much less than today. The group has a market cap of almost 19 billion euros ($22 billion), according to Refinitiv data.
However, Salvini said the judicial process must be allowed to run its course before rushing to judgment on Atlantia.
Salvini’s party is rooted in the rich northern regions and runs the Veneto region which is home to Benetton’s headquarters.
He said he had nothing against Atlantia investing in Alitalia. The infrastructure group has never expressed interested in joining an Alitalia rescue, though there has been speculation it might do so in order to mend relations with Rome.
Last Tuesday the 5-Star and the League disagreed over the request presented by Di Maio to revoke the concession, with the League saying it would be folly to scrap the concession, according to a senior party source.
On Friday, Di Maio and Salvini were due to witness the demolition of the two remaining towers of the viaduct that collapsed in Genoa last August.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich and Silvia Aloisi)