When the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) meet in Canada next week, they’ll gather in Charlevoix in the heart of the Quebec countryside. It’ll be a perfect opportunity for the world leaders to get to know the new guy in the club, Giuseppe Conte, who is the nominee now to be Italy’s prime minister after the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Italian League reached a deal to form a coalition government nearly two months after a general election there.
Charlevoix is located what is a depression from a asteroid that hit Earth many millions of years ago, leaving a crater some 50 kilometres wide. It’s on the banks of the St Lawrence River, and if the G7 leaders are lucky, they might get a chance to see a whale or two swimming by.
It’s a favourite fishing spot too for angers of all sorts. Funny thing about fishermen — they all tend to stretch the truth when it comes to the size of the ones that got away. And Conte knows how that feels right now. He’s on the hook for having possibly committed a little bit of nose-stretching when it came to his curriculum vitae, and whether he “refined” his jurist education at New York University, despite there being no record of him studying there.
As it stands now, Luigi Di Maio, the leader of M5S, the largest party in Italy’s parliament following the March 4 election, and League leader Matteo Salvini are standing by their political neophyte choice to be the nation’s next prime minister. Both Salvini and Di Maio had agreed to remove themselves from the running to allow the stalling coalition talks to progress, hence Conte being picked from political obscurity.
Since the election, where no side won enough seats to be able to form a government — the constitutional bar in Italy is high, with any party of coalition needing to have a majority in both the lower Chamber of Deputies and the upper Senate of the Republic houses — the political horse trading has been thick and fast. The fear now though is that thick and fast politics might also equate to fast and loose. President Sergio Mattarella has the powers to accept or reject the choice of leader, but he now seems to be satisfied that the fudging of Conte’s 12-page résumé did not warrant him being eliminated from the running.
President Mattarella approved the coalition plan in principle on Wednesday. He is, however, believed to have concerns about the new coalition’s choice of Minister for Finance — the 82-year-old Euro-sceptic Paolo Savona. With Italy having the European Union’s second-highest debt rating — for every €1 in the Italian economy, €1.34 is owed to creditors — all the parties in the recent election campaigned on getting some form of financial relief or rule changes to the EU fiscal contract that governments fiscal and budgetary rules. Simply put, the president isn’t convinced that the man who is two years Mattarella’s senior isn’t one to wrangle concessions from Brussels, the European Central Bank or the Eurozone. And it hasn’t helped the proposed finance minister’s case that he believes joining the euro club was a mistake either.
CV reads like a novella
Résumé writing in Italy isn’t a concise — nor precise — science. At 12 pages, Conte’s reads like a novella. Corporate headhunters and careers experts will tell you to cut any résumé down to two pages’ maximum which, if anything, suggests that Conte wasn’t looking for the job in the first instance. But he certainly does look the part — and after Wednesday’s events, it’s virtually his now anyway.
He’s a 54-year-old civil law professor with a taste for cufflinks and white pocket kerchiefs. And his long CV lists working for Roman law firms and mingling with top-ranking cardinals from the Vatican. Clearly, with no political base or government experience, his best quality might be that of being able to read and follow the briefs presented to him by both Di Maio and Salvini in delivering the coalition’s agenda in the coming months.
So how serious was Conte’s nose-stretching?
New York University (NYU) says Conte had no official status there but was granted permission to conduct research in its law library between 2008 and 2014. As any student will all too readily tell you, visiting a library for research is one thing, being a graduate is another. He did, however, invite an NYU law professor to sit on the board of an Italian legal publication.
As well as the NYU claim, Conte stated in his résumé that he had enhanced his legal studies at Yale University in New Haven, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, the Sorbonne in Paris and Cambridge University in the UK. Citing confidentiality rules, Cambridge said it could not immediately confirm or deny whether Conte had attended the university.
A university source later told Reuters they had not found any trace of a visit, but said the professor might have attended a course prepared by a third party.
The International Kultur Institut in Vienna is also named on the résumé. Conte said he had worked on his legal studies there, but the Kultur Institut is a language school, according to an online profile.
It is not the only controversy to emerge about Conte. News reports have highlighted his involvement in a case involving a now discredited medical treatment invented by Davide Vannoni, a former professor who in 2015 was convicted of conspiracy and fraud for administering unproven stem cell treatments to patients at his Stamina Foundation.
The Italian government banned testing for the method in 2014 despite intense pressure from pro-Stamina activists, among them Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded M5S.
But despite the affair and when Conte makes it to the G7 Quebec meeting, he will at least be in good — and similar — company.
— With inputs from agencies