Former Italian Premier Matteo Renzi is testing his already low popularity by provoking a political crisis that could bring down Italy’s coalition government at a critical juncture in the coronavirus pandemic.
Renzi orchestrated the resignations of two ministers from his tiny but key Italia Viva party. The outcome of his power play will become clearer this week, when Premier Giuseppe Conte addresses both houses of Parliament. If Conte makes a successful bid for support, he could go on to form what would be his third coalition government since Italy’s 2018 election.
This is not Renzi’s first foray as an iconoclast shaking up Italian politics. He became premier in 2014 by out-maneuvering and unceremoniously deposing then-fellow Democratic Party member Enrico Letta as Italy’s leader. Renzi himself fell from power nearly three years later after gambling his popularity on a constitutional referendum that failed.
Now, the 46-year-old former Florence mayor might bring down Conte. He broadly accuses the premier of not properly managing the coronavirus crisis. Renzi says he is only following his conscience, at great political cost.
“Italia Viva did not start the crisis. It has been going on for months,” he asserted during a press conference last week.
Renzi, a senator for the Italia Viva party, supported Conte during an earlier, failed power grab by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party that was part of Conte’s first government.
New polls show junior coalition partner Italia Viva has the support of just 2.4% of survey respondents, down from a high of 6.2% at the party’s inception. Italia Viva was created in September 2019 when Renzi bolted the Democratic Party he once ran. He brought with him two Cabinet members, giving himself the kind of leverage he employed last week.
With the resignation of the Italia Viva ministers, Conte is working to shore up support in parliament among independent lawmakers. He still has the backing of the Democratic Party and the 5-Star Movement, which have criticized Renzi’s move as irresponsible.
Conte will make his case in the lower house on Monday and to the Senate on Tuesday. A voice vote will take place after each appearance, tantamount to a vote of confidence.
If he fails to secure enough backing, Conte would likely submit his resignation to Italian President Sergio Mattarella. In that case, a technical government could be put in place. Analysts believe an early election is the least likely outcome, due to the difficulty of holding a political campaign and election during the pandemic. There are also concerns that the right-wing opposition would gain strength, and possible lead a new government. The current majority would like to hold on at least until January 2022, when a new president must be chosen.
Conte may survive to lead what would be his third government by cobbling together enough support in both houses. And it is still possible that Italia Viva will restore its backing.
Italy expects to have 222 billion euros ($268 billion) in European Union economic recovery funds to manage, money that is crucial to modernizing the country and its limping economy.
While Conte had wide support during Italy’s devastating go-round with the coronavirus in the first half of 2020, cracks in his popularity have appeared during the even more deadly fall resurgence. Four months into the government’s system of tiered restrictions, new confirmed daily infections remain stubbornly high, and Italy’s pandemic death toll of 81,800 is the second-highest in Europe after Britain.
Conte’s government also is under fire for not keeping high schools open during the pandemic, a decision mostly tied to inadequate transportation to allow for social distancing. And there are concerns that Italy does not have enough medical personnel to carry out the country’s vaccination campaign.
But the crisis was ultimately spurred when Conte presented a plan that would have put himself in charge of managing the EU recovery funds. Political analyst Wolfgang Piccoli called it “the ultimate mistake,” setting up Renzi’s move to reassert his own “prominence.”
Italians are showing little patience for the political infighting when the nation’s priority is getting the coronavirus pandemic under control and rolling out the vaccines that many hope will end the nation’s long coronavirus nightmare. In a new poll, 42% of Italians said they didn’t understand what provoked the latest government divisions.
US pharmaceutical company Pfizer confirmed Friday it will temporarily reduce deliveries to Europe of its COVID-19 vaccine while it upgrades production capacity to 2 billion doses per year.
“This temporary reduction will affect all European countries,” a spokeswoman for Pfizer Denmark said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Line Fedders said that to meet the new 2 billion dose target, Pfizer is upscaling production at its plant in Puurs, Belgium, which “presupposes adaptation of facilities and processes at the factory which requires new quality tests and approvals from the authorities.”
“As a consequence, fewer doses will be available for European countries at the end of January and the beginning of February,” she said.
Germany’s Health Ministry said Friday Pfizer had informed the European Commission, which was responsible for ordering vaccines from the company, that it won’t be able to fulfill all of the promised deliveries in the coming three to four weeks.
The ministry said German officials took note of the unexpected announcement by the Commission ” with regret” because the company had made binding delivery commitments by mid-February.
“The federal and state governments expect the EU Commission to provide clarity and certainty as soon as possible in negotiations with Pfizer about further deliveries and delivery dates,” the statement said.
The Commission sealed the vaccine deals on behalf of all 27 member states, but is not responsible for the timetable and deliveries.
Asked Friday whether Brussels has been informed by Pfizer about delays in the EU, Commission health policy spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker said all questions on production and production capacity should be directed to the company.
“The Commission stands ready to support and facilitate contacts between the company and member states whenever needed,” he said.
De Keersmaecker said deliveries are made on the basis of purchase orders and specific contracts that are concluded between the member states and the companies.
"The specificities of these arrangements are laid down in these purchase orders or contracts,” he said.
The Commission has secured up to 600 million extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine that's produced in partnership with Germany's BioNTech.
Norwegian authorities also said Friday they had been notified by Pfizer about the reduction that will start next week as the company raises its annual dose target from the current 1.3 billion.
“We had predicted 43,875 vaccine doses from Pfizer in week 3. Now it seems that we get 36,075 doses,” said Geir Bukholm, director of infection control at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
”The stock we now have will be able to compensate for a reduction in the planned deliveries for a few weeks ahead if there is a need for this,” he said.
In Finland, broadcaster YLE said the delay would cause domestic delivery problems at the end of January and the beginning of February.
“We expect that this will mean that in the coming time we can vaccinate fewer than first assumed,” said Henrik Ullum, head of Statens Serum Institut, a government agency that maps the spread of the coronavirus in Denmark.
As the wan winter sun sets over France's Champagne region, the countdown clock kicks in.
Laborers stop pruning the vines as the light fades at about 4:30 p.m., leaving them 90 minutes to come in from the cold, change out of their work clothes, hop in their cars and zoom home before a 6 p.m. coronavirus curfew.
Forget about any after-work socializing with friends, after-school clubs for children or doing any evening shopping beyond quick trips for essentials. Police on patrol demand valid reasons from people seen out and about. For those without them, the threat of mounting fines for curfew-breakers is increasingly making life outside of the weekends all work and no play.
“At 6 p.m., life stops,” says Champagne producer Alexandre Prat.
Trying to fend off the need for a third nationwide lockdown that would further dent Europe’s second-largest economy and put more jobs in danger, France is instead opting for creeping curfews. Big chunks of eastern France, including most of its regions that border Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, face 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. restrictions on movement.
The rest of France could quickly follow suit, losing two extra hours of liberty that have been just enough for residents to maintain bare-bones social lives.
Until a couple of weeks ago, the nightly curfew didn't kick in until 8 p.m. in Prat's region, the Marne. Customers still stopped to buy bottles of his family's bubbly wines on their way home, he said. But when the cut-off time was advanced to 6 p.m. to slow viral infections, the drinkers disappeared.
“Now we have no one," Prat said.
The village where retiree Jerome Brunault lives alone in the Burgundy wine region is also in one of the 6 p.m. curfew zones. The 67-year-old says his solitude weighs more heavily without the opportunity for early evening drinks, nibbles and chats with friends, the so-called “apero” get-togethers so beloved by the French that were hurried but still feasible when curfew started two hours later.
“With the 6 p.m. curfew, we cannot go to see friends for a drink anymore,” Brunault said. "I now spend my days not talking to anyone except for the baker and some people by phone.”
Imposing a 6 p.m. curfew nationwide is among options the French government is considering in response to rising infections and the spread of a particularly contagious virus variant that has swept across Britain, where new infections and virus deaths have soared.
Prime Minister Jean Castex could announce a curfew extension Thursday evening, as well as other restrictions, to fight the virus in a country that has seen over 69,000 confirmed virus deaths.
An earlier curfew combats virus transmission “precisely because it serves to limit social interactions that people can have at the end of the day, for example in private homes,” French government spokesman Gabriel Attal says.
Overnight curfews have become the norm in swaths of Europe but the 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew in 25 regions of eastern France is the most restrictive anywhere in the European Union's 27 nations. Others countries' curfews all start later and often finish earlier.
The curfew in Italy runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., as does the Friday night to Sunday morning curfew in Latvia. Regions of Belgium that speak French have a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew while in Belgium's Dutch-speaking region, the hours are midnight to 5 a.m.
People out between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. in Hungary must be able to show police written proof from their employers that they are either working or commuting.
There are no curfews in Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Sweden, Poland or the Netherlands, although the Dutch government is thinking about whether imposing a curfew would slow new COVID-19 cases.
In France, critics of the 6 p.m. curfew say the earlier time actually crams people together more after work, when they pile onto public transportation, clog roads and shop for groceries in a narrow rush-hour window before they must be home.
Women's rugby coach Felicie Guinot says negotiating rush-hour traffic in Marseille has become a nightmare. The city in southern France is among the places where the more contagious virus variant has started to flare.
“It's a scramble so everyone can be home by 6 p.m.,” Guinot said.
In historic Besançon, the fortressed city that was the hometown of “Les Misérables” author Victor Hugo, music store owner Jean-Charles Valley says the 6 p.m. deadline means people no longer drop by after work to play with the guitars and other instruments that he sells. Instead, they rush home.
“People are completely demoralized,” Valley said.
In Dijon, the French city known for its pungent mustard, working mother of two Celine Bourdin says her life has narrowed to “dropping kids at school and going to work, then going back home, helping kids with homework and preparing dinner.”
But even that cycle is better than a repeat of France's lockdown at the start of the pandemic, when schools also closed, Bourdin says.
“If my children don’t go to school, it means I cannot work anymore," she said. "It was terribly difficult to be all stuck almost 24 hours a day in the house.”
The European Medicines Agency said Tuesday that AstraZeneca and Oxford University have submitted an application for their COVID-19 vaccine to be licensed across the European Union.
The EU regulator said it received a request for the vaccine to be green-lighted under an expedited process and that it could be approved by Jan. 29 “provided that the data submitted on the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete.”
The EMA, the drugs agency for the 27-nation EU, has already approved two other coronavirus vaccines, one made by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech and another made by U.S. biotechnology company Moderna. Switzerland approved the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday and plans to immunize about 4% of its population using that and the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.
Britain gave its approval to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine last month and has been using it. India approved it this month.
As part of its strategy to obtain as many different COVID-19 vaccines as possible for Europeans, the EU said it had concluded early talks with French biotech company Valneva to secure up to 60 million doses of vaccine.
Valneva previously signed a deal with Britain to provide tens of millions of doses of its shot, which is developed using similar technology to that used to make flu vaccines. The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for up to 2 billion doses, many more than are necessary to cover its population of approximately 450 million.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be a key vaccine for many countries because of its low cost, availability and ease of use. It can be kept in refrigerators rather than the ultra-cold storage that the Pfizer vaccine requires. The company has said it will sell it for $2.50 a dose and plans to make up to 3 billion doses by the end of 2021.
Researchers claim the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine protected against disease in 62% of those given two full doses and in 90% of those initially given a half dose because of a manufacturing error. However, the second group included only 2,741 people -- too few to be conclusive.
Questions also remain about how well the vaccine protects older people. Only 12% of study participants were over 55 and they were enrolled later, so there hasn’t been enough time to see whether they develop infections at a lower rate than those not given the vaccine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it will not consider approving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine until data are available from late state research testing the shot in about 30,000 people.
A persistent blizzard has blanketed large parts of Spain with 50-year record levels of snow, killing at least four people and leaving thousands trapped in cars or in train stations and airports that had suspended all services as the snow kept falling on Saturday.
The bodies of a man and woman were recovered by the Andalucía region emergency service after their car was washed away by a flooded river near the town of Fuengirola. The Interior Ministry said a 54-year-old man was also found dead in Madrid under a big pile of snow. A homeless man died of hypothermia in the northern city of Zaragoza, the local police department reported.
More than half of Spain’s provinces remained on alert Saturday afternoon, five of them on their highest level of warning, for Storm Filomena. In the capital, authorities activated the red alert for the first time since the system was adopted four decades ago and called in the military to rescue people from vehicles trapped on everything from small roads to the city’s major thoroughfares.
More than 50 centimeters (20 inches) of snow fell in the capital. By 7 a.m. on Saturday, the AEMET national weather agency had recorded the highest 24-hour snowfall seen since 1971 in Madrid.
Sandra Morena, who became trapped late on Friday as she commuted to her night shift as a security guard in a shopping center, arrived home, on foot, after an army emergency unit helped her out on Saturday morning.
“It usually takes me 15 minutes but this time it has been 12 hours freezing, without food or water, crying with other people because we didn’t know how we were going to get out of there,” said Morena, 22.
“Snow can be very beautiful but spending the night trapped in a car because of it is no fun,” she added.
AEMET had warned that some regions would be receiving more than 24 hours of continuous snowfall due to the odd combination of a cold air mass stagnant over the Iberian Peninsula and the arrival of the warmer Storm Filomena from the south.
The storm is expected to move northeast throughout Saturday but it is expected to be followed by a cold snap, the agency said.
Transport Minster José Luis Ábalos warned that “snow is going to turn into ice and we will enter a situation perhaps more dangerous than what we have at the moment.”
He added that the priority was to assist those in need but also to ensure the supply chain for food and other basic goods.
“The storm has exceeded the most pessimistic forecasts we had,” Ábalos added.
Carlos Novillo, head of the Madrid emergency agency, said that more than 1,000 vehicles had become trapped, mostly on the city’s ring road and the main motorway that leads from the capital to the south, toward the Castilla La Mancha and Andalucia regions.
“The situation remains of high risk. This is a very complex phenomenon and a critical situation,” Novillo said Saturday morning in a message posted on social media.
“We ask all those who remain trapped to be patient, we will get to you,” he added.
Airport operator AENA said that the Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas International Airport, the main gateway in and out of the country, would remain closed throughout the day after the blizzard bested machines and workers trying to keep the runways clear of snow.
All trains into and out of Madrid, both commuter routes and long-distance passenger trains, as well as railway lines between the south and the northeast of the country, were suspended, railway operator Renfe said.
The storm had caused serious disruptions or closed altogether over 650 roads by Saturday morning, according to Spain’s transit authorities, which urged people to stay indoors and avoid all non-essential travel.
The wintry weather even halted the country’s soccer league, with some of the La Liga top teams unable to travel for games. Saturday’s match between Spanish league leader Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao was postponed after the plane carrying Bilbao’s team on Friday was unable to land in the capital and had to turn around.
The regions of Castilla La Mancha and Madrid, home to 8.6 million people altogether, announced that schools would be closed at least on Monday and Tuesday.
Despite the numerous branches and even whole trees toppled by the weight of the snow, the blizzard also yielded surreal images that entertained many Madrileños, including a few brave skiers and a man on a dog sled that was seen on videos widely circulated on social media.
Lucía Vallés, a coach for a Madrid-based ski club who usually has to travel to faraway mountains with her clients, was thrilled to see the white layers of snow accumulating literally at her doorstep.
“I never imagined this, it has been a gift,” the 23-year-old said. “But I’ve never had so many photographs taken of me,” she added as she slid past the late 18th-century building that hosts the Prado Museum.