Italian motorists endured a day of disruption when petrol station operators shut fuel pumps in protest at what they say is prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s attempt to blame them for rising fuel prices.
Italy’s rightwing government has accused pump owners of speculation and price gouging after motorists complained about high fuel prices, which rose once temporary fuel subsidies expired at the end of last year. The subsidies had helped shield motorists from soaring energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The government this month issued an order requiring stations to display average prices for petrol and diesel, alongside their own pump prices, which the prime minister said was needed to combat “wrong behaviour” by some pump owners.
However, operators were incensed by what they call the onerous demand — and the threat of fines if they fail to comply — and accused Meloni of trying to scapegoat them for a problem not of their own making. Days of negotiations failed to avert the strike, which started on Tuesday evening.
“The interest of pump owners is not to go on strike,” said Giuseppe Sperduto, president of the Federation of Autonomous Italian Pump Owners. “We don’t want to be labelled as speculators. We don’t decide the pump prices, which are imposed by the oil companies.”
However, a planned second day of action was called off on Wednesday after government officials held emergency meetings with fuel pump owners’ associations.
Analysts said the confrontation with the pump owners — and the inconvenience it caused consumers — was a setback to Meloni, as it would do little to burnish her image among Italian voters.
“It seems to me that she has miscalculated and this was a very big mistake,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at Surrey university in England. “It shows the instinct of the radical right to fight organisations and individuals they can blame for complex problems. But it has blown up in her face.”
Signs posted at closed fuel pumps on Wednesday said the businesses were shut in “protest against the shameful, defamatory campaign”, complaining that they had been “covered in mud” after the expiry of the temporary tax cut.
In calling off a second day of action, pump owners citied a desire to avoid further inconvenience to motorists. But they said they would continue to lobby against the new rule, now being reviewed by parliament.
Meloni on Monday had ruled out rescinding the requirement for the pump owners to display average prices. “We could not go back on a measure that is fair,” she said. “Publishing the average price is common sense.”
As global energy prices soared after Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Italy’s former prime minister Mario Draghi swiftly approved a temporary cut in fuel taxes, as the government sought to shield consumers in the eurozone’s third-largest economy from a price shock.
But with energy prices way off last year’s peaks — and Italy’s public finances under pressure from rising interest rates — Meloni’s new government opted not to extend the temporary subsidy once it expired.
While economists praised her prudence, the move was politically uncomfortable for Meloni, who had frequently complained about Italy’s high fuel taxes while in opposition, and vowed to slash them if she came to power.
But Albertazzi said that as higher prices hit consumers, the government’s diminishing fiscal room for manoeuvre led the government to deflect blame on to pump owners, prompting their furious response.
“This is also kind of a message that is being sent to the government [by petrol station operators] — don’t mess with us,” he said.
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