UPDATE 2-Italy joins Europe’s austerity club with deep cuts

* Cabinet approves cuts worth 24 billion euros

* Union leader says cuts are “unfair”, hitting the poor

* Berlusconi to detail measures on Wednesday

(Updates with cabinet approval, reaction, analysts)

By Daniel Flynn

ROME, May 25 (BestGrowthStock) – Italy joined Europe’s austerity
club on Tuesday with 24 billion euros of deficit-reducing cuts
that target public workers and local government and could hit
the popularity of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The measures were approved by the cabinet late on Tuesday
but some technical details still had to be finalised. Berlusconi
and Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti will present a definitive
version of the plan on Wednesday.

As well as cutting hiring and freezing salaries in the state
sector, it delays retirement and cuts funds to local government.

“This will be tough, with heavy sacrifices,” said Gianni
Letta, cabinet undersecretary and Berlusconi’s right-hand man,
before the measures were approved.

A brief statement from the prime minister’s office after the
cabinet meeting confirmed the overall 24 billion-euro deficit
cut and measures such as the delay in retirement, the state
salary freeze and cuts to the pay of high public sector earners.

Rome joins Greece, Spain and Portugal in enacting programmes
to slash budget deficits with the aim of restoring investors’
confidence following approval of a $1 trillion EU safety net
aimed at stopping contagion from Greece’s debt crisis.

Though Italy kept its budget deficit down to 5.3 percent of
GDP last year — well below the EU average — the budget aims to
slash it to 2.7 percent by 2012.

After months of telling Italians the country’s finances were
immune to a Greek-style crisis, Berlusconi risks a public
backlash over the measures, which come as polls show his
popularity is already flagging.

Guglielmo Epifani, the leader of Italy’s largest union, the
CGIL, said he was waiting to see the final version of the
measures but said the thrust of the cuts was “unfair”.

“We’ve already helped the banks so we’re now paying twice
for what the financial speculators have done,” he said. “If I’m
a FIAT worker I pay, if I’m a civil servant I pay even more, but
if I’m wealthy I don’t pay a cent and I don’t think I can agree
with that.”

LATE NIGHT TALKS

Berlusconi held late-night talks after the cabinet meeting
with Tremonti and leaders of his ruling centre-right coalition,
including the head of the pro-autonomy Northern League party,
Umberto Bossi.

“Berlusconi has a very uphill job now because what he has
done so far is spread the message that everything is fine,” said
James Walston, politics professor at the American University of
Rome.

“The economic problems undermine the government and make it
greyer, but I still don’t see it in danger of falling in the
near term.”

In a clear effort to at least give the appearance the
sacrifices will be spread evenly, as President Giorgio
Napolitano has urged, the measures will include cuts in salaries
of ministers, parliamentarians and senior state-sector managers.

However, regional and local governments will be pressed to
contribute some 13 billion euros of spending cuts in 2011-2012,
sources said, almost inevitably affecting schools and hospitals.
Busy arteries such as Rome’s ring road may become toll roads.

With figures on Tuesday already showing consumer confidence
slumping to its lowest level in a year amid concern over the
austerity package and the euro zone crisis, commentators warned
extreme fiscal tightening could cause lasting economic damage.

“If Italy doesn’t grow and Europe doesn’t grow, we might
tidy up public finances but we’re condemning future generations
to 15 years of wasteland,” said Gianni Riotta, editor of Italy’s
biggest selling financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore.

The cuts, worth around 1.6 percent of Italian GDP, are aimed
at ensuring the deficit falls below the EU’s 3 percent ceiling.
But with unemployment already running at over 8 percent —
and much higher among the young and in the country’s depressed
south — many ordinary people expressed concern and weariness
after more than a decade of economic stagnation.

“They cut, cut, cut and then what? I don’t know, I don’t
know what will happen,” said Giovanni Fulvio, a shopper at a
northern Italian market.

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(Writing by Philip Pullella and Daniel Flynn; additional
reporting by Gavin Jones, Daniel Flynn, Silvia Aloisi, Francesca
Piscioneri, Giuseppe Fonte, and Antonio Denti; editing by Andrew
Roche)

UPDATE 2-Italy joins Europe’s austerity club with deep cuts