AP Interview: Italy wants to shift but stay in EU's orbit

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Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio listens to questions during an interview with The Associated Press in his studio in Rome, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2019. Di Maio says there is no risk his country will leave the European Union but is calling for reforms to give more weight to European lawmakers since they are directly elected by citizens. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

ROME – Italy is not looking to leave the European Union but wants reforms that would shift the Britain-less bloc's “center of gravity” away from bureaucratic institutions in Brussels to elected bodies like the European Parliament, the country's populist foreign minister said Tuesday.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio also expressed incredulity that an increasing percentage of Italians are Holocaust deniers, as indicated by a recent survey.

Di Maio, 33, a leader of the populist 5-Star Movement that has had a role in governing Italy since mid-2018, deplored the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in his country and described Holocaust deniers as an “enormous problem."

His Movement, which has taken stances that lean toward the euroskeptic, became the largest force in the Italian Parliament two years ago. But since then, it slumped badly in the EU parliament election and in regional elections and opinion polls in Italy.

Asked about the potential power of populists to pull more member nations out of the EU now that the U.K. has departed, Di Maio defended the 5-Stars' brand of populism.

“In some way we have tried to intercept the anger of the people," he said, adding that populists haven't “fueled hatred.”

While populist politicians fill a large swath of Italy's legislature, Di Maio dismissed the idea of them creating the momentum to drag one of the European Union's founding nations out of the economic bloc. Italy also is one of the EU countries that use the euro as the official currency.

"There is no risk of an ‘Italexit’ because there's no (political) group in Parliament that has dangled that possibility,'' he said.