Italian motorists are facing up to two days of disruption after 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 right-wing 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 “bad behaviour” by some pump owners.
However, operators have been incensed by what they call an 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.
“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.”
Signs posted at closed fuel pumps on Wednesday said the businesses were shut in “protest against the shameful, defamatory campaign”, complaining they had been “covered in mud” after the expiry of the temporary tax cut.
Days of negotiations between the government and fuel pump owners’ associations failed to avert the strike, although it was unclear how long the shutdown would last, as talks to persuade the pump owners to end their protest were scheduled to take place later on Wednesday.
However, Meloni on Monday 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 as higher prices hit consumers, the government’s diminishing fiscal room for manoeuvre led it to deflect blame on to pump owners, analysts said.
“It seems to me that she has miscalculated and this was a very big mistake,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a professor of politics at the UK’s University of Surrey. “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.”
The strike began at 7pm on Tuesday, and while some stations are expected to reopen on Wednesday evening, others have said they will remain closed for 48 hours. Fuel pump owners’ associations were meeting MPs on Wednesday, and were expected to meet cabinet members for further discussions.