ROME — In a move described as “revolutionary” by one Italian lawmaker, Parliament is set to hand itself powers to veto any defense acquisitions proposed by Italy’s military commanders.
The power of veto, which is included in an armed forces reform bill passing through Parliament, has cross-party backing as well as the support of the Italian government and is likely to become law before general elections expected next spring.
“This measure is revolutionary because it puts Parliament at the center of the debate,” said Gian Piero Scanu, the center-left senator from the Democratic Party who helped formulate the measure.
Hitherto, all new defense procurement plans had been forwarded to the defense commissions of the lower house and the Senate in the Italian Parliament. But due to vaguely worded legislation currently in force, the opinion handed down by the commissions is not binding.
“If the opinion is contrary, the government can simply ignore it,” Scanu said. “The commissions have been a fig leaf; they meant little. Now, Parliament will have the last word.”
The measure was inserted last month into the bill as it underwent approval in the Senate’s defense commission before being approved by the Senate. The bill then moved to the defense commission of the lower house last week for discussion before it moves to the lower house. If no further amendments are made, the lower house will be able to vote it into law.
The bulk of the bill would implement plans for the overhaul and downsizing of the Italian military announced earlier this year by Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola. That involves reducing military real estate in Italy by 30 percent.
Addressing the lower house’s defense commission last week, Di Paola said Italy is facing up with “realism and foresightedness” to “the challenges of the changes in the economic situation.”
Regarding the planned parliamentary veto powers, he said the measure “will allow Parliament to act as a controlling mechanism in a more responsible and penetrating way.”
The bill allows the defense commissions 40 days to reject a procurement plan after it is submitted to Parliament. If plans are rejected by a majority vote, the Ministry of Defense can then rewrite the plans, and the commissions then have 30 days before accepting or rejecting them.
Edmondo Cirielli, a member of Parliament for the center-right Freedom People Party and the chairman of the defense commission in the lower house, said the new measure would “notably reinforce Parliament’s power to inform and control, granting a real veto power, which will be expressed by majority vote decisions.”
Under the planned law, the commissions also would have the power to oversee procurement programs during their implementation, as well as before they get underway.
“The commissions should now become more like the defense committees in Congress in the U.S.,” Scanu said.
After years in which defense spending in Italy provoked little public debate, the spotlight fell on it this year, as the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti chopped government spending across the board while hiking taxes to bring down Italy’s budget deficit.
Italy’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter acquisition program, which became a lightning rod for protest against defense spending, was cut back this year from 131 to 90 aircraft.
“The JSF question provoked calls for disarmament,” Scanu said. “With the new veto measure, we want to exert an ethical control over procurement without caving in to calls for disarmament.”
A second political source said the veto would help, not hinder, procurement. “In the case of the JSF, if Parliament gives just a nonbinding opinion, you may expect objections to arise later in Parliament. But not if Parliament has already been handed the responsibility to give a final signoff.”
The bill also will require the Italian Ministry of Defense to provide more information in the annual update it provides Parliament on how it is spending its money.
”Parliament has never been told what the real defense budget is, but we now aim to see … spending included in the budget document,” Scanu said.