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Boom or bust as Spain, Italy get biggest slice of EU fund

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Spain and Italy will receive the lion's share of the 750-billion-euro EU rescue fund but opinions vary over whether it will help their economies roar back to life or go to waste.

In Rome, analysts are confident the funds will be put to good use in the plan outlined by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi whereas in Spain, the same issue raises many questions.

The two countries will receive almost half of the 750 billion euros ($900 billion) earmarked by Brussels to relaunch Europe's economies that have been devastated by the Covid-19 epidemic, funded through an unprecedented joint borrowing mechanism.

Italy will receive just over 191 billion euros in the form of grants and loans while Spain will get up to 140 billion.

"We are aware that the EU is staking its future on the successful use of these funds," said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Italian counterpart Mario Draghi had a similar message.

"We all have a responsibility to Europe's taxpayers who are funding our national plan," he said on Tuesday.

Both countries have put forward recovery plans that have been approved by Brussels and which pledge to invest the funds into the green transition, digitalisation and infrastructure projects.

But in Spain, there has been a lot of criticism.

Experts say the deep-seated problems within Spain's economy lie elsewhere: in job insecurity, youth unemployment, a fragile pension scheme and an education system in need of an overhaul.

"These funds have been oversold: it is not that much money, nor are they going to have a big impact on the economy," said Fernando Fernandez, an economist at the IE Business School.

The first payments are expected in July but the bulk of the funds for 2021 aren't likely to arrive until the end of the year when the economic recovery will already be under way.

- 'Simplistic optimism' -

Despite Sanchez's repeated claims that Spain's recovery plan includes 100 structural reforms, these are "marginal" in essence, said Toni Roldan, director of EsadeEcPol, which specialises in economic policy research.

"While they are certainly good enough to get the European Commission's green light, they are not enough to stimulate a real change in competitiveness in Spain."

Spain is planning to channel the investment into housing rehabilitation, electric cars and 5G.

"That's all well and good, but it only creates jobs in the short term, not in the long term," said Fernandez.

Critics also point to the lack of political consultation around the plan, which was put together by Sanchez and his economy minister with virtually no input from other political forces.

In Italy, however, experts have taken a completely different view.

Draghi, who is known as "Super Mario" for helping save the euro during the debt crisis, was called in earlier this year to help Italy implement a recovery plan that had sparked political tensions that brought down the previous government in January.

He has promised to reform Italy's stifling bureaucracy, its labyrinthine tax code and snail-paced justice system, as well as focusing on education, female employment and fighting climate change.

- Bureaucracy -

If Rome had previously been inefficient in its management of EU funds, Draghi's arrival could change that, experts say.

"Draghi's strong political commitment and leadership, coupled with the EU's generous grants and loans, may give Italy a better chance of implementing its plan than before," said Lorenzo Codogno, former head economist at the Italian treasury.

Since taking over, Draghi has appointed some 30 officials with special powers to revive 57 infrastructure projects that have been tangled up in Italy's legendary bureaucracy and issued a series of decrees to simplify and speed up procedures.

For Carlo Altomonte of Bocconi University in Milan, it's a step "in the right direction, to free up projects and get investments going".

The pressure on Rome is enormous, Altomonte noted.

"If the Italian plan were to fail, it would call into question the entire European common debt policy."

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