(Bloomberg) -- A potential takeover bid for Italy’s main highway operator is exposing the strains in Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s coalition as rival parties jostle for position before next year’s European elections.
After Bloomberg reported discussions of a possible €20 billion ($21 billion) offer for state-owned Autostrade per l’Italia SpA, Meloni’s team issued a statement denying that such a deal would have government backing.
Shortly afterward, officials working with Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister in charge of infrastructure, said their boss would support such an offer from an Italian construction magnate and he hoped the deal would materialize.
“If there is an investment plan worth dozens billion euros which is put together by an Italian healthy enterprise with international funds, than it’s good news,” Salvini than told reporters Tuesday, according to Ansa newswire.
The head-on collision between the two most powerful figures in the Italian government highlights the conflicting visions for the country that Meloni is trying to reconcile. It may prove to be a foretaste of more trouble up the road as Meloni and Salvini maneuver for advantage in the elections for the European Parliament.
Autostrade and its network of about 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) of Italian highways have been a political football ever since the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa killed 43 people in 2018. The backlash that followed that disaster ultimately forced the billionaire Benetton family to sell the company to a consortium led by the state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA.
For Salvini, who leads the traditionally pro-business group the League, seeing Autostrade return to private ownership while remaining in Italian hands is the sort of landmark deal that he could cite as a sign of his ability to fix Italian business.
Meloni, by contrast, leads the Brothers of Italy who have taken a more nakedly populist approach on many issues. Since the collapse of the bridge in Genoa, she has insisted that Autostrade’s network should remain under public control.
Closely held Fininc SpA, founded by 82-year-old Matterino Dogliani, is working with advisers on a potential bid for a controlling stake in the highway operator, Bloomberg reported Monday.
The media-shy Dogliani is teaming up with an international investment firm on a possible friendly offer of about €8 billion for Autostrade, according to people familiar with his thinking. Including debt, the deal could be valued at around €20 billion, making it one of the biggest merger-and-acquisition deals in Italy in the last decade.
Those conversations come just over a year after a group including Italian state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti SpA, along with Blackstone Inc. and Macquarie Group Ltd., completed the purchase of Autostrade from the Benettons. When that deal was completed, CDP agreed to a five-year lockup period for its investment, which could prove an obstacle to any new deal.
No final decisions have been made, and there’s no certainty the deliberations will lead to an offer, the people said.
Read More: Atlantia Backs Landmark Sale of Autostrade to Italy State Lender
Dogliani’s family founded Turin-based Fininc in the 1960s. The group, which is still wholly owned by the family, focuses mostly on toll-road construction across the world as well as civil engineering and industrial plants. It also has interests in a range of other industries from automation and cybersecurity to wine production.
(Updates with comment by Salvini in fourth paragraph.)
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