ROME (Reuters) - Steelmaker ArcelorMittal has agreed to immediately restart talks with the Italian government over the future of the Ilva plant, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said after a four-hour meeting with the company.
Rome and ArcelorMittal are on the brink of a legal battle as the latter tries to walk away from a 2018 deal to buy the steel plant in the southern city of Taranto, which directly employs around 8,200 workers in one of Italy’s least prosperous areas.
India-based ArcelorMittal has blamed its threatened exit on the Italian government’s move to scrap a guarantee of legal immunity from prosecution over environmental risks while it carried out the clean-up at Ilva’s heavily polluted site.
Conte said ArcelorMittal executives were available to start talks to decide on a new shared future for Ilva, Europe’s biggest steel plant.
“The aim ... is to get to a new industrial plan, with new production solutions and new ecological technologies allowing the highest effort in cleaning up the environment,” Conte said late on Friday.
His comments came after a meeting in Rome with ArcelorMittal Chairman and Chief Executive Lakshmi Mittal, and his son Aditya Mittal, the group’s chief financial officer and CEO of ArcelorMittal Europe.
ArcelorMittal said on Saturday the meeting was constructive. “Talks will continue with the aim of reaching an agreement as soon as possible for sustainable steel production in Taranto,” it said in a statement.
Italy’s Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said the meeting had created the right conditions for a positive outcome at Ilva and for an investment plan which combines industrial development and environmental safeguards.
“The situation is back on positive tracks,” Gualtieri said, adding he did not want to sound over-optimistic but thought it was possible not to end up in court and settle the Ilva crisis with the company’s relaunch and ArcelorMittal still involved.
To facilitate the talks, the government will ask for the postponement of a court hearing scheduled for Nov. 27 over an appeal filed by Rome to try to stop ArcelorMittal’s planned decision to shut Ilva.
“We’re ready to allow this postponement under the condition that ArcelorMittal agrees to keep the plant working and production flowing during talks,” Conte said.
According to trade unions, ArcelorMittal was ready to hand over the plant to state-appointed administrators on Dec. 4 and had begun winding down operations ahead of turning off blast furnaces and production lines.
However, earlier this week ArcelorMittal said it would halt the planned shutdown pending the court ruling.
Conte said legal immunity was not discussed at the meeting but opened up the possibility that the state could play a direct role in Ilva, given its importance for the wider Italian economy.
Rome is also ready to adopt measures to support Ilva’s workers, Conte said, adding that the highest levels of employment must be preserved.
Reporting by Angelo Amante; Aditional reporting by Giulio Piovaccari; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and David Holmes