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Italian politicians called on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen not to interfere in domestic politics after she warned that Europe has tools to fight Italy if things go in a difficult direction, Politico reported.

During a conference Thursday at Princeton University, one participant pointed out to von der Leyen that figures close to Putin were among the candidates in Sunday's upcoming Italian legislative elections. “We’ll see,” she replied. “If things go in a difficult direction — and I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland — we have the tools.”

It's a blatant hint at the European Commission's ability to cut funds to member countries if it deems they violate the rule of law. Last week, the Commission proposed cutting €7.5 billion in funds allocated to Hungary.

Von der Leyen's remarks came just a day before the Italian election campaign went quiet over the weekend and drew the ire of many candidates.

“What is this, a threat? This is shameful arrogance,” tweeted Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party. He asked von der Leyen to “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people.”

He also said that “if anyone in Brussels thinks of cutting the funds that belong to Italy, because the League wins the elections, then we have to rethink this Europe,” adding that “this is institutional bullying.”

Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU's Next Generation fund, a package of grants and loans to solve economic problems after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even Matteo Renzi, the EU-friendly liberal leader of the Italia Viva party, asked von der Leyen not to interfere in Italian affairs.

MEPs Marco Zanni and Marco Campomenosi also lashed out at the head of the European Commission.

Senator Stefano Candiani said von der Leyen's words were disturbing and, above all, dangerous. This is real and actual interference from abroad to condition the vote in Italy, he noted.

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