Premier Romano Prodi dismissed protests over Air France-KLM's bid for ailing national airline Alitalia, saying Thursday the government would choose between two bidders for the company based on business efficiency and Italy's national interests.
At a year-end news conference, Prodi said the government would decide by mid-January whether to sell its 49.9 percent stake in Alitalia to Air France or Italian airline Air One SpA.
Last week, the Alitalia board tipped Air France as its preferred bidder, sparking protests from officials in northern Italy who oppose its plan to make Rome the nation's only hub at the expense of Milan. Unions have also opposed the Air France plan, citing the failure to lay out plans for Alitalia's domestic routes.
Prodi was asked whether the protests, or calls to keep Alitalia in Italian hands, would be a factor in the government's decision and possibly compel it to reject the Alitalia board recommendation.
The premier said such criteria were not "elements of the decision."
"We must decide so that the company becomes efficient in the market, and I would say, also take into account the interests of the country," he said.
He criticized northern Italian businessmen for their protests, noting that the government had repeatedly asked them to step in to form consortiums to rescue Alitalia and they never came forward.
"We have two prospectives, only two hypotheses. We must choose the best," Prodi said. "I'm sorry, I won't take into account the protests, the interests of a few," he said. "Because Italy has already suffered too much regarding this sector."
The government has been trying to off-load the loss-making Alitalia since last December.
Calls for a quick decision came Thursday from Alitalia's chairman Maurizio Prato who was quoted as saying by the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore that current negotiations are "the very last resort" for the company.
"I hope that the decision, whatever it is, will be made quickly. We are in a key stage for Alitalia and I think this is the very last resort," Prato said. "There won't be any time for other attempts."
In other comments, Prodi said that Italy's 2007 deficit would settle at around 2 percent of gross domestic product, lower than previous government forecasts of about 2.4 percent of GDP.
In 2006, Italy's budget deficit rose to 4.4 percent of GDP, breaking the European Union's 3 percent of GDP cap for the fourth year in a row.
And Prodi announced that starting in 2008, solar panels would be installed on all public buildings that don't have historic, artistic or architectural value, starting with schools. Over the next three years, government offices will be converted so that only low-consumption lightbulbs are used and by 2011, such lightbulbs will be the only ones sold in Italy, he said, declaring 2008 a "green" year for the government.