By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, Italy's most popular political party, said on Thursday a referendum on the euro was not its top priority and that it hoped Europe would reform before a ballot could be arranged.
Benefiting from a schism in the ruling Democratic Party, opinion polls suggest 5-Star is likely to win 2018 elections and its policies are coming under increasing scrutiny, especially a plan for a euro referendum which scares financial markets.
Lower house deputy Luigi Di Maio, 30, who is widely expected to be 5-Star's candidate for prime minister, told foreign reporters the euro referendum would take time to organize, and tackling poverty in Italy was more urgent.
"In the meantime we hope that European institutions come to their senses," he said at a news conference to present 5-Star's policies on the European Union.
"It's not true that 5-Star wants to take Italy out of the euro," he said. "We want Italians to decide."
Opinion polls show Italians' sentiment toward the euro has soured in recent years, but most still suggest that a majority would vote to remain in the euro zone if a referendum were held today.
Di Maio said that before holding a referendum on the euro, parliament would have to approve a special law revising the constitution, which currently rules out referenda on matters governed by international treaties.
He acknowledged this would be a drawn-out procedure and, while not backtracking on the euro referendum, he said 5-Star's "first priority" was to introduce income support for some 9 million Italians threatened by poverty.
Di Maio kept all options open over the future of the euro, saying Italy could either remain in a reformed euro zone, or form part of a new currency shared by southern European countries, or return to its old lira currency.
He criticized the government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni for not preparing a "plan B" for Italy if euroskeptic Marine Le Pen were to win France's elections next month and trigger the collapse of the single currency.
Opinion polls this week showed 5-Star has the backing of more than 30 percent of Italians and a lead of up to 7 points over the second placed Democratic Party.
5-Star's White Paper for Europe calls for legal procedures to allow countries to leave the euro zone and a permanent opt-out clause for any country that wishes to be a member of the EU but not join the euro.
It also called for an end to austerity policies, the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia, a "substantial" reduction in the EU budget and "drastic" cuts to the salaries and perks of members of the European Parliament.
It presented its proposals ahead of a meeting of EU leaders in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the anniversary of the EU's founding treaty signed in the city 60 years ago. The meeting is likely to be no more than "a costly catwalk for politicians," Di Maio said.
(Editing by Richard Lough)