Big Trouble in Brittle Italia

This was originally published on 30th May, 2018, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.


Italy has never been the most politically stable country and, typically for continental democracies, its governments are coalitions between parties that may or may not be like-minded, for the purpose of muddling along until the next election with a vague liberal consensus. Unfortunately for those who normally led such governments, Italy has had a more pronounced and notable decline than its fellow European Union partners, and was one of the five infamously-named ‘PIIGS’ of the Eurozone crisis.


Since then, Italians have become increasingly upset with a poor economy and feeble political leadership, leading to the success of anti-European Union political parties at the most recent election. The two most successful of these — the Five Star Movement and the League — negotiated to form a government together, and presented the President, who generally rubber stamps whatever is put in front of him, with the Cabinet list so that they could begin governing.


Only a few days later, and the country is in a political crisis — because the rubber-stamping President chose instead to reject the government presented to him, and is trying to install a pro-EU technocrat.


How did it come to this?


(Image: Miguel Medina/AFP)

Most of the stories you’ll read, watch or hear about this unfolding drama will refer to the prospective government as ‘populists’ (often preceded by ‘the’), as though the winning parties don’t have actual names. The Five Star Movement and the League can both claim to be winners of the recent election, though for different reasons. M5S received the most votes and the most seats of any individual party, but the League was the lead party of the coalition which received the most votes and seats. Following the election, voters for M5S were polled and a majority (almost double of the next most popular option) said that the most preferable coalition choice was the League. Both parties are sceptical of the European Union, and all that it entails.


So, does this mean that the two parties are really one and the same?


The leaders of the 5-Star Movement and the League. (Image: TopBreakingNews)

Not even remotely. Despite the efforts of those lumping them together as ‘the populists’, the two parties have vastly different histories, and appeal to quite different voters. The League has been around for decades, initally as a coalition of northern separatist parties — Liga Veneta, Lega Lombarda, and so on — that labelled itself Alleanza Nord (the Northern Alliance). Its first electoral success in 1992 came after it officially merged into a federal party (Lega Nord), and was built on unhappiness with the centralisation of government and increasing levels of immigration. Little has changed from then until now, except for one thing: the object of their ire has shifted from Rome to Brussels.


Where once there was a separatist movement, seeking to remove the wealthier north from the greedy capital and the poor, rural south, there is now a nationalist movement, seeking to remove all of Italy from the grip of a far more powerful, centralising, power-vacuuming body in the European Union. Just as before, their voters believe the European Union wastes resources, has brought the country down through the Eurozone, and prevents the country from combating illegal immigration, to fulfill its own political purposes at the expense of the Italian people. Being a federalist party, there are differences in beliefs from region to region, but these are the cornerstones of the League as it exists today, hence changing its name from one that suggests promoting the interests of northern Italy, to one that can be all-inclusive.


Not that the name change did much to change their electoral fortunes in the south. It will probably take quite a while before the League could hope to become the main conservative party across the entire country, rather than in just half of it, particularly for as long as the seemingly immortal Silvio Berlusconi is around, leading his Forza Italia party, which pulled the rug out from both Lega Nord and the old Christian Democrats in the 1990s and was for many years the main conservative party in the country.


Berlusconi was often an easy target for his seemingly ridiculous, larger-than-life character, but he was wily enough to carve a path that enabled his governments to get the support of both the European Union in general, and conservative voters who were frustrated with that same union. Though he returned at the most recent election — after being temporarily brought down by a string of scandals — as part of the coalition with the League, it was as second fiddle to them. Once Berlusconi is off the scene, it is hard to see his party lasting much longer, and only then might an opportunity arrive for the League to enter the south.


Silvio Berlusconi is never truly out of the running, even when ineligible for office. (Image: EPA/Flavio Lo Scalzo)

In the mean time, southerners have chosen another Eurosceptic party to call their own, going by the name of the Five Star Movement. Trying to define the political beliefs of M5S is a tough ask, if one were just to look at their policies, which at first glance appear to be all over the place. This is mostly due to the method of direct democracy that the party uses, asking its paying members to vote on its policies via secret online ballot. It’s this e-democracy, together with the party’s complains about the European Union being unrepresentative of the will of the people, that prevents it from having a truly definable will. The five ‘stars’ of the party’s name and logo are meant to represent five of its core policies: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access and environmentalism.


This hints at a certain individualist edge to the party, but one built on a core of ‘common interest’ — what’s good for the individual is good for the whole. Certainly, some of the more socialist rhetoric that appeared in the party’s early life have been toned down over the years, but M5S still rebukes the idea that it is a party at all, and is quite content at being a ‘movement’ that will overthrow the old governments.


In some sense, their desire is nearly anarchic, a kind of liberalism taking to its furthest extent. “Let every government fail,” they may as well be saying, “by allowing us to block anything we disagree with. Then, after enough failures in government, let us govern with an absolute majority, so that we can free you.” This was typical of the mindset of their co-founder, the volatile comedian Beppe Grillo, and matches with the popularity of the party among the under 30s and those without a university degree, but this attitude may not last much longer.


The fact the the Movement was willing to form a coalition with the League suggests that if there is even a hint of being able to change Italy’s future earlier than expected by joining forces with a party with whom they share common enemies, they will take it. The League was really the only option for this, as there is no way M5S supporters would stomach an alliance with either of the establishment parties. Furthermore, the economic idealism of the early days has been stripped away, replaced by fairly basic logistical changes: introducing universal basic income, ducing pensions, lowering public debit, and changing the income tax threshold. In essence, business as usual.


Because of this, something like M5S is not altogether different in tone to the Democratic Party, except for one thing: being unafraid to tackle Brussels. They are a liberal party, for the most part, but one that is not tied to the liberal establishment that dominates the ‘corridors of power’ in the European Union. Because of this, voters of all stripes are willing to throw their lot in with them, particularly in the south, where the other option of the League leaves a bad taste in the mouth to many, consisting as it does of many MPs who have previously wished for the north to break away from the south.


Often marginalised for being poor and ‘backwards’, southerners have long fought for their political agency, and M5S gives them an obvious, stark way through which to do it. North and south are now largely united in their scepticism of the European Union and their servants in Rome, and will likely do whatever it takes to make sure a government that matches their positions gets in power.


Most popular party by constituency, Five Star Movement in yellow, League-led coalition in Blue, Democratic Party in Red (Image: repubblica.it )

But then the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, rejected the cabinet these two temporary allies had offered to him. Some sympathy should perhaps be offered to him, as it’s not the first time an Italian president has rejected a proposed cabinet because of one or two names on the list, and generally the government will go away and find someone else to fill the role. But this time around, the prospective government threw their hands in the air, threatened to have him impeached, and suggested new elections were the only way forward — hardly standard procedure.


The thing is, he should have known better. These are two parties that have made their names by not following standard procedure, so why would this time be any different? To reject the cabinet proposed to him over one person because said person had been highly critical of the Eurozone, when these two parties have made it clear (and their voters with them) that they are unhappy with the way the European Union functions, is like a red rag to a bull. There was no way the coalition would take the rejection as anything other than an attempt to block euroscepticism from taking a place in government, especially when Mattarella went on to propose a technocrat who used to work for the International Monetary Fund as a replacement Prime Minister.


It’s not as though Mattarella’s friends in the European Union are helping matters, either. For some reason, EU officials seem much more willing to speak their mind openly than would be expected in English-speaking countries — perhaps because they do not expect their more controversial thoughts to be translated and then aired to a wide audience — and the official in this case is the German EU finance commissioner, Gunther Oettinger.


He stated in an interview on German television that “The markets and a ‘darkened’ outlook will teach Italy’s voters not to vote for populist parties in the next elections,” an extraordinary statement that betrays how little Brussels seems to understand sentiment thrown against it. He went on to say that he “can only hope that this will play a role in the election campaign.” If it does, it is highly unlikely to be the kind of role he is hoping for.


The EU is staring down the barrel of an openly critical government emerging in one of their most important states, arguably the third-most after Germany and France. If they don’t wisen up soon, they may find the Union falling to pieces, with no plan to save it.