Italy’s drama… and a happy ending?
Federiga Bindi / Jun 2018
Sergio Mattarella, president of Italy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Observers are used to a certain degree of craziness in Italian politics. The country has been given up for dead several times, and always found its way back. This time was no exception. What follows is a little replay for the confused reader, followed by a possible way forward.
After four consecutive non-elected governments (Mario Monti 2011, Enrico Letta 2013, Matteo Renzi 2014 and Paolo Gentiloni 2016), named first by two successive presidents (Giorgio Napolitano and Sergio Mattarella), legislative elections took place in March 2018. The elections gave no winners (ie no party of coalition with enough elected MPs to secure a vote of confidence in Parliament - a necessary step under Italian Constitution), rather two second bests: the Centre-Right coalition (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Italian Brothers) with 37%, and Beppe Grillo / Luigino di Maio’s Five Stars Movement (5SM) with 32%.
In Italy, the President is little more than an honourific figure, a precise choice of the Constituent Fathers who, after Fascism, opted to give all powers to the Parliament (admittedly a problem of its own, but let’s do not get there now). Among his powers, that of naming the President of the Council (technically there is no Prime Minister in Italy) and - at this one’s suggestion - the ministers.
Mattarella had several ways to try to solve the crises. Possibilities included giving an “explorative mandate” to try to find a majority in Parliament to the coalition and/or to the party with the highest number of MPs. Berlusconi repeatedly asked for it, claiming that he could find the missing votes (in the past legislature alone, 566 MPs changed affiliation, some multiple times…). Yet, the President opted for giving a tight and very short mandate to come up with a government to respectively the President of the Senate and the President of the Chamber.
As they failed, Mattarella opted for a bold and dangerous move: he forced Lega and M5S together asking them to come up with a government, telling them they had enough votes to win a confidence vote. The President’s reasoning in taking this step is imponderable, but it is safe to assume that he expected them to fail, which would have led to a new government of the president - the fifth in a row.
Alas, political events cannot be bent to the will of political leaders, a lesson many - Charles De Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, Matteo Renzi to name a few - learned the hard way. Salvini and Di Maio, came up with an unknown professor of law as their President of the Council, Giuseppe Conti, with a slightly plagiarized resume. They then negotiated a common programme - featuring a rather anti-European, populistic stance - and a government which included Paolo Savona as Minister of Economics.
Paolo Savona is a known 82-year old economist - a member of the quasi-legendary group led by Carlo Azelio Ciampi which negotiated the Euro and Italy’s role within it. He has since become very critical about EU economic integration and, most of all, about Germany’s inflexible economic policy. Asked to clearly state that Italy would not seek to abandon the Euro, he published such a declaration… on a website also listing a “secret” plan on how to exit the Eurozone!
That did it for Mattarella, who recused the Minister and, consequently, the government. Admittedly, Presidents have rejected Ministers in the past: notably, when the first Berlusconi wanted to have his own lawyer as Minister of Justice, then President Luigi Scalfaro moved him to Defense - but never on the basis of political considerations.
As Italy bitterly divided among those who supported the President’s course of actions and those who did not, Mattarella was quick in giving an explorative mandate to former IMF official Carlo Cottarelli, angering many, in primis 5SM and Lega. Di Maio found nothing better to do than threaten an impeachment procedure which, incidentally, does not exist as such in the Italian Constitution. Accused of having being played by the more experienced Salvini - who was quick in dismissing the impeachment - and scrambling to save his leadership from the attacks of the popular and even more populist Alessandro Di Battista, Di Maio opted for apologizing to the President, asking him for a new chance to form a coalition government with Lega.
Mattarella meanwhile understood that the alternative - elections - would not go in the sense he was hoping for. Should Lega run jointly with 5SM, projections give them 90% of the seats. Lega is also expected to double its votes at the administrative elections on June 10: already at the Regional elections, held a month ago, for the Northern regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Val D’Aosta, it annihilated all other political forces.
Salvini thus emerged as the real winner of the crises. He obtained the government he wanted: Savona will now lead European Affairs, while the Minister of Treasury is now Giovanni Tria - a very respected professor of political economy, and past President of the National School of Administration – who has mildly Eurosceptic views and has been advocating in favour of reform of the Eurozone for a long time.
So, will this government Ital-exit? Not a chance. Lega has been successfully governing the richest parts of Italy for a couple of decades, areas with the highest concentration of SMEs, which have interest in staying both in the EU and the Euro. In fact, a Piepoli poll shows that over 65% of Italians are in favour of staying in the Euro.
Net of the propaganda, in fact, the question is not the Euro, but rather a North-South gap and the feeling of being abandoned at the periphery of Europe. Italians - who perceive themselves as those who once brought civilization across the Continent - now feel left alone to deal with the immigrants’ crisis, a direct result of the Libya war. The Italian-Libyan Friendship Treaty of 2008, had in fact effectively stopped illegal immigration directly at the Libyan shores.
At the same time, Germany holds tight to its own economic surplus, and is unwilling to consider any kind of expansionistic economic policy that would help economic recovery. The rather improper comments by German politicians and media against Italy did not help either.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been advocating for Euro-reform, yet without finding the needed support in other EU countries. Italy’s new government could now work together with France to reform the EU before it is too late.