Friday 17 August 2018

Italy's populists unleash political beast to give Europe the shivers

Newly-appointed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is ready to take the reins of power as he arrives at the Chigi Palace in Rome. His appointment followed a week of confusion which at one point threatened new elections in the eurozone’s third largest economy. Photo: Reuters
Newly-appointed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is ready to take the reins of power as he arrives at the Chigi Palace in Rome. His appointment followed a week of confusion which at one point threatened new elections in the eurozone’s third largest economy. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

As coalitions go, Italy's new government is a strange beast.

After a week of extraordinary political drama over efforts to form that coalition - with the Italian president even threatened with impeachment by one of the parties at one point - negotiations brought about something of a compromise.

The curious bedfellows that will oversee Italy together are the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League, both of which played populist politics to propel themselves from the fringes of the country's political landscape to government.

The Five Star movement is largely political neophytes, its party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo to shake up Italy's political establishment and using social media to give citizens more of a say.

Unashamedly xenophobic opposition to immigration is the League's central platform - exploiting fears in a country that has become main entry point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa - and wants closer ties with Russia.

What they share - apart from plans to cut taxes and introduce a "universal basic income" - is a common Euroscepticism, albeit one that comes from somewhat different roots, with the Five Star Movement drawing on both leftist and right-wing currents.

This unlikely union will be the first purely populist coalition to lead a key western European state since the EU was created.

The fact Italy is the eurozone's third largest economy and figures from both coalition parties have talked in the past of quitting the currency - though they now try to downplay this - signals turbulent times ahead.

Under the last-minute deal agreed late this week, political newcomer Giuseppe Conte, a little known lawyer, will serve as prime minister.

The leaders of the two parties - Five Star's Luigi Di Maio and the League's Matteo Salvini - rowed back on their insistence that Paolo Savona, an octogenarian Eurosceptic who has advocated leaving the eurozone, should be appointed finance minister.

Earlier in the week, President Sergio Mattarella had used his power of veto to prevent Savona taking that key post, prompting outrage from the coalition partners and threats of impeachment.

The turmoil alarmed markets and made Brussels jittery with the prospect of snap elections that could have further empowered Italy's Eurosceptics and possibly lead to a euro exit.

Under the new agreement, Savona will still be part of the government but as EU affairs minister. Di Maio and Salvini will serve as vice-prime ministers, with the former also taking the economic development portfolio and the latter overseeing the interior ministry which will includes border control.

Given Salvini's talk of mass deportations of migrants along with his long record of racist and xenophobic statements, the question of what he plans to do worries rights organisations.

The success this year of the Five Star Movement and League has not only unsettled Brussels, it has also prompted questions over whether it is a fleeting moment of anti-establishment sentiment due to an ailing economy or a deeper drift towards Eurosceptism.

According to Eurobarometer, 39pc believe EU membership is a "good thing" and 44pc believe their country benefited from it. A majority of 59pc want Italy to remain in the eurozone.

That said, many want the relationship to be less constrained, with mounting resentment over fiscal rules set by Brussels at a time when Italy feels a lack of solidarity from other member states over the migration crisis.

A decade on, Italy is still feeling the after-effects of the global financial crisis, with its GDP still not back to 2007 levels. Growth muddles along at 1.5pc per annum.

Unemployment is more than 11pc; almost a third of young Italians are out of work.

Frustrations over stagnation coupled with anxieties over immigration and a sense Italy has been largely left to deal with the Mediterranean crisis alone proved an electoral boon to the populists.

The uneasy alliance of Five Star and League will face many tests from within and without, from the domestic front to the wider European stage.

Many in Brussels sought a conciliatory tone this week. Not European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker. He accused Italians of depending too much on the EU.

"Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work, less corruption, seriousness," Juncker said.

"We will help them as we always did. But don't play this game of loading with responsibility the EU. A country is a country, a nation is a nation. Countries first, Europe second."

Unsurprisingly, the new coalition partners were outraged. We can expect more of the same.

Irish Independent

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