Rebeller Italia. The next problem coming down the tracks for the EU

Rebeller Italia. The next problem coming down the tracks for the EU

The EU is already wrestling with Brexit and with a renaissance of illiberalism in Poland and Hungary challenging its long-held views of European values.  What it really doesn’t want is a third front.  Italy seems set to disoblige.

Ever since Silvio Berlusconi was ousted at the end of 2011, Italy has been run on a reform platform, first by a technocratic government headed by former European Commissioner Mario Monti, and then for the last five years by the parties of the left.  When S. Monti came to power in 2011, Italy’s bond markets suggested that institutional lenders were on the point of completely losing confidence in the Italian government.  With concerted help from the ECB, that shaken confidence was steadied.  Successive governments have sought to implement reforms to restart an Italian economy that has languished for years.

The Italian public is losing patience.  It has had enough of being promised jam tomorrow and a lot of Italians would like to see some jam today, thank you very much.  It is in a grim mood.  56% in a recent Gallup poll thought 2018 would be worse than 2017 and just 15% thought it would be better.  Italy is a seriously downbeat country.  (In the same poll, for comparison, 34% of Britons thought 2018 would be better and 27% thought 2018 would be worse than 2017.) 

It is sometimes said that an Italian is a Frenchman in a good mood.  What has caused this pessimism in a country that is famously cheerful?  It’s hard to look past two main causes, both of which will be familiar to British readers: the EU and immigration.  Candidly, the Italians have much more to complain about on both fronts legitimately than the British have had.

Ever since Italy joined the Euro, its economy has been largely stagnant.   Many Italians perceive the Eurozone as being run largely for the benefit of the Germans and regard complaints about Italian profligacy as hypocritical, ignoring the huge benefit that they perceive the Germans as getting at their expense.  Whatever the truth of the matter, the Italian economy has underperformed for years.  Even now, when the number of people in employment is rising after the economic reforms have started to take effect, this has made no visible difference to many Italians since the number of people seeking employment has expanded more or less correspondingly as a result of rises in pension age and immigration: unemployment remains at a stubbornly high 11%.

Immigration has been more dramatic for Italians than for the British.  Never mind conventional immigration, over 600,000 people have been rescued from the Mediterranean onto Italian shores in the last four years.  36% of Italians see immigration as the single biggest issue facing Italy.

With a general election to be held on 4 March, the barometer is about to point to stormy weather.  At this point I need to take a detour through the Italian electoral system.  If only it were as straightforward as AV.  The Italians have been messing around with their electoral system for years.

The previous electoral system was widely regarded as unsatisfactory, being a combination of closed list PR and a winner’s bonus for the grouping that commanded a plurality.  However, agreeing a replacement proved very difficult.  One Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, fell when he placed his authority on getting a referendum passed to reform the system and the public decided not to back him.  Finally, a new system was rammed through both chambers towards the end of last year.  It is not straightforward, so brace yourselves.

Both the lower chamber and the senate are elected on the same day.  There are 630 deputies in the lower chamber.  232 are elected by first past the post, with constituencies like the British ones.  386 are elected by proportional representation nationally.  12 are elected by ex-pats through PR.

The senate is compiled on broadly similar lines.  It has a few life senators (former Presidents and such like – they currently include Mario Monti and Renzo Piano).  The great majority, however, are elected.  It has half the number of elected representatives of the lower chamber and so 116 senators are elected by first past the post, 193 by PR across Italy and 6 by PR among ex-pats.

What does this mean in the context of Italian politics?  Italian politics is a regional affair.  Lega Nord, the Italian UKIP, are strong in the north (as you might have guessed): the success of recent referendums for greater autonomy in Lombardy and Veneto reflect that.  The left have traditional heartlands in what are called the red regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche and Emilia-Romagna.  The right have traditionally done well in Milan and Sicily.

A system based in part around constituencies very much aids parties with traditional power bases and those that can form blocs.  It is a major challenge for parties like the Five Star Movement who are relatively new, have no coalition partners and who are not particularly associated with any one area.  Unsurprisingly, they’re livid about what they see as election rigging.

In current polls, the centre-right bloc is well ahead, getting somewhere around 39% of the vote.  Five Star Movement and the centre-left are neck and neck for second, with Five Star polling somewhere around 28% and the centre-left getting around 26%.  Ipsos have projected the centre-right might get 266 seats, Five Star Movement 170 seats and the centre-left 154.  The centre-left look like they are going to be hammered in the constituencies everywhere other than their heartlands of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.

Silvio Berlusconi remains a guiding spirit of the centre right bloc but those thinking of betting on the next Prime Minister should be aware that he is debarred from holding public office (though he is seeking to overturn this).  His influence will be external.  He is not exactly sympathetic towards the EU hierarchy after they played a pivotal part in ejecting him from office in 2011.  But he is formally campaigning on a pro-EU platform, including being supportive of EU membership.  His past record invites severe scepticism about whether he would play by the rules and he doesn’t need to campaign on an anti-EU platform to pick up Eurosceptic votes: the public know how he feels about the Eurocrats.  His coalition partners are avowedly Eurosceptic, with the Lega Nord pledging a referendum on membership of the Euro.

Silvio Berlusconi’s big election pledge is to introduce a flat tax.  However, since he advocated that when he first campaigned in 1994, you have to wonder whether it is more than electoral bait.  The Italian public are fully aware of all of his flaws.  If they vote for the centre right to take power, it will be a vote of disillusionment rather than enthusiasm.

The centre-left are seen as the establishment.  For what it is worth, I suspect that the centre-left will probably recover a bit of ground before election day as some grumpy voters decide that they’re the best of a bad bunch, but nothing like enough to retain power.

What of the Five Star Movement?  In a country full of maverick politicians, they fit in well, displaying a combination of silk and steel.  You could call them centrists, but they joined with UKIP in the European Parliament and have opposed vaccination programmes on the ground they cause autism.  They aren’t afraid of voicing some pretty trenchant views on immigration.  They have just withdrawn from a policy of a referendum on membership of the Euro but are proposing that Italy should ignore the Eurozone rules on limiting its deficit to 3% of GDP.

As can be seen above, the next Italian Parliament is very likely to be hung.  With so many wild cards in the pack, the next Italian government can be expected to pursue lots of different populist measures.  At a time when France and Germany are both seeking to reignite integration, they might find themselves with yet another nominal partner that is uninterested in playing by the rules and who might dare them to take action.  The EU can’t really afford to make an example of yet another large member state.  Italy may be about to choose a very good moment indeed to go rogue.

Alastair Meeks

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