Monday, July 16, 2018
Opinion

Italy, Europe’s breakaway province

Once again a European election has resulted in a hung parliament. The difference this time is that in Italy’s case the parties struggling to form a government are not the establishment but the rebels.

Brussels had somewhat unenthusiastically readied itself for a Silvio Berlusconi-led center-right coalition. Now it faces an even worse outcome: a populist revolution.

As the final numbers are tallied, it is already clear that the typical balance between traditional parties and anti-establishment forces has been turned upside down: The once dominant center-left and center-right parties now share a combined one-third minority. Meanwhile, the country’s variegated populist parties hold a combined comfortable lead of approximately 55 percent.

For quite some time Brussels has lived in fear of a phantom menace: the victory of Euroskeptic and anti-establishment forces in a significant EU member country. Those fears were always overblown — until now.

Unlike in Germany or the Netherlands, there is little chance that the mainstream parties will be able to put together a ruling coalition to keep populist forces out of government.

Angela Merkel’s struggle to form a government over the past six months had dampened Emmanuel Macron’s enthusiasm for EU reform. Then, on the same day Germany greenlighted a new grand coalition and the bloc geared up to get back to business under Franco-German leadership, the European populist wave broke the Italian dam, creating a new potential spoiler to EU projects.

Hope for a center-left, Europhilic victory had long faded in Brussels as former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s fortunes took a nosedive and those of the center-right rose. The next best option appeared to be a government led by Berlusconi.

There is no love lost between Brussels (or Berlin for that matter) and the Forza Italia leader, but the EU has dealt with a Berlusconi led Italy for the best part of two decades. Merkel captured the mood back in 2013, when she said: “I have worked with Berlusconi in the past, I can work with him in the future.”

Throughout the campaign, Berlusconi was careful to cast himself in the role of the “elder statesman,” even tapping in the last days of the campaign European Parliament President Antonio Tajani to take on the role of front-man-prime-minister. To Brussels, this would have been a welcome result: After all, a former European Parliament president couldn’t lead Italy too far astray, or so the thinking went.

Italian voters shattered those expectations. Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition received 37 percent of the votes, nearly enough to form a government. But it was Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, not Berlusconi who emerged as the dominant member of the alliance. If Berlusconi was the evil Brussels knew, it is now confronted with the possibility of an Italy led by a far-right prime minister

The only other alternative is a government led by the anti-establishment 5Star Movement. Now the country’s largest single party, with a startling 32 percent, its leader was until recently calling for a referendum on Italy’s membership in the Eurozone. Despite its voluminous and detailed program, how it would govern is anyone’s guess.

The biggest loser — and it comes as no great surprise — is Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party, which fell under the 20 percent threshold, an abysmal result that is likely to force him to resign from the party’s leadership.

With no party or coalition able to form a governing majority, we’re in for the usual post-vote deal-making. Italy has been here before: More than once, it has defied law of gravity by putting together effectively working governments under normally forbidding circumstances. Paolo Gentiloni’s outgoing government is a case in point.

The uncertainty swirling around Italy’s coalition options puts President Sergio Mattarella at the center of the web of public and private consultations that will descend over the Eternal City in the coming weeks and are likely to spawn a flurry of statements but little clarity.

Unlike in Germany or the Netherlands, there is little chance that the mainstream parties will be able to put together a ruling coalition to keep populist forces out of government. And unlike in Austria, the far right won’t be tamed by the center right, simply because Berlusconi’s Forza Italia can only be a junior partner and will not be calling the shots.

It comes as no surprise the EU’s official reaction has been to express full confidence in the Italian president. Brussels, Berlin and Paris know very well that Mattarella will uphold Italy’s strong European bonds and values. But it will take more than a little fairy dust to get a Europe-friendly government out of this weekend’s populist revolution.

Stefano Stefanini, a former permanent representative of Italy at NATO, is Brussels director of Project Associates and non-resident senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Original Article

Leave a Reply