The crisis in Italian politics

June 4, 2018 Europe , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS

Reuters photo



Tom Arms



Forget Brexit. The biggest threat to the European Union has moved south to the Italian Peninsula.


Immigration, corruption, and economic stagnation have combined with the potent force of populism to drag Italy and Europe to the edge of an abyss.


The results of the March elections were bad news. The far right League and the far-left Five Star Movement between them won 72 percent of the seats in parliament. Their simplistic anti-EU and anti-immigration manifestoes rung bells with an electorate sick of being the poor men and women of Europe.


It was assumed that the success of the two extremes meant that it would be nigh impossible to form a government. Unfortunately, that assumption has been proven wrong. The Italian extreme right and left have discovered that they have more in common with each other than with any of the centrist parties. So The League and the Five Star Movement decided to go into government together.


They had an initial problem in finding a prime minister which was acceptable to both parties. He had to be efficient and in general agreement with their policies, but most important of all he had to be nondescript. They didn’t want the prime minister to grab the limelight from the party leaders—Luigi Di Maio and Beppe Grillo from Five Star and Matteo Salvini from The League.


So, they chose legal scholar Giuseppe Conte. No problem said President Sergio Mattarella, whom, along with parliament, has to approve cabinet posts.


But two populist parties had to choose other cabinet ministers too. Their choice for Finance Minister, Paolo Savona, was unacceptable to President Mattarella. Savona is a staunch anti-EU and anti-austerity figure who is said to oppose Italian membership of the Euro and backs a give-away budget. The markets panicked. Matarella blocked the appointment saying: “I am blocking this appointment for the good of the Italian economy and Italian people’s savings.”


He then went on to reverse his support for Conte and appointed a pro-EU, anti-austerity, IMF director named Carlo Cottarelli to be caretaker prime minister until political tempers subside and fresh elections are held in the New Year.


Political tempers are, if anything, rising. The president has the constitutional powers to block a cabinet appointment, but it is a power rarely used, and never when the parties making the appointment control nearly three-quarters of the legislature. Both the Five Star Movement and The League have branded the president’s actions as undemocratic and called for his impeachment. They have also said they will block the required parliamentary approval of Signor Cottarelli. The markets plunged again.


The ensuing political crisis has only strengthened Italy’s anti-EU brigade who see President Mattarella as abusing his powers to block the will of the people.


So far Italian anti-Europeans have restricted their demands to withdrawing from the Eurozone – maybe – and changing EU rules on immigration. The president’s stand has strengthened their hand, made both those possibilities more likely and placed Italy on a firm collision course with Brussels.


A major clash between Brussels and Rome would be disastrous for Europe. Italy was one of the founding members. The treaty which formed the Common Market was signed in Rome. The Italian economy is the fourth largest in the EU and will be the third largest when Britain leaves. The Greek economic crisis nearly brought the EU to its knees. Greece’s GDP is $194.6 billion. The Italian GDP is $1.85 trillion. If the Italian populist coalition comes to power, and they appear unstoppable, and enact the financial measures it proposes, then the Greek economic crisis will appear like a stock market glitch in comparison to the ensuing Italian economic crisis.


Then there is the immigration policy. Under EU rules, refugees must remain in the EU country in which they first landed. If they leave that country and move to another then the second country is entitled to return the refugee to the EU country where they first landed. Seventy percent of all refugees arriving in the EU are landing in Italy. There are more than 500,000 illegal immigrants in a country whose economy cannot support them.


The obvious solution is to reform both the Eurozone and the EU immigration rules. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for just that, but he is facing opposition from several quarters.


On the economic front, he is running into a brick wall in Berlin. If the Eurozone is to be effective then the wealth of the richer EU countries—which means mainly Germany and the rest of Northern Europe—has to be spread more equally with Southern Europe, which means Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and the wannabe members in the Balkans. But the Germans don’t want to subsidise the rest of Europe with their hard-earned cash without major cultural, social and economic structural changes in Southern Europe. But Southern Europeans object to changing their culture to suit Berlin.


On immigration, the tide has turned against the refugees across Europe. Once welcomed with open arms in Germany, the success of the anti-immigration AfD – albeit limited – has dampened Angela Merkel’s previously hearty appetite for immigrants. As for Eastern Europe, they are positively hostile to take any refugees from anywhere at any time.


The cries for reform have been heard for years. They were ignored when Britain voted Brexit. They were ignored when Greece fell into economic crisis. They are being ignored as Eastern Europe has turned towards the authoritarian right. Each has extracted a heavy price. But the biggest price will come if the current Italian crisis is ignored.





Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

In addition to being a syndicated broadcaster and columnist on global affairs, Tom is also available for speaking engagements and can be contacted on TwitterLinkedin and email[email protected].

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