« Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano ». “He who goes softly, goes safely; he who goes safely goes far”. A profile of Italian politics. By Maxence Salendre.
From the Roman Empire to Italy’s cultural addition to Europe’s History, passing by the political legacy of Alcide de Gasperi and Altiero Spinelli, the Italian legacy to Europe and the European Union (EU) is immense and dates far back. House of the signature of its constitutive Treaty in 1957, Rome and the peninsula gave the European Commission (EC) two of its presidents (Franco Maria Malfatti 1970-1972 and Romano Prodi 1999-2004) and the current head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi. Signs, if necessary, of Italian involvement into the European construction project. And yet, with a level of trust in the EU hardly reaching 31% for an EU average of 33%1, how come Italy forgot 1989 and its massive support (88%)2 for the idea of an EU referendum on a common European constitution?
This growing ambivalence towards the EU encapsulated in the low overall level of trust within the EU is a sign of trouble for the May 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections in Italy. Formerly highly supportive of the idea of the European construction, figures from a recent Eurobarometer3 indicates rising distrust and doubt among Italians towards the Union. With 32% of Italians believing that “the interests of the country are not taken into consideration adequately”4, support for the European idea over the last ten years fell from nearly 60% to slightly above 30%5. Strangely enough however, only a minority of Italians believe they would be better off the EU (29% versus an EU average of 32%) and support for the European currency remains rather high (57% versus EU 31%) despite Italy’s current economic difficulties6.
The truth is that Italy’s problems are multiple and beyond the sole considerations of national politics. Wage rigidities and excess public expenditure were pointed by former Italian Member of the European Parliament and PDU Patron Giorgio La Malfa as obstacles on the path to economic recovery7. Corruption is another. As portrayed in the recent 2013 European Commission report on corruption, 42% of Italians are affected by corruption and 88% (EU average 76%) believe that bribery is the best way to get a public service. While prominent in the public service, it is also spread within the private sector with 64% believing that having political connections is the only way to succeed in business (EU average of 47%).
But beyond corruption, a “partially free” press8 and its economic impairments, Italy’s biggest challenge stems from Italians’ complete distrust into national politicians. Faced to high levels of public corruption and disastrous political leadership9, “Italian citizens tended to perceive European integration as an opportunity to cure many national pathologies”10 (Dehousse). This explains the strong support towards an EU-controlled Italy and the early popular support Mario Monti benefited from (66% in early March 2012 i.e. 5 months after taking office)11. It is likely plausible however that the lack of any political legitimacy of a nominated Prime Minister and the harsh austerity measures implemented and propped up by Brussels eventually put an end to this Euro-Italian honeymoon.
And a question now arises. Were the 2013 Italian elections a prediction of the soon-to-be-held 2014 European Parliament elections? No need to say that in a country of corrupted politics where the EU used to appear as a life-buoy and where Brussels’ policies were carefully analysed, anger against what appears as an EU-imposed austerity gives a rather gloomy vision of the outcome of these elections. Looking into more details at the results of the 2013 Italian elections provides an even darker vision.
With two anti-euro membership parties (the 5-Star Movement and the Northern League) gathering 30% of the popular vote, the EU-line candidate (Monti) hardly attaining 10.5% of the vote combined to the lack of strong EU leadership, a fear of recession and general worry about globalisation (seen as having a negative effect on employment, social protection and prices for 78%, 57% and 67% of the population respectively), European democracy is no longer the prodigal son of the Italian peninsula.
Despite coming from a rather EU-friendly party, Matteo Renzi (Democratic Party) is now confronted to a dilemma. Elected on the difficult and maybe not yet essential promise of reforming institutions, Prime Minister Renzi will now have to choose between going over the 3% Brussels-imposed budget rule to boost a timid growth or respect that rule and face a possible recession. A delicate move for a young Prime Minister, an unstable coalition and a weakened Cabinet which recently overthrew former Prime Minister Enrico Letta. Despite the nomination of pro-EU Pier Carlo Padoan as Finance Minister to oversee the $2.84 trillion of public debt, Matteo Renzi’s views of Italy’s economic problems and Europe remain blurry. After spending three years protecting Italy from market-bond speculation and cutting the budget deficit, Italy now needs to redress its finances if it wants to be heard at the EU negotiation table again.
The crumble of the left and right parties and the appearance of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) also worsened the political status quo. With about one-third of supporters in each camp (Democratic Party, People’s Party and Five Star Movement), ruling Italy has become even more uneasy. Trust in the EU might be stronger on the left side of the political spectrum. However, with Democratic Party voters and their Left Ecology Freedom allies opposed to austerity measures and forced to answer some of the populist claims of the M5S voters, it is unlikely that the Democratic Party will strongly support Brussels’ lines in the campaign to come. On the right the situation is no better. Berlusconi’s criticisms of European leadership and demands to reduce European bureaucracy as well as the Northern League’s calls to create a Europe of regions do not strengthen the will of Italian voters to give a blank check to the European Union. While the bell still hasn’t tolled for Brussels, voters’ indecision is likely to look like Hemingway’s Italian Farewell to Arms.
And right now, in Italian politics, the melody’s changed but the song remains the same. Or as the proverb goes, “Cambiano I suonatori ma la musica è sempre quella”.
Image ‘Italian Flag’ courtesy to Dave Kellam via flickr.com, released under creative commons 2.0. generic. The image has not been altered.
1 Figures from Dehousse, Renaud 2013 “Europe at the polls : lessons from the 2013 Italian elections”, Notre Europe Jacques Delors Institute, Policy Paper 92, May 16, 2013, available online at: http://www.notre-europe.eu/media/italianelections-dehousse-ne-jdi-may13.pdf?pdf=ok
2 Figure from Roland, Erne 2004 “Direct Democracy in Italy”, Carolina Academic Press, available online at: http://researchrepository.ucd.ie/bitstream/handle/10197/3887/Direct_Democracy_in_Italy.pdf?sequence=1
3 Standard Eurobarometer 78, Autumn 2012, available online at : http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb78/eb78_first_en.pdf
6 Figures from Dehousse, Renaud 2013 “Europe at the polls : lessons from the 2013 Italian elections”, Notre Europe Jacques Delors Institute, Policy Paper 92, May 16, 2013, available online at: http://www.notre-europe.eu/media/italianelections-dehousse-ne-jdi-may13.pdf?pdf=ok
7 La Malfa, Giorgio “Italy in 2014: let us hope for the best”, Project for a Democratic Union, February 24, 2014
8 According to the Freedom House Press Ranking, Italian Press is only deemed “partially free”
9 The Economist « The man who screwed an entire country », June 9, 2011, available online at : http://www.economist.com/node/18805327
10 Dehousse, Renaud 2013 “Europe at the polls : lessons from the 2013 Italian elections”, p. 2, Notre Europe Jacques Delors Institute, Policy Paper 92, May 16, 2013, available online at: http://www.notre-europe.eu/media/italianelections-dehousse-ne-jdi-may13.pdf?pdf=ok
11 The New American, March 30, 2012, available online at: http://www.thenewamerican.com/world-news/europe/item/8962-italian-pm-montis-reforms-losing-popular-support