Let’s consider for a moment that European politics and dealing with Brussels is a bit like football. Anytime you play away in Europe, a draw is always a good result. Anytime you’re playing at home, always go for a win.
That’s a simple outlook the Brits never learnt: Europe is all about the long game. Sure, the likes of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and Brexiteers in the Conservative party won by winning their argument with British votes — say a 1-0 win in extra time in a clearly offside goal — but it was and remains a pyrrhic victory to Remainers.
They just never won any points away in Europe.
The Italians, however, know how to play the European game, know how to win at home, and therefore always move on when it comes to their dealings with the European Commission — the cabinet-like body that runs the day-to-day operations of the EU and implements its policy and rules.
And the events surrounding Italy’s federal budget speak to this now even more so.
When the EU leaders and commission met in Brussels last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was all about Brexit.
Yes, UK Prime Minister Theresa May did address the EU27 for an hour seeking concessions on the negotiated withdrawal agreement and on that backstop — the guarantee she agreed to more than a year ago that the Irish border would remain open, no matter what.
But no, the summit wasn’t all about Brexit. What’s more, there was never any doubt that any of the EU27 would break ranks from their agreed withdrawal agreement, and offer the beleaguered Conservative party leader any sop that might ease her domestic political worries. Europe 1, UK 0 — and it’s game over for Theresa May.
But Italy — it got a result, as they say in football parlance.
Since early October, the Italian government and the EU Commission have been at loggerheads over its proposed budget.
The coalition government in Rome is made up of the populist Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the right-wing League led by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
Right now, despite the fact that he’s been investigated for turning away ships with refugees picked up in the Mediterranean Sea away from Italian ports, he — and the League — are on the rise in opinion polls. And earlier this month, the League staged a leadership rally, with Salvini front and centre.
And pointing to neighbouring France, where the gilet jeunes — the yellow jackets — have wrought weeks of protest and forced French President Emmanuel Macron to back down on fuel-price increases and other measures, Salvini told the thousands of flag-waving supporters that he would be sticking by his government’s plans to boost state spending. And in a pointed message to Brussels and Macron, he said: “Those who sow poverty reap protests.”
The stocky and bearded Deputy Prime Minister has made good on his promises to slow the arrivals of refugees. The League is now at 34 per cent in the polls, a remarkable rise considering that when took over the Northern League, as it was in 2013, it was debt-ridden and scandal plagued standing at just 3 per cent.
In anybody’s terms, terms that’s a huge political surge — and small wonder he remains the most popular and powerful politician in Italy right now.
Both the League and 5SM has promised to introduce a basic living wage for the poorest sections of Italian society — and they did just that when they put together a federal budget in early October, one that increased domestic spending by 2.4 per cent.
That set alarm bells off in Brussels. The Eurocrats — and Italy’s bond holders — are concerned at the high level of debt, with every €1 (Dh4.17) in circulation in Italy being outmatched by €1.33 in debt to bond-holders, banks and international lenders.
From the day the general election was called for March 4 last, and from its elevation into the ruling coalition, the League has always said that it was willing to thumb its nose at Brussels and its tight fiscal rules.
Brussels rejected that budget, warning of penalties if the Italians didn’t revise down their spending in line with the constraints of the fiscal contract cover all 19 EU nations using the euro as the common currency and those who do not.
While the whole Brexit mess was being played out very publicly, the Italians went about their work, tweaking their budget and, late last week, submitted a revised one. And all the signs are that Brussels will accept it.
Italy’s original budget proposal envisaged a deficit equal to 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2019, up from 1.8 per cent this year. The revised plan presented last week lowered that to 2.04 per cent.
Both the League and 5SM agreed to adjust their welfare and pension reforms, still introducing the measures but also gaining funding for the programmes for the next three years.
Also included in the budget are measures to raise taxes on luxury cars in order to provide incentives for electric and hybrid models.
Salvini’s fans have reason to keep cheering. He’s won both at home and away in Europe. That a lesson the Brits should have add to their playbook before there are relegated come March 29 to second division status.