The current political scene in Italy confirms the fact that ‘political correctness’ is not in vogue. The mix of truths and incongruities proclaimed by the leaders of the ‘Lega’ and Five Star (Cinque Stelle) movements — Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, respectively — who are both allied in a government headed by a ‘neutral’ Giuseppe Conte, is just what the people want to hear at this point. Over the years, the Italian electorate has been disappointed by the previous political class, resulting in the rise of populism.
For the last four months, Italy has been governed by a coalition of two parties that are divided on nearly everything except — populism. The ‘Lega’ is a xenophobic political party that originated in the North of Italy. Its major concern is immigration and the willingness to put a halt to it. Economically, it is supported by small and medium-sized enterprises and favours a mix of protectionism and liberalism. Hence its difficulties with the European Union (EU), both in terms of border issues and financial orthodoxy.
The ‘Cinque Stelle’, on the other hand, is an odd gathering of ecologists, Left and extreme-left survivors, scatterbrained individuals to which many Italians, frustrated by the last 20 years of political confusion, have joined ranks. The combination of such antagonist partners, once again only united through populism, doesn’t help the country to move forward. Looking at their growing disputes, one may reasonably wonder how long their union will last. They disagree on things like the high-speed train liaison (TAV) between Italy and France (initiated in 2011); the July 2017 sale of the Ilva steel factory in Taranto (bidding process being revised); and the Adriatic gas pipeline project (TAP) among other things.
While the ‘Cinque Stelle’ leads an internal debate about several issues, the country is sinking into problems. As one of the ten largest world economies, Italy is an industrial, agricultural and services country with many triumphs but severe weaknesses: The absence of a strong state and everything that goes with it: a competent civil servant class, general political abdication of responsibilities (including controls on private sector), and a huge public debt (mitigated by a reducing fiscal deficit and domestic ownership).
More worryingly, the mood has shifted in Italy: Fear for the future (severely declining birth rates); focus on ‘preservation’; change in priorities (fighting corruption is more important than moving ahead; maintaining bridges, more than building new ones). Obviously, building and maintaining should go together, especially when we are looking at the state of secondary roads (in the South notably). Not to mention the national East-side motorway stopping in Bari, 300km off the South-East extremity of the country; and Sicilia still not linked to the mainland.
When one reviews the government proposals planned for next autumn (easing retirement, reducing fiscal entries, re-nationalising failed air carrier Alitalia, implementing a ‘universal revenue’, penalising time-bound labour contracts with the hope to see them converted into unlimited contracts (an old socialist concept that failed everywhere), it is not surprising that the financial markets have expressed their fears.
In a characteristic populist mood, ‘Lega’ leaders will not take long to denounce ‘an attack’, wherever it comes from: The United States financiers, the EU bodies, French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel — in any event, an ‘external’ enemy. Incidentally, it is also what the people today want to hear. But sooner or later, a settlement of accounts will occur and the fall could well be big. — that is when the markets take stock of the first six months of government activity and scrutinise the financial situation. A public debt still representing 132 per cent of Italy’s gross domestic product, linked to a slow growth and an adventurous political programme, indeed make everybody uneasy.
Italy’s historical place is in the heart of Europe, with a leading role to play. But its current government is increasingly isolating the country, teaming-up with Hungary and the so-called Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) — countries that will never take any migrants from Italy. Rome is blackmailing Europe on financial obligations, when it needs its support. The sum total of all these irregularities and anomalies is that Italy may well end up losing on all quarters.
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques) and the ‘FACO’ Law University of Paris.