Pax Americana | Italy’s European Challenges
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Italy’s European Challenges

Italy’s European Challenges

The legislative elections this Sunday in Italy represent yet another stumbling block in the difficult path the European Union now faces. The local problems seem somewhat different but, in the end, the Italians face a crisis of almost identical roots to the one that has brought the Brexit vote possible or, even in a certain way, Catalonia’s crisis in Spain. Italy is still the eighth largest economy in the world and the third largest of the Eurozone, but its GDP growth has not reached a 2% annually since the beginning of the century, and its unemployment rate is still above 10%. The weakness of its financial system and the lack of sufficient credit, together with a growing job market precariousness and inequality, especially suffered by young people, complete a breeding ground prone to accept alternative political ideas.

Immigration is an additional key ingredient in this situation. During the last four years, Italy has received more than 600,000 immigrants from the Mediterranean.  An excessive figure in a country which does not seem able to absorb without friction such a large number of desperate people in a small period of time. And although the figure decreased in 2017 following a government agreement with the Libyan militias in order to stop human trafficking, many Italians point to Brussels as the main culprit in this crisis. Meanwhile, Russia has taken advantage of this problem in order to create division both in Italy and Europe with simplistic and even false arguments through social networks.
This economic and social situation has also lent itself to the rise of political parties that propose revolutionary solutions that, in many cases, would harm a majority of Italians. Something similar to the Brexit crisis. Some politicians have proposed ideas that would imply a rupture and more isolation from neighboring peoples, and have done so with the following underlying philosophy: “more isolation gives us more autonomy, and thus we will be happier”. This means a departure from the mentality and constructive proposals of the mid-twentieth century onwards, which broke with the practice of a nationalist and exclusionary foreign policy that hit Europe intermittently for more than three centuries. The nationalist populism that revives today in order to alleviate our problems shares the same pessimistic worldview of yesteryear, because it does not trust the good – though brittle – essence of human nature and the material world. This vision inevitably leads to mistrust and fear and, finally, to hostility towards the different.

This is the existential approach recovered by the 5-Star Movement -M5S– which, although it has softened its anti-EU dialectic, maintains a populist tone and an ambivalence that allows it to collect votes both in the left and the right. His young candidate, Luigi di Maio, has focused on empathizing with the electorate of his generation, which suffers a youth unemployment rate above 35% and the dangers of an increasingly aging and unsustainable demography. But the polls do not grant him much more than 30% of the votes in a system that requires at least 40% to be able to govern alone.

For its part, the center-right coalition has taken advantage of this situation to propose unrealistic solutions for capturing the vote of other sectors with difficulties. Retirees, who come to vote in greater numbers than young people, had to accept in 2011 the approval of a law by the technical government of Mario Monti that progressively delayed their retirement age with the goal of sustaining the pension system. But the coalition led by Berlusconi has proposed reversing the measure, something that M5S has also promised. The center-right has also taken advantage the current crisis in order to harden its anti-immigration and eurosceptic stance, although Berlusconi himself has disagreed with the more radical side of his Northern League and post-fascist partners. The polls give them the first place with around 35% of the vote, but the relative strength and growth of the extremists within Berlusconi’s coalition will eventually condition the possibility of reaching an agreement for government with the center-left and others, and might prefer to ally with the M5S.
Finally, the center-left Democratic Party led by Matteo Renzi has suffered a gradual decline down to right under 20% of the votes. In case of finally being able to form a government with another party, its most accepted candidate is Paolo Gentiloni, the successor in the position of prime minister of Renzi himself and current head of government. But given the triumph of Berlusconi’s coalition parties, it would be the current President of the European Parliament, Tajani, the one with the best chance of being appointed prime minister of the Italian Republic. Whoever is finally elected in a country accustomed to the agreement between groups, the new head of the transalpine government will have to face an inmense and delicate task.


Manuel López-Linares  is author of Pax Americana. (@mlopezlinares)

SOURCE: Expansión, – print edition – Spain’s leading business newspaper, on March 02, 2018.