The Putsch in Italy

The Malta Business Weekly - - FRONT PAGE -

Bren­dan O’Neill

There has been a putsch in Italy. A blood­less putsch, with no guns or jack­boots, but a putsch nonethe­less. The pres­i­dent’s ve­to­ing of the fi­nance min­is­ter put for­ward by the pop­ulist par­ties that won a huge num­ber of votes in the Gen­eral Elec­tion in March rep­re­sents a grave as­sault on the demo­cratic will. It is a tech­no­cratic coup, an EU-in­flu­enced, big-busi­ness­pleas­ing at­tempt to iso­late and weaken the pop­u­lar anti-Brus­sels sen­ti­ment that has swept Italy. In­deed, it has brought about the col­lapse of the talks to form a new pop­ulist govern­ment and made it nec­es­sary to hold fresh elec­tions. Let’s be hon­est about what has hap­pened here: March’s demo­cratic elec­tion has es­sen­tially been voided by tech­nocrats who care more about Euro fi­nanciers than they do about the or­di­nary peo­ple of Italy.

Italy has been plunged into po­lit­i­cal cri­sis by es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures who are re­pulsed by the Euroscep­ti­cism spread­ing through the na­tion. In the elec­tion in March, the main­stream par­ties – the Demo­cratic Party and Forza Italia – were dec­i­mated by vot­ers. They suf­fered an his­toric blow at the bal­lot box, the Demo­cratic Party get­ting 18.7 per cent of the vote, and Forza Italia an even sad­der 14 per cent. Mean­while, pop­ulist par­ties, in par­tic­u­lar the Five Star Move­ment (M5S) and the League (for­merly the North­ern League), soared to the fore­front of po­lit­i­cal life. M5S won 32.7 per cent of the vote, and the League won 17.4 per cent – a huge rise on the four per cent it got in the elec­tion in 2013.

These par­ties won on a ticket of tack­ling aus­ter­ity, eas­ing peo­ple’s tax bur­dens, stand­ing up to Euro in­sti­tu­tions – in par­tic­u­lar over Italy’s debt to the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank – and clamp­ing down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. Their storm­ing ahead of the two par­ties that had run Italy for decades was one of the clear­est ex­pres­sions yet of a pop­u­lar dis­gruntle­ment with the aloof pol­i­tics of the past that so many peo­ple across Europe now feel. But it’s a dis­gruntle­ment the es­tab­lish­ment is in­creas­ingly un­will­ing to tol­er­ate. And so in Italy it is ef­fec­tively be­ing done in, with the old elite in­sist­ing that the peo­ple’s will is too dis­rup­tive and must be di­luted by those who know bet­ter.

So as part of the drawn-out, of­ten tor­tured ef­forts of M5S and the League to form a ma­jor­ity govern­ment, which went on for nearly three months, EU of­fi­cials put pres­sure on Italy’s new lead­ers to water down cer­tain poli­cies and ditch cer­tain peo­ple. Largely through Ser­gio Mattarella, the pres­i­dent (an only semi-demo­cratic po­si­tion in Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal life), Brus­sels and other in­flu­en­tial Euro­pean play­ers have made it clear that cer­tain ideas and in­di­vid­u­als would be ‘un­ac­cept­able’ in Italy’s new govern­ment. From the new coali­tion’s pro­pos­als to in­crease public spend­ing and bor­row­ing in de­fi­ance of Eu­ro­zone sta­bil­ity rules, to their in­sis­tence that im­mi­gra­tion into Italy must be more tightly po­liced, to their op­po­si­tion to Euro­pean sanc­tions on Rus­sia, var­i­ous poli­cies held by these pop­u­lar par­ties were openly crit­i­cised by EU of­fi­cials and, un­der pres­sure from Mattarella, they were soft­ened as the coali­tion sought to forge a govern­ment. At one point, Mat­teo Salvini, leader of the League, felt pro­voked to say: ‘From Europe, we have the umpteenth un­ac­cept­able in­ter­fer­ence by un­elected of­fi­cials.’

Not con­tent with med­dling in the pol­i­cy­mak­ing of Italy’s pop­u­lar par­ties, the old elite then in­structed them on who they could in­clude in their govern­ment. Pres­i­dent Mattarella blocked their nom­i­na­tion of Paolo Savona, the 82-yearold Ital­ian econ­o­mist, for the po­si­tion of fi­nance min­is­ter. Why? Be­cause Savona is a Eu­roscep­tic, and a fre­quently sting­ing one. He has de­scribed the Eu­ro­zone as a ‘Ger­man cage’. He has said Italy might have to ‘get out of the Euro’ if the al­ter­na­tive is to ‘end up like Greece’. Savona’s views make him un­ac­cept­able for public of­fice, it seems, and so Pres­i­dent Mattarella ve­toed him, on the ba­sis that his Euroscep­ti­cism would make Euro fi­nanciers ner­vous and threaten the Ital­ian econ­omy. This caused M5S and the League’s cho­sen in­terim prime min­is­ter, Giuseppe Conte, to re­sign, and now there will be new elec­tions.

Some have pointed out that Ital­ian pres­i­dents have ve­toed min­is­ters in the past. This is true, but it’s a very rare thing for the pres­i­dent to do. And more im­por­tantly there’s the rea­son Savona was ve­toed. In the words of Henry New­man in the Spec­ta­tor, nor­mally a pro­posed min­is­ter is ve­toed be­cause of ‘ con­cern over com­pe­tence, nepo­tism, or a con­flict of in­ter­ests’; Savona, in con­trast, was ve­toed on the ‘ ba­sis of his views’. Con­sider the po­lit­i­cal mag­ni­tude of this veto: the Ital­ian public ex­presses a mass feel­ing of Euroscep­ti­cism and yet an old- es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure pre­vents a Eu­roscep­tic from tak­ing of­fice. It is re­ally clear now that what the peo­ple want and what the old po­lit­i­cal class wants are very dif­fer­ent things – and ap­par­ently, and alarm­ingly, it is the lat­ter that must win out.

The usurp­ing of the pop­u­lar will is best summed up in who has been pro­moted by Mattarella to re­place Conte as the in­terim prime min­is­ter: Carlo Cottarelli, a for­mer se­nior of­fi­cial in the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund who is re­ferred to as ‘Mr Scis­sors’ for his in­sis­tence on cuts to public spend­ing. So even though mil­lions of Ital­ians voted for pop­ulist par­ties that said they would re­verse spend­ing cuts and chal­lenge Eu­ro­zone sta­bil­ity rules, now they find them­selves ruled, for the time be­ing, by a tech­no­crat who takes an en­tirely dif­fer­ent view. They have ended up with the op­po­site to what they voted for. This is the putsch; this is the tech­no­cratic coup; this is the thwart­ing of the demo­cratic out­look by an es­tab­lish­ment that thinks it knows bet­ter than or­di­nary peo­ple how their lives should be run.

This is how life in the Eu­ro­zone, and in the EU more broadly, works now. The peo­ple and the par­ties they vote for are writ­ten off by the ex­pert class and tech­nocrats and the forces of big busi­ness as ir­ra­tional or prej­u­diced or dan­ger­ous, and the pop­u­lar will is over­ri­den in the name of main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. We saw this in the EU fury that greeted the French, Dutch and Ir­ish re­volts against the EU Con­sti­tu­tion a decade ago; in the en­force­ment of spend­ing cuts in Greece and Ire­land that the peo­ple in those coun­tries did not want; and we see it in the on­go­ing ef­forts by Brus­sels and its use­ful id­iots in Bri­tain to weaken or even kill off our mass vote for Brexit. Re­main­ers, be­hold the truth of the in­sti­tu­tion you are fight­ing to de­fend: not the happy-clappy union of Euro­pean peo­ples of your de­luded dreams, but rather a vast oli­garchi­cal ma­chine that laughs in the face of na­tional sovereignty, views the demo­cratic will as a pesky fly to be swat­ted away, and looks upon or­di­nary peo­ple as too pig-ig­no­rant to make big po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions. We need more re­bel­lions against this elit­ist Euro-ha­tred for the views of or­di­nary peo­ple, and an all-out de­fence of the hard-won Euro­pean prin­ci­ple of democ­racy.

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