Italy’s bat­tle with Brus­sels is about more than money

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - Mau­r­izio Moli­nari Mau­r­izio Moli­nari is ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Ital­ian daily news­pa­per La Stampa

Italy’s most re­cent gen­eral elec­tion, in March, trig­gered a po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion. The con­se­quences are now be­ing felt across the con­ti­nent. And rev­o­lu­tion is the right word to de­scribe what hap­pened. The es­tab­lished par­ties on both left and right were sim­ply swept aside in favour of the Five Star Move­ment and the League (formerly the North­ern League). Nei­ther was around when the Ital­ian con­sti­tu­tion was ap­proved; nei­ther played a role in Italy’s post­war re­con­struc­tion; and nei­ther had a part in the foun­da­tion of the EU and Nato. Now these new forces have joined to­gether to give voice to the deep­en­ing anx­i­ety of the mid­dle classes, an anx­i­ety af­fect­ing at­ti­tudes to ev­ery type of in­sti­tu­tion.

Three things trig­gered this act of protest in

Italy. First, eco­nomic in­equal­ity, or the im­pact of glob­al­i­sa­tion, which has im­pov­er­ished Italy through the de­par­ture of busi­nesses and flight of jobs abroad, and which has brought for­eign im­ports to Italy at very com­pet­i­tive prices. Sec­ond, start­ing in 2015, the ar­rival from North Africa and the Mid­dle East of mi­grants in far higher num­bers than Italy is used to re­ceiv­ing. Third, ex­as­per­a­tion at the en­demic cor­rup­tion that has af­flicted the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions.

Ital­ian fam­i­lies found them­selves trapped in a suf­fo­cat­ing vice: glob­al­i­sa­tion was spir­it­ing away fac­to­ries and plants, mi­grants were com­pet­ing for badly paid jobs, and cor­rup­tion was as bad as ever. In 2017 some five mil­lion Ital­ians didn’t have enough money to go on hol­i­day, and at least 250,000 – most of them young – moved abroad. The in­equal­ity-mi­grant-cor­rup­tion domino ef­fect trig­gered a spi­ral of dis­trust that prompted protests against ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one.

The tra­di­tional par­ties – be­gin­ning with the big­gest ones, the Demo­cratic party and Forza Italia – failed to grasp the mag­ni­tude of the dis­con­tent, so the po­lit­i­cal prize went to those politi­cians who could. In the south it was Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Move­ment that pre­vailed – thanks to its “cit­i­zen­ship in­come” pro­posal – a ben­e­fit of €780 (£680) a month for the un­em­ployed. In the north it was Mat­teo Salvini’s League, which backed two horses at the same time: the so-called “flat tax” to help out busi­nesses in dif­fi­culty; and a tough ap­proach to mi­grants. Five Star and the League have clear di­vid­ing lines – their geo­graphic base, their eco­nomic ideas and their so­cial makeup. But they have one thing in com­mon: hos­til­ity to the Euro­pean Union.

Five Star ac­cuses the EU of be­ing the root cause of Italy’s eco­nomic woes, and the League blames it for hav­ing aban­doned Italy to the mi­grant cri­sis. Which ex­plains why, for Di Maio’s sup­port­ers as much as for Salvini’s, the cur­rent bat­tle with the Euro­pean com­mis­sion over the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed bud­get, judged by Brus­sels to vi­o­late agreed euro­zone spend­ing re­straint, is es­sen­tially about iden­tity. The stand­off is not just about the deficit, the out­look for growth, the fail­ure to bring down Italy’s debt and the ab­sence of re­form: its root cause is the coali­tion’s be­lief that by rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing its re­la­tion­ship with the EU, Italy will be able to win back trust, op­ti­mism and a bet­ter fu­ture.

Hence the cur­rent short-cir­cuit be­tween Rome and Brus­sels. While the com­mis­sion is try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Gio­vanni Tria, the min­is­ter for the econ­omy, to mod­ify the Ital­ian bud­get, Salvini’s and Di Maio’s in­ter­ests lie in a full-frontal con­fronta­tion with Europe.

This is what makes a com­pro­mise so dif­fi­cult, mean­ing Italy risks large EU fines. And such pun­ish­ment could be­come the sym­bol of all the EU’s flaws, just as Salvini’s League and Five Star hope to play a lead­ing role in next May’s Euro­pean elec­tions. When Di Maio prom­ises to “sweep away this Euro­pean estab­lish­ment” and Salvini sees on the hori­zon a “quiet rev­o­lu­tion in Europe”, what they have in mind is a re­peat in the Euro­pean elec­tions of their ex­tra­or­di­nary do­mes­tic elec­toral tri­umph, in al­liance with other na­tion­al­ist and Euroscep­tic par­ties.

Right now, it is im­pos­si­ble to tell if they can pull this off, or whether the Five Star/League coali­tion can nav­i­gate the loom­ing fi­nan­cial cri­sis. But one thing is cer­tain. The anx­i­ety of the Ital­ian mid­dle classes about in­equal­ity, mi­gra­tion and cor­rup­tion that sparked this rev­o­lu­tion will con­tinue to hold cen­tre stage in Italy and in Europe un­til real, strate­gic an­swers are found.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AL­BERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Pre­vail­ing in the south: Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Move­ment

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