Daniele Albertazzi Senior lecturer in European Politics and postgraduate research director, Department of Political Science and International Studies, School of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham
I suggest viewing Italy as a bellwether for political change happening across Europe, rather than stressing its supposed “uniqueness.” Recent developments in the country show where the whole continent is heading in several ways.
First, in the upcoming election more than half of the voters will probably choose an “anti-elite,” populist party, due to the existence and expected success of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the Northern League, and the Five Star Movement. Second, there is increasing polarization between the left and the right. Third, debates around migration and identity shape the agenda, with the media playing up the drama by simplifying and personalizing complex issues. Fourth, a very unhealthy relationship persists between media and politics—not just due to Berlusconi’s presence—but also because of the continued influence of political parties on the public service broadcaster, as well as newspaper publishing being controlled by industrial/financial groups.
However, recent suggestions that Italy is about to hold a referendum on the euro are pure nonsense. Not only is there no legal way of holding such a vote, but the reaction of the markets to an announcement of this kind would plunge any government into a crisis. There is no appetite for such a fight in Italy, and none of the party leaders are preparing for one.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Jean Monnet chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
No, it hasn’t. Italy is often said to be on the brink of collapse, and yet it is still here, still one of the main actors in the EU and in international relations. Even during the Cold War, when governments often lasted only a few months, Italy always kept up—thanks to the country’s endurance, creativity, and a small, pivotal group of recurring ministers.
True, government instability, lack of coordination, and the inability to strategize long-term take their toll and often makes Italy punch below its weight. The latest case in point: the country’s inability to secure the relocation of the EU Medicines Agency to Milan, a bid that was Italy’s to lose given the excellence of the city’s proposal and its readiness to host.
And of course, the forecasts of the coming election predicting that a “best loser”—Silvio Berlusconi—might effectively lead a coalition government if no clear winners emerge (due to a new electoral law) makes people wonder.
But people also wonder at the months it took Germany to form a new government, not to mention U.S. President Donald Trump’s disruptive policies. Has the world lost its way?
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
In theory, Italy should have a lot going for it. Its population is almost as big as France’s and Britain’s. It’s the third-largest economy inside the eurozone and a member of the G7 and the G20. It is home to nine Fortune Global 500 companies and major European conglomerates, including Fiat and Eni. It is one of the six founding members of the European Economic Community.
But in reality, Italy has been punching well below its weight for over a decade. To blame is the usual mix of economic stagnation, lack of reforms, political instability, sky-high public debt, unemployment, etc. The eurocrisis hit Italy especially hard and revealed underlying structural problems. The failure of the Renzi government to bring about meaningful reforms has further dampened the country’s prospects. On top of all this, the migration crisis has disproportionately impacted Italy. Perhaps it’s no wonder that euroskepticism and anti-establishment sentiments in the country have been going up in recent years.
The upcoming general election will be a major test for both Italy and for Europe. Given the many crucial decisions the EU is facing in 2018, Europe cannot afford a euroskeptic, anti-trade, and pro-Kremlin government in Rome. It should therefore do everything it can to help Italy get back on track.
Marta Dassù Editor in chief of Aspenia and senior director for European affairs at the Aspen Institute
Italy hasn’t lost its way; it’s returning to its old ways. For fifty years, elections never produced clear majorities; under the new election law, the same is true today. Three points seem clear: abstention will be the first party; the Five Star Movement, a “populist” force that is neither left-wing nor right-wing, will be the second party, but won’t be able to form a government; Silvio Berlusconi, who can’t be an official candidate, holds the key to the next coalition government. Sounds paradoxical? Yes, but there’s no need to panic. Whatever scenario ensues—a German-style Forza Italia-Democratic Party coalition, a center-right coalition with the Northern League, or a “president’s” government still led by Paolo Gentiloni—Italy’s European policy will only marginally change.
The Northern League and the Five Star Movement have both shelved the idea of a referendum on euro membership. Naturally, a center-right coalition would be cooler toward Europe than Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (in a country now described by the polls as broadly euroskeptic). But the real divide is over migration, not the euro. The eurozone’s third-largest economy is going to make sure it doesn’t tumble into a “Greek plus” scenario. All the election promises on deficit spending, in a situation of fragile economic recovery, are just that: promises. In the unlikely case that the center-right gets the numbers it needs to govern alone, we’ll likely see a tilt toward Putin. But here, again, without overdoing it. Italy, in its best tradition, is risk averse.
Jonas Parello-Plesner Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute
When Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency last year, European elites were comforted after twelve months of Trump, Brexit, and a seemingly unstoppable populist global backlash—including against the EU.
Now, Italy’s upcoming general election is beginning to shake that new-found confidence. Many Italians are fed up, including with the EU. They plan to vote accordingly. Berlusconi, the waxy octogenarian and founder of crony media-entertainment democracy, is making a political comeback, backing his Forza Italia party and calling immigration a “social bomb ready to explode.” At the same time, the euroskeptic and anti-establishment Five Star Movement is heading toward first place in the polls. The center-left Democratic Party, which runs the current government, trails behind. No matter what, the EU is likely to be challenged by Italy after the election.
Macron is hoping to sprint ahead on European integration with Germany. Instead, the Italian vote might force him and Merkel to revisit old European conflicts if a new Italian government rips up compromises over the budgetary pact, for example, stirring up the hot pot of the eurocrisis. The choice could stand between either an anti-EU government in Italy or a prolonged period of political instability and lack of government formation. Some European integrationists might end up wishing for the latter.
James Politi Rome bureau chief for the Financial Times
With Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition leading the polls—with a shot at winning an outright majority—Italy is certainly in danger of falling into old traps. When Matteo Renzi, the prime minister between 2014 and 2016, was in office, hopes of an Italian revival—both politically and economically—were high. He embarked on an incomplete but undeniable reform path that continued under his successor Paolo Gentiloni. That is now at risk.
Silvio Berlusconi’s economic platform avoids any painful but necessary structural changes in favor of deficit-busting fiscal stimulus, gambling on a benevolent reaction from financial markets. He also wants to be less constrained by EU rules, which would make it harder for Rome to be a credible player in negotiating eurozone reform. A government led by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement would pose similar challenges on a larger scale. If the center-left Democratic Party performs strongly enough, which is a big question mark, a grand coalition with Berlusconi might be on the cards. This may be the only hope for the modernization of the Italian economy to continue. But with Berlusconi still in the picture, any progress is likely to be halting and fragile.
Gianni Riotta Member of the Council on Foreign Relations
I guess yes—at least since 476 CE, when Romulus Augustus, the last, hapless, ruler of the Western Empire, was pushed aside by Odoacer. Dante bemoaned the ruin of Italy; Petrarca too. Machiavelli tried, in vain, to offer a blueprint for national revival. The romantic poets, Foscolo and Leopardi, cried for the beloved, lost fatherland. Mussolini said that “ruling Italians is not difficult, it is pointless,” before ruining the country. Italian national identity is not political, it is cultural.
Italians have a tough time dealing with their own history. After World War II, Europe became the umbrella to shield our troubles—until it suddenly became the source of them. Italy remains a land of amazing innovation, surrounded by a perennial wasteland of nostalgia, depression, and pessimism.
Berlusconi was the Pied Piper, playing his tune of optimism for twenty years without spurring reforms. Prodi and Renzi tried to innovate, only to be knifed by their own comrades. Salvini stirs fearsome ghosts of nationalism and hate. Grillo is the new champion of the old, backward, country. The Common Man’s Front, a populist movement started in the early 1940s, was a prototype for Grillo's own Five Star Movement today, built on the narrative that politicians are corrupt, intellectuals are sellouts, and the common man knows better. My parents’ generation rejected The Common Man’s Front and saved Italy, launching la dolce vita. Will my kids’ generation reject The Five Star Movement? This is the bet to be placed on March 4.
Italy has not lost its way; it has been looking for one for centuries—and is why the country remains so wonderful, frail, and mesmerizing.
Paul Taylor Contributing Editor at POLITICO
Italians have many reasons to feel angry and to want to give their overprivileged political class a kicking in the March 4 election.
A decade of economic stagnation and austerity has squeezed living standards. The recent return of timid growth has done little to dent unemployment, especially among the young, or to curb social inequality. Corruption and organized crime remain deeply rooted. Vested interests and weak administration frustrate reform efforts.
Rome has been largely abandoned by European partners to cope with an influx of migrants including hundreds of thousands of mostly African boat people fleeing Libya. While some have made their way to Germany, many end up marooned in Italy. The number of registered foreigners has doubled since 2007 to more than 5 million, fueling xenophobia, populism and occasional acts of racist violence.
There is some good news in the economy—booming exports; competitive companies, including thriving small and medium-sized businesses; banks slowly cleaning up their balance sheets. Public debt is finally set to decline from a record 132.6 percent of GDP. But this is of little comfort to ordinary Italians.
Barring a severe economic shock—unlikely in the current benign environment—Italy seems likely to go on muddling through without either taking decisive reform steps or falling into the abyss.
Nathalie Tocci Director of the Italian institute of International Affairs
Unlike 2017, when a sequence of national elections put the EU’s existence into question, Italy’s general election next month is going largely unnoticed. With Macron at the helm in France and the final touches being put on the grand coalition in Germany, the mood is hopeful for a relaunch of the European project this year.
Will Italy be Europe’s new party pooper? The political prospects are grim. With the sole exception of Emma Bonino’s More Europe party, no Italian party is genuinely europhile. Italian euroskepticism comes in different shapes. It ranges from the extreme xenophobic and sovereigntist euroscepticim of the Northern League and the Five Star Movement, to the ambiguous euroskeptic streaks of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and, alas, Renzi’s Democratic Party, who appeal to an imaginary “other Europe.” Two thirds of Italians remain committed to the EU and the euro; the political class falls horribly short.
Speculations of the electoral outcome range from bad (a grand coalition between Renzi and Berlusconi) to worse (a right-wing coalition) to disastrous (an unholy alliance between the Five Star Movement and the Northern League).
Will Italy plunge the EU into renewed crisis? The complexity and dysfunctionality of Italian institutions would contain the damage done by any government: the silver lining of Italy’s immobilism. Far more likely is that from March 5 onward, Italy will further sideline itself from the relaunch of the EU at the expense of Italians and Europeans as a whole.