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Italy’s crisis and the crisis of democracy in Europe

Italy’s unelected pro EU President has just set a democratic election aside by preventing anti-EU parties forming a government

Before analysing what has just happened in Italy and discussing its likely consequences, it is necessary to say something about the fact of what has just happened.

Italy is supposed to be a parliamentary republic with the Prime Minister and the government accountable to the parliament.

As in other parliamentary republics the Italian President is supposed to be a figure above politics, whose primary function is to safeguard the constitution, which he is sworn to uphold.  He is not supposed to meddle in day to day politics or to take on himself the leadership of the country.

Italy recently had parliamentary elections, which parties which can be broadly defined as ‘anti-EU’ decisively won.

Italy’s most prominent pro-EU party, the Democratic Party, saw its vote fall to 19% of the vote.  By contrast the leftist but anti-EU Five Star Movement won 32% of the vote, whilst the right wing but even more anti-EU Northern League won 17.7% of the vote.

After complex and protracted discussions of a sort which are by no means unusual in Italy, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League agreed to form a coalition government together.

That coalition government would have represented the two anti-EU parties which together won almost 50% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, and which have a majority in the lower house of the Italian Parliament the Chamber of Deputies.

There was no obvious constitutional or legal reason why that government, which represents the parties which won the parliamentary elections, should not have been allowed to take office.

In the event that is not what was permitted to happen.

The strongly pro-EU Italian President Sergio Mattarella – who is not directly elected, but is elected by an electoral college made up of the two chambers of the Italian parliament and of representatives of Italy’s regions – to the surprise of some (including me) appeared to agree to the coalition’s suggestion that its nominee Giuseppe Conte should be Italy’s new Prime Minister.

However, in what I strongly suspect was a prearranged move, he then vetoed the coalition’s nominee for Finance Minister, Paolo Savona.

This is despite the fact that Savona is an experienced banker and an internationally recognised economist, who has headed several of Italy’s banks, and who has previously held ministerial office.

In vetoing Savona’s appointment Mattarella did not question Savona’s qualifications for the Finance Ministry post or question his general competence.  Savona’s record makes that impossible.

Nor did Mattarella say that Savona was unfit to hold office because, for example, he suffers from ill health or has a criminal record.

Instead Mattarella vetoed Savona’s appointment because of Savona’s known skepticism about Italy’s membership of the Eurozone, with which Mattarella happens to disagree.

Mattarella has dressed this up by talking of the negative reaction to Savona’s appointment by the financial markets, and of his “duty” to protect Italy’s savers.

As to the first, that subordinates the will of the Italian people as expressed in a democratic election to the opinion of the financial markets; as to the second, that is purely Mattarella’s opinion, whilst the nature of his “duty” to “protect” Italy’s savers is unknown to me.

I would add that it also seems to be a case of “protecting” Italy’s savers by setting aside their votes.

In either case these seem to me to be strange reasons for a President to give for in effect refusing to confirm in office a Finance Minister selected by a government which had just been democratically elected by the people.

In reality I suspect that Mattarella never intended the coalition to take power.  He did not reject Conte because that would have been too obvious a rejection of the outcome of the election, so he rejected Savona instead, knowing that that would be unacceptable to the coalition, and would cause it to return its mandate to form a government.

In that way Mattarella is now able to say that the coalition’s failure to form a government is its fault, and deny that he has set the verdict of the election aside.

In fact this is a straightforward case of the European political establishment – of which Mattarella is very much a part – setting the result of a democratic election which it doesn’t like aside.  Moreover it is not the first time the European political establishment has done this, though it has not done this previously in quite so flagrant a way.

Thus back in November 2011 the Italian Presidency was also used to help engineer the resignation of Italy’s then Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi who also had by this time. become something of a bête noire for the European political establishment.

Berlusconi  says this was because he refused to apply for a loan to the IMF, which would have required him to impose swingeing austerity measures on Italy.   Spain’s former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero says that’s true.

As happened after Berlusconi was forced to resign, so now, the Italian Presidency is moving to appoint a rigidly orthodox pro-EU technocrat to run what is sometimes called a “technical government” in place of a government democratically accountable to the parliament.

In 2011 this was the former EU Commissioner Mario Monti.  This time it is the former IMF economist Carlo Cottarelli.

This is despite the fact that Giuseppe Conte – the coalition Prime Minister designate whose appointment the President has effectively blocked – commands a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which Cottarelli of course does not.

Cottarelli in fact embodies and is committed to implementing precisely the mix of policies – fiscal orthodoxy, ‘supply side reforms’ and unending austerity inside the Eurozone – which Italian voters rejected in the elections in March.

There is an old British quip that if voting changed anything it would be abolished.  That is not true in Britain.  In Italy however the Italian people have just been given a lesson that voting changes nothing.

Back in November 2011, whilst the plotting against Berlusconi was still underway, but shortly after the European political establishment had engineered the resignation of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, I wrote the following on my personal blog

If the European Union collapses as a result of this crisis this will be the moment when that collapse begins.  The European Union is supposed to be a union of democracies yet faced by the greatest crisis in its history its response is to impose its decisions by arranging the removal of the government that is supposed to be accountable to the people affected by those decisions whilst denying those same people a say.  Moreover it seems that Greece is only the start.  Steps are apparently already underway to engineer through the Italian Presidency the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Italy so that it can be replaced with a new government that is more amenable to the wishes of the French and German governments and to those of the central European institutions.

Acting in a democracy to deny the people the right to a say in the way they are governed amounts to a coup d’etat.  This is so regardless of whether this coup is carried out legally or not.  The political crisis in Germany in the early 1930s was precipitated by the perfectly legal and constitutional step of forming technocratic governments that had not been elected and which were not accountable to the German parliament the Reichstag, which sought to use Presidential powers to impose by decree austerity measures the German people had not voted for.  The result was a crisis of legitimacy that ended in dictatorship.

I do not think that this time things will go this far but no one should be under any illusions about the momentous nature of the events that are now starting to unfold.  Europe is on the brink and its crisis has just stopped being only economic.

Compare that with what the British writer and commentator John Laughland is now saying about the Italian crisis

I don’t think it’s a constitutional crisis in Italy, I think it’s a constitutional crisis in the whole of Europe.  We’ve seen now systematically how members of the European elite, of which President Mattarella is an excellent example, use every method they can to prevent parties wielding power if that power is to be wielded against the euro or against the European Union.

Back in March, immediately following the Italian parliamentary elections, I discussed the reasons for the rise of anti-EU parties in Italy and across Europe.  I said that it was the inevitable outcome of the increasingly anti-democratic style European politics have been taking for several decades now and especially after the Eurozone was established.

I should have added that it was also an inevitable response to the draconian economic policies that go hand in hand with those politics, and which in the case of Italy have delivered two decades of economic stagnation.

I also said that the European political establishment appears incapable of learning anything from this, and appears determined instead to dig in, making it a certainty that resistance to it will continue to grow

…..instead of analysing and responding to what is happening the European establishment across Europe is retreating into denial.

Thus the parties and leaders who are increasingly winning votes are dismissed as “populists” – a label which is both meaningless and deeply anti-democratic – their voters are dismissed as ‘ultra-right’ and racist, and their electoral successes are explained by sinister Russian meddling which is supposed to occur but of which no evidence is ever found…..

Unfortunately, as its denialism about its repeated electoral defeats might lead one to expect, the establishment in Europe instead of changing its approach is simply digging in.

Thus we have seen the manipulation of the French electoral process in order to engineer the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, the cobbling together of the ‘grand coalition’ in Germany, the threats against Poland and Hungary, and the increasingly frantic attempts in Britain to reverse or water down the Brexit vote.

Unfortunately – as I also pointed out in the same article – in the desert which is post-modern European politics, no convincing alternative to the European establishment exists.

Though the coalition in Italy between the Five Star Movement and the Northern League mathematically speaking commands the support of around half of Italy’s voters, the two parties are ideological opposites, and it is far from certain that the coalition they have formed would have held together in government.

Moreover there are serious doubts not just about the viability of its programme but about the managerial competence of its members.

Whilst it is certainly possible that the two coalition partners will vote down Cottarelli when he comes to parliament for a vote of confidence – forcing elections in August – and whilst it is also possible that the two parties which make up the coalition will increase their share of the vote in the August elections – no one should assume any of that.

Italy being Italy, it is not impossible that the coalition will fracture, or that there will be a strong reaction against it at the polls.

In that case the coup will have succeeded, and the ancien régime will have been restored.

However that will not resolve the underlying crisis not just in Italy but in Europe.

In my previous article I spoke of the situation not just in Italy but in Europe being one of paralysis – what the Greeks called stasis – a state of immobility or ‘standing still’ despite the situation having become intolerable.

Just as everywhere else in Europe, the political system in Italy looks increasingly discredited and broken, but no viable alternative exists to put in its place.

As Gramsci once said

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

In the current political paralysis – what the Greeks called statis – “standing still” – the chaotic electoral result in Italy is just one more of the “great variety of morbid symptoms” which are bound to appear.

Events in Europe over the last few months illustrate the extent of this paralysis vividly.  Consider for example

(1) the inability of Merkel and Macron to agree together a programme for EU reform and the growing personal antipathy there is said to be between them;

(2) the resurrection of Germany’s unpopular and discredited “grand coalition” despite the severe setback it suffered in the German parliamentary elections last September;

(3) the inability of the EU to stand by Iran and to develop an effective response to Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA or to respond to the further sanctions on Iran which he is imposing (see this discussion in the Financial Times).

The fact that the EU is almost certain to extend the sectoral sanctions it imposed on Russia at the end of June, though barely anyone in Europe believes in them any more, also tells the same story.

In Europe – not just in Italy – not only is it a case that “the new cannot be born”, but the Europeans look increasingly unable to break out of the prison they have made for themselves.

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