For Italy’s increasingly fragmented ruling coalition, the European parliamentary elections are a make-or-break test on the viability of continuing to govern together. Discussion on European issues such as immigration, security and the management of a debt running out of control take second place. All issues are viewed through a national prism. Something similar can be seen elsewhere – and could be taken as proof of the growing interaction between the domestic and European Union dimension in European politics – but in Italy it has taken a proportion that overshadows completely the core element of the elections, i.e. the definition of a new power relationship in the EU.
There is a reason for this. Polls show consistently a reversal in the relative strength of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S). The first has nearly doubled its share of voting intentions, at around 32-36%. The second has lost close to 10 points at around 20-23%.
A resurgent Democratic party (PD) comes close at 20-22%, while Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia has been declining gently at 8-10%. Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has a share of around 5% of voting intentions, and Emma Bonino’s More Europe is struggling to pass the 4% threshold.
Should these indications prove correct, it would be a strong incentive for Salvini to dissolve the coalition and call a general election. In the present Italian parliament, Lega has 123 members, while M5S has 221. The numbers would change significantly.
Furthermore, PD’s 112 MPs are in large proportion tied to former Secretary Matteo Renzi and opposed to the leadership of Secretary Nicola Zingaretti, who would welcome a makeover.
On the other hand, Di Maio is concerned that early elections could dissolve much of his support and bring forth a leadership crisis. Berlusconi fears that the drift away from Forza Italia could become unstoppable. The stakes are high on all sides.
The coalition, based on a ‘contract for government’ long in words and short in detail, was incohesive from the outset. Lega represents the interests of voters in the industrialised north, calling for increased deregulation, low taxation and strong investment in infrastructure. M5S’ voter base in the south calls for increased state support and more social expenditure, together with opposition to large investments in infrastructure, seen as an economically unsound vehicle for corruption.
It is difficult for two contrasting views of society to coexist and the situation has been made worse by a combination of grandstanding and lack of experience in the machinery of government. It is no surprise then that the situation has come to a head during the present electoral campaign, in which both parties have moved drastically away from each other with the aim, respectively, of making further gains on the right and containing potential losses to the left.
Salvini has taken a hard line on immigration and security, highlighting his eurosceptic opposition to budgetary discipline and calling for a grand alliance of ‘sovereignist’ parties to change radically from within the nature of the EU. Di Maio has tried, with some success, to free himself from the overpowering embrace of the Liga. He has forgotten his earlier opposition to the euro, taken a more compassionate line on security and immigration and called for universal citizens’ income and a cap on large infrastructure projects.
Past are the days when both harped against the ‘monstrous’ Brussels bureaucracy and urged Italy to free itself from its shackles. Salvini is now alone in pursuing a strong anti-European line, while Di Maio seems to have discovered belatedly the merits of European integration. This has little to do with substance and a lot with electioneering; just too bad if in so doing their stated aims in government become more incompatible by the day.
Should the European elections confirm a massive shift in favour of the Liga and a relatively positive result for PD, the attraction of going back to the polls could prove irresistible. It is far from certain that this will happen, however, and recent indications have increased doubts. Shadow boxing could give way to a new compromise, even though it is difficult to see how a government at loggerheads on most issues could continue much beyond the summer.
Whoever will be in charge at the time will have to face a blood-and-tears budget in the autumn, and no amount of bombast on ignoring EU chastisement will bring relief and forestall the risk of an explosion of debt to quasi-Greek levels. Do not expect sensible arguments before 27 May, when more sober assessments will become possible. Until then, confusion will remain the only name of the game in town.
Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-08. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.