By Giammarco Petrone
International commentators have presented the Italian general election – which will be held on the 4th of March 2018 – as a big test not only for Italy but also for the European Union (EU). Over the course of the current legislative period (2013-18), Italians have witnessed several major events. First, the Parliament had no outright majority. Then, no less than three grand coalition governments held power, in which parties of completely different political ideologies united. Also, Giorgio Napolitano was re-elected President, which marked an historic moment for Italy as no President had never been re-elected before. The fourth occurrence was the election of the new President, Sergio Mattarella. Finally, a radical revision of the constitution was implemented, which the electorate then rejected in a referendum in December 2016. Even after all these events, the country is still grappling with the same thorny issues, such as low GDP growth, high youth unemployment and the second highest debt in the EU. This article will address the different views the Italian parties have about the relationship with the European Union, which will be followed by the examination of the relation between Italy and the EU. This article’s overall argument will hold that Italian general elections do not represent a threat for the stability of the EU.
Italian political parties have somewhat different approaches towards Brussels, which are reflected by in their different electoral manifestos. However, there is a fil rouge that connects all of them: the call for change, either towards more or less integration, depending on the political ideology. Besides this, the relationship with the EU has arguably become an established matter of the political campaign. This is not specific to Italy, it occurred in other European states. For instance, the EU is a fundamental topic in French domestic politics, as illustrated during last year’s Presidential election.
The Democratic Party, which has been in power since 2013, is led by the former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. It is a pro-European party that supports the creation of a United States of Europe, as recently proposed by Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament. Furthermore, it campaigns for the direct election of the European Commission’s President, the unification of the European Commission’s and the European Council’s presidencies, and the creation of a European Ministry of Finance. However, the Democratic Party criticizes the Dublin Regulation, which considers the state through which asylum seekers first enter the EU as responsible to examine their applications for international protection (in 2017 Italy received almost 120,000 migrants), as well as the EU’s austerity policies, since they are seen as negatively impacting on investments.
The Five Star Movement, often referred to as Italy’s anti-establishment party, has a bold program and its leader is Luigi Di Maio, current Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies. It campaigns to increase the powers of the European Parliament, as it is the only institution elected by citizens, to introduce an opt-out clause from the monetary union, and to modify the aforementioned Dublin Regulation. The Five Star Movement also supports the empowerment of national parliaments to set the agenda of European priorities, in line with its membership of the Eurosceptic group ‘Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy’ in the European Parliament. Yet, further proposals such as the abolition of any ‘unproductive’ (or deemed so) European agency, or that of the triple institutional seats (Brussels-Strasburg-Luxemburg) seem hardly feasible, as they are outlined in the treaties of the European Union.
The centre-right coalition, which is composed of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, The League, and Brothers of Italy, is likely to pursue a tough line on the EU’s austerity policies. According to their unified manifesto, the centre-right parties campaign to revise the EU treaties in order to strengthen national sovereignty, so that the Italian constitution can prevail over European laws and regulations. Even if the coalition comprises Forza Italia, a party which has recently taken a pro-Europe stance, laying emphasis on the Italian interests in Brussels is considered as a top priority on its agenda. Despite this, it is highly unlikely that cornerstones of the EU legal and institutional framework, such as both the primacy of the European law as well as the common interests of its member countries, will be unilaterally questioned.
The Italian electors, who can hardly identify themselves with any political party able to answer their problems, have two main concerns, the economy and immigration that do influence their opinions on the European Union. Firstly, Italy has not completely recovered from the economic crisis and such stagnation inevitably impacts on the unemployment rate, that is even more severe among young people, especially in the south. Secondly, immigration is thought to be mishandled, which is the reason why the presence of illegal immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers is perceived as higher than it really is. Although Italy sets an example for its ‘compassionate and courageous response to the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the end of the Second World War’, the population feels that other countries should bear more responsibility. In this regard, according to Eurobarometer, which is a series of opinion surveys conducted regularly on behalf of the EU, only 39 percent of the population considers being part of the EU as beneficial, whereas the percentage is around 64 percent in the other EU countries.
European leaders have hardly expressed any comments about the potential outcome of the Italian elections, probably due to the fact that at present any kind of comment during a political campaign in a different country might be seen as interference. However, last January French President Emmanuel Macron, widely regarded as the main proponent of political integration in the EU, did not hesitate to praise Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and also to express his view by stating ‘Can I say that the European Union is positive for Italy, and can I also say that an Italy which believes in Europe is positive for Europe’. This should come as no surprise, since the Democratic Party is currently the less hostile party towards the EU and Macron’s and Renzi’s political views are quite similar. More recently, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, warned that the EU should prepare for the worst-case scenario after the Italian elections, as no operational government will be formed.
However, he retracted only a few hours later, making clear that he was misunderstood and that Italy will continue to play a pivotal role in the EU. In this regard, at present the most likely scenario is either a fragmented Parliament with no uniform majority, which would lead to new elections, or a minority government, where the support to the bipartisan government is given to guarantee stability to the country. Nevertheless, both options do not necessarily mean prolonged political paralysis, which is what seems to worry the EU.
Given that Italy is the third largest economy in the Eurozone as well as the third most populated country in the EU, what implications the Italian elections might have? If either the Democratic Party or a Forza Italia led coalition takes power, sweeping changes are unlikely to be brought about to the current approach. However, a push for more flexibility concerning the fiscal policies as well as more pressure on immigration policies cannot be excluded. Conversely, it is even possible (but highly unlikely) that, if the Five Star Movement performed well in the elections, it might consider forming a government with The League, and this would be the worst scenario for the EU since both parties have criticised its handling of mass migration as well as the common currency.
In conclusion, as instability will probably be the winner of the Italian elections, it is unlikely that the results will significantly affect the EU. Although Italy was among the founding members of the European Economic Community in 1957, and it has always been at the forefront of the European integration process, which has been a pillar of its foreign policy, at present it has little regional influence and even less authority in negotiations. In all likelihood, Brussels will land on its feet.
Giammarco has been working in the security field for almost ten years, with experiences in Asia and Latin America. He holds an MA in International Relations from Italy, and is currently an MA candidate in Intelligence & Intelligence Security at King’s College London. His main interests include corporate espionage, cybercrime, and OSINT.