Well over two months after its general election, Italy is still missing a government. On March the 4th Italians were called to choose new representatives for both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and the results of the ballots have destabilized the already precarious situation of the Mediterranean country. The Partito Democratico, the party that has been holding the majority in the Parliament for the last 5 years, has suffered a significant defeat.
Two forces, however, gained momentum from the general feeling of discontent towards the governing elites. Both the Lega Nord and the Movimento 5 Stelle have in fact won over considerable parts of the electorate with their populist programs. Even though they performed well beyond expectations, none of the two anti-establishment groups has reached the threshold required to form a single-party government.
These unexpected results not only shook the Italian political system down to its core, but also made many decision makers in Brussels look at the country with even increased unease. And, in the last few days, this feeling of concern seems to be very much justified.
After almost two months and a half of consultations and propositions, an agreement has been established between the far-right leader of Lega Nord Matteo Salvini and the head of the populist M5S Luigi Di Maio in order to form a ruling coalition. It is indeed the worst case scenario for the European institutions, since the two have campaigned heavily against the Union, and promised Italians a referendum to decide whether to stay or leave the Eurozone.
On May 16 a copy of the “contract” on which the two parties are negotiating has leaked to the press, allowing the public to assess the direction that these never-ending negotiations are taking. On the European front, positions seem to have been mitigated if compared to the ones expressed before and during the electoral campaign.
There is no mention of a referendum or the intention to leave the Union, a sign that the Eurosceptic leaders have decided to maybe postpone the issue for a more politically stable moment. This, however, does not mean that the soon-to-be Italian government is going to be an easy partner for Brussels to deal with. Even though “Italexit” seems to have been set aside, the renegotiation of the European Treaties and the main legal framework are signaled as part of the most important goals to achieve, so much that it has been highlighted in red in the original text.
But what does this renegotiation entail? Three main issues will be the focal point of the Lega Nord- M5S coalition: a more democratic decision making process, the diminishing of the Union exclusive competences , and the modification of the European economic governance.
Firstly, according to the “contract”, the role and the power of the European Parliament should be strengthened, since this is the only institution that has a direct democratic legitimacy. This position is not new and has been circulating for years also in pro-European movements, but the populist leaders also call for a decrease in the tasks attributed to other institutions, for instance those of the Commission.
Secondly, a reduction of the exclusive competences of the Union is deemed necessary, but no concrete example is given regarding which should be given back to Member States.
Lastly, great emphasis is put on the European economic governance management. This is considered too focused on the predominance of the internal market over social issues, especially on monetary policies, and the return to a pre-Maastricht system is proposed as a solution. This could potentially flag an intention to back out of the single currency, but, as for the competences, there is not a clear and outlined plan laid out just yet.
Another matter likely to be brought up with Brussels is the issue of migration, a red hot theme for Italian policymakers. Illegal migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are the center of a huge debate in the Mediterranean state, where each year hundreds of thousands of desperate immigrants arrive after dangerous, and in many cases deadly, journeys.
Salvini and Di Maio have both exploited the feeling of panic and fear that these waves of arrivals generate in many groups of the Italian society, their electoral programs calling for immediate repatriations of illegals and accusing the Union of leaving the country alone in the midst of the emergency. The topic, however, is only vaguely mentioned in the released document, that emphasizes the role of Italy as a geographical border and affirms that therefore should be adequately protected as such.
All in all, the alliance Lega Nord-Movimento 5 Stelle seems to be turning out much more moderate than expected regarding European subjects. Has the prospect of governing Italy mitigated the political goals of these populist parties? Not really.
As a matter of fact, the “contract” is only a guideline that the parties are tracing in order to obtain the majority in the Parliament that will allow them to form an executive. How the talks with European leaders will be conducted and how these new actors will behave is everything but set in stone. Between the difficulties in forming a government and the opposition that is going to be facing, many decision makers in Brussels are looking more and more worryingly at the situation unfolding in Rome.
For now, the preoccupations stemmed from the results of the Italian elections have pushed France and Germany closer together to develop new projects for the future of the Union. Which role Italy will play, ally or opponent, will likely be decided by the outcome of these and many other consultations, but the fear over the sweeping rise of populism continues to cast its shadow over the European institutions.