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The Italian Job – Part One: 5 Star and the Lega blow the bloody doors off

January 13th, 2019

This is an article about Italian politics.

I have had to stop typing just to double check what I’ve written. Since when has Italian politics been interesting? Italian politicians of course – Berlusconi, bunga bunga, strange men from the Mezzogiorno who sleep with horses heads, big backhanders, ladies with big backsides, Parliamentary punch ups – Italian politicians have fascinated us. But that was entertainment not real politics. 

For most of us modern Italian politics has been a distant background noise of squabbling parties, pick and mix coalitions and inherently unstable governments. Nobody outside Italy worried too much about Italy’s politics as it could all change at the drop of a hat so why invest time and effort?But that might just have changed.

That change has come about primarily from two politicians, Beppe Grillo the leader of the 5 Star movements and Matteo Salvini of the Lega. Both are colourful characters.70 year old Grillo is a kind of activist Billy Connolly who has lambasted the Italian establishment in his blog and stage shows.

Grillo channelled that discontent into the 5 Star movement, a leftish political party championing the concerns of ordinary people. 45 year old Salvini dropped out of Milan University and spent a life in politics in Europe, Lombardy and Italy, eventually moving through the right wing Lega to become its leader.

To Grillo goes the credit of consolidating the Italian left since 2009 into a large and coherent force.Salvini gets the credit for shaking the Lega out of its particularism and moving nationally. Note that’s the Lega no longer the Lega Nord – it’s as if the SNP decided to drop the S and compete across the UK. Both men have advanced on the discontent of voters in Italy with traditional parties, the EU and economic stagnation.

And the voters have much to be discontent about. Joining the Euro has put huge strains on Italy’s businesses which in the past had used the Lira to help keep them competitive. The Teutonic inflexibility of the ECB came as the first shock; the second was the realisation that Italy had locked its currency at a level which caused it harm.

In the first boomy years of the noughties nobody worried too much but once the financial crisis hit the bad news surfaced. Since 2008 the Italian economy has barely grown. Worse, the small businesses which provided much employment and activity suddenly found themselves exposed in a globalised world and struggling to respond. Shoes and handbags could be made much cheaper in Thailand or Vietnam than Treviso or Verona. 

Italy had two recessions in short order, one in 2009 and a second in 2012/13 on the back of an austerity programme designed to placate the EU. This decade of pain has left scars on the country and alienated large sections of the electorate, in particular the young where eye wateringly high levels of youth unemployment blight the country.

And then there’s immigration. No European crisis would be complete without it. In the 10 years of economic stagnation Italy’s migrant population grew by 2 million. Most of these were other Europeans (Romanians make up the largest group) but the headlines went to the dramatic events in the Mediterranean. As the Arab Spring kicked off in nearby Tunisia and Libya Italy found itself on the front line of a refugee crisis.

Whereas maybe 20-30,000 people crossed the Mediterranean or Adriaticillegally up to 2012, from 2013, (smack in the middle ofItaly’s European austerity pain) this number shot up to closer to 200,000 each year.A ruling from the distant ECHR that Italy couldn’t return refuges set the fires burning and Mrs Merkel clumsily added more fuel to the fire in 2015.

Against this background it was inevitable that the protest parties would gain votes but the depth of electoral despair were perhaps underestimated. Italy’s older parties had sacrificed themselves on the altar of Europe and lost support heavily. In the 2018 election 5 Star now led by Grillo’s deputy and nominee Luigi Di Maio topped the poll with 33% of the vote. The Lega cane third with a credible 17% a sizeable improvement on its previous results.

At first it looked like business as usual. Politics in Italy went in to its customary haggle against a background of political numbers which didn’t quite add up. President Matterella lined himself up to name a government; and then something remarkable happened. The two parties which on paper were at either end of the political spectrum, against all the odds, agreed to form a government.

Perhaps it was the realisation that this was their one chance to upset the political apple cart that made them seize it, but whatever it was Italy was entering new territory. Both Di Maio and Salvini showed a level of pragmatism to get to this point. However they are both fairly flexible politicians; Salvini began life as a left winger and ended up leading the Right, Di Maio comes from a far right family and has ended up leading the Left. In those journeys there is perhaps a level of empathy with the other side that makes things work.

The establishment were shocked both in Italy and Brussels. Then the temperature rose further as the new government proposed an openly anti Euro professor as Finance Minister. The President vetoed it and a constitutional crisis ensued with Matterella eventually having to back down after a face saving compromise with the new government. The powers that be had tried to kill the populist government at birth and not only failed but had made actually them more popular.

Once in government 5 Star/Lega have set about delivering their agenda. Reversing austerity, tackling immigration and facing down Brussels and they have seen their approval ratings soar. All of this depends of Di Maio and Salvini staying close enough to see a change in the domestic landscape through and this is the weakness the government faces, but for the first time in ages Italy has a strong and popular government and the rest of Europe has to sit up and take notice. Suddenly Italy has become a player. 

Alanbrooke