Listening to Italy
Political populism is sweeping Europe and is one important political development that the UK must discuss and share with our current partners. A couple of months of elections in Europe have highlighted the shift away from conventional bilateral politics to something new and disturbing. There was the inconclusive Spanish General election, the first and second round of the Italian Administrative elections, the UK referendum and then the second Spanish General election.
The Italian elections for local administrations and mayors were ground-changers. 79 year old Silvio Berlusconi is no longer significant politically and his recent heart operation can only have confirmed that. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the Pd (Partito Democratico centre/left) received a rout at the polls, which shocked him profoundly. The two significant results were the mayoral successes in Rome and Turin for M5S (Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle). They were won by two young women, Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino and the phenomenon of these two new mayors were even reported in the UK press. The Guardian illustrated their report with two large photographs. Given that it was unusual, it still made a jarring comment. The pictures demonstrated the women’s visual appeal (i.e.: they were pretty). But choosing to focus on their looks wouldn’t have happened with two young men and seems to be a way suggesting not to take them seriously and questioning their ability to do the job.
Although the two women are members of the populist M5S, both come from well-known establishment families. They have also had successful and relevant careers. Appendino in Turin ran against the incumbent Pd mayor Piero Fassino. He won the first round with 41.83%, not reaching the 50% which would have avoided a second round. Appendino won 30.92 in round one. (In the second round the two candidates with the highest number of votes run against each other.) Then the right wing, fascist Lega Nord transferred its votes to M5S (in an anti-Renzi move) and she leapfrogged Fassino to take an unexpected win.
Rome’s previous Pd mayor had resigned a few months earlier after a financial scandal, so there was no incumbent to beat. Raggi won both rounds. This was the election where the sometime Berlusconi supporter and fascist candidate Meloni was publicly castigated by Silvio and another well-known politician for her candidature. As a recent new mother, they said, she should be concentrating on her family and not be thinking about potholes in the middle of the night.
We know that Cameron had followed through on his manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on Europe. Raggi’s manifesto had mentioned that she would resolve the outrageous anomaly whereby the Vatican pays no taxes on its buildings. But, in the spirit of political compromise, she seemed to have dropped this rather quickly. The Cardinals gave their new mayor a very warm welcome. (La Repubblica 22 June)
As an aside, in Cesina, a small Emiglia-Romagna town, the two leading candidates received identical numbers of votes. As this was the first round the impasse was easily resolved by proceeding to the second round. How would the UK’s Euro-referendum have been resolved if that had happened – the toss of a Euro?
On 27 June Il Fatto Quotidiano quoted an FT (Financial Times) editorial by journalist Wolfgang Münchau who predicted that the forthcoming Italian referendum on electoral changes will be unfavourable to Renzi. It was headlined: Italy will be the next domino to fall – Renzi risks being like Cameron. Münchau gave several economically based reasons for what he believes will be a negative vote. He suspects that the electorate will, as in the UK, make it an opportunity to bash the government. A 6 June huffingtonpost.it blog headlined this increasingly familiar scenario: The European wind blows on Italy: the anti-establishment wins. Münchau also predicted that M5S will be the eventual beneficiaries of the next poll. They will then, he said, work towards the rather unlikely position of taking Italy out of the Euro, but not the EU. This could lead to the collapse of the EU and the most violent economic shock in history, minimising the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and 1929 Wall Street Crash.
But nothing succeeds like success: Orecchiette’s recent articles mentioned Beppe Grillo’s inability to cope after the not-unexpected death of the M5S owner and actual leader Roberto Casaleggio. The Movement faltered and there was a period of civil war. But the recent anti-Pd successes in the mayoral and administration elections have since re-booted the Movement and emboldened Grillo who is now emerging with comfort and confidence as The Leader. He was also reported as saying that he is ready to govern. Roberto’s son Davide has been working to develop the Casaleggio objective of allowing all citizens to vote electronically and directly on all issues of state. This fascinating (and frightening) initiative would negate the role of elected politicians, replacing them with immediate citizens’ rule. Not a fantasy – with M5S receiving the largest numbers of votes in the last General Election. (The Pd formed the government with other partners, using the added “premium” of extra seats given to the majority group). Is the future of politics now in the hands of the Boris, Donald and Beppe types of this world?
As La Repubblica said on 24 June, Gert Wilders in Holland, Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord in Italy have been inspired and emboldened by the example of Cameron’s referendum and they all want one now! Salvini, whose Lega Nord want a separate northern state of Padania, was thrilled …Hurrah for free citizens. With hearts, heads and pride they fight the lies, threats and blackmail. THANKS UK! Wilders even latched onto Farage’s euphoric suggestion of Independence Day – 23 June 2016.
To go back a bit, La Stampa ran an article on 12 June which examined, with a Donald Rumsfeld tinge, Brexit, the seven unknowns of the goodbye to Europe. It started by mentioning that the vote doesn’t have any legal standing, rather, that as it is advisory Parliament must ratify it. It mentioned the probable effects of general elections planned shortly for France, Holland and Germany. Added to that, the destabilising effect of a possible Brexit which could add a further layer of agony to feed secessionist tendencies in yet more countries such as Scotland, Sweden and Denmark. Plus, it predicted, there would be a devaluation of the £, the flight of capital from London, compensatory increases in contributions from remaining EU states – and goodbye swinging London for the many young Europeans who live and work in the city.
Many European figures gave their advice to the UK electorate on the benefits of staying in Europe. There was even an article by Matteo Renzi in the Guardian. Waste of time – the majority of UK voters got their information from elsewhere. Eugenio Scalfari, the 92 year old co-founder of La Repubblica told Italian readers why Europe is a problematical concept for the English (19 June 2016). The English feel historically, politically and culturally a Nation. When Europeans talk about the history of Europe they talk about Imperial Rome, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He goes on to say that because this doesn’t include Great Britain the English see it as a reason to maintain their distance. While Europeans may see Britain as part of the larger European cultural scene, the idea, or ideal isn’t reciprocated.
Immediately after the referendum the first comments came in. La Stampa (27 June) decided that the tongue in cheek approach was as good as any explanation for Brexit. They put it down to London’s irradiating magic powers and something occult about Brexit’s 6 letters. The London Stone at 111 Cannon Street sits on several ley lines and Aleister Crowley and Harry Potter are all in there somewhere. JK Rowling apparently said that Never have I wanted to have magic powers as much as I want them today! Nice try and some welcome levity, such was the horror.
There were many considered and objective comments in the Italian press. Huffington Post’s blogger Paola Subacchi, who works for Chatham House provided some sensible analysis. Her headline ran: Britain’s financial and political elite bet on the status quo. And lost. Crucially the campaign had been based on technical issues that most people didn’t understand. More contentious was her verdict on Jeremy Corbyn who she saw as making a very unconvincing conversion to the European cause. She perceived that the Labour Party were still, as at the last general election, unable to propose a broad progressive agenda that included the job market, human rights and integration.
A Special Brexit video session run by La Repubblica heard Gianni Pitella, President of the Socialist and Democratic Group in the EU Parliament say that: Cameron was irresponsible, the referendum wasn’t necessary. The process was decided only to relegitimise his leadership inside the Conservative Party. Politicians never fulfill all their manifesto promises, the M5S’s Veronica Raggi didn’t, why didn’t Cameron see this coming? The implications of Brexit have struck Italy in much the same way as the UK. It is a populist revolution. A phenomenon that will change the political face of Europe. While Scalfari can see the unsuitability of the UK to integration to the European project, the fall-out will unleash ideas and directions that are unknown unknowns, both disturbing and unwelcome.
On 28 June Enrico Franceschini, La Rebubblica‘s London correspondent made a suitable comment with which to conclude. Boris Johnson was never an ardent anti-European. … his only intention was to become head of the government.