Listening to Italy
Italy now has an interim government headed by Paolo Gentiloni. Following Renzi’s resignation, he was selected by President Mattarella to complete pending legislation. Crucially this includes the electoral changes necessary to make the forthcoming election fully-constitutional. They must be in place by 2018 at the latest. Gentiloni was a member of Renzi’s majority Partito Democratico (Pd) government. As a temporary Prime Minister he has the handicap (or is this viewed as being an advantage?) of being unconfrontational and obviously not the forceful, charismatic personality of his predecessor.
Gentiloni’s tenure faces enormous challenges. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the largest of Italy’s small regionally based banks, was saved from bankruptcy by being capitalised by Renzi’s government. It would have been political suicide if small investors had lost their savings. Other banks still have identical problems. This transfer effectively boosted the national debt. At exactly the same time the European Commission warned Italy that it must reduce its deficit.
Italy also has to confront the recent natural disasters, the avalanche, the earthquakes and the subsequent homelessness. There is also the financial and cultural impact of dealing with and supporting the flood (to use Cameron’s words) of migrants that other European countries neither want to take or help fund.
Renzi, still Pd leader, is trying to relaunch his party. Membership has plummeted and Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement (M5S) has been ahead in the polls for some time. Symbolically, just after New Year, Renzi gave a long interview to La Repubblica‘s Editor in Chief Ezio Mauro. He admitted that he had made mistakes but the lack of pressure had allowed him a period of reflection; he had even been out on his bike. Unwisely he referred to M5S as an “algorithm”. This resulted in a lot of publicity and rage, which was unhelpful to him.
Meanwhile Beppe Grillo’s M5S aims to build its reputation on the outcomes of their elected local mayors – a faith as yet unrealised. The Mayor of Turin, Chiara Appendino, has increased her popularity. But Grillo’s biggest mayoral hope, Rome’s Virginia Raggi has had to contend with two of her top appointments being accused of corruption. Currently (27 Jan) Raggi is alleged to have lied about her knowledge of the background to this and is viewed as struggling to perform.
One of the fundamental tenets of M5S is to defeat corruption and to be anti-establishment in office. But the mayor of a complex, dysfunctional, corrupt city such as Rome needs considerable insight, coupled with a strongly Machiavellian personality if they are to operate with and against that city’s powerful players. Raggi is always pictured smiling serenely in the press. But she obviously lacks the guile and Trumpian decisiveness to be a winner for Rome.
Alongside all of this is Silvio Berlusconi, who has become eternal; his Forza Italia party (Fi) is still able to be a significant political player. There are few in Italian politics who match Berlusconi’s charisma and credibility, which he uses to minimise and brush off his empty promises and miscalculations while in government. Another legal case, relevant to the famous “bunga-bunga” accusations, is currently just coming to the attention of the press.
Last year Martin Schultz resigned as President of the European Parliament and the practice of balance meant that a candidate from the right was seen as being the favourite to succeed him. This was however a contested post and Europarliamentarians voted in mid-January. Before this, at the start of January, something happened that only later could be seen to have been related to the election. Beppe Grillo announced that he was leaving the EFDD (Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy) EU group, that he shared with Nigel Farage. Grillo apparently wanted to join the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe), maintaining that Farage and UKIP had become irrelevant since the UK voted to leave the European Union.
ALDE is led by the strongly euro-federalist Belgian, Guy Verhofstadt, and Grillo’s anti-establishment, anti-EU beliefs are completely contradictory. This immediately questioned the motivations behind this unsuitable alliance. Both men were on record as disliking what the other stood for and Grillo had even said that Verhofstedt was “unpresentable”. The deal didn’t go through, Grillo returned to Farage and importantly, the numerical and national balance within EFDD was retained – and with it their funding. (A group must have a minimum of 25 members from at least 7 national states)
Verhofstadt saw himself as the ideal candidate for the European Presidency. He said that Brexit was an opportunity to pull Europe together and he viewed himself as the visionary bridge builder who would be instrumental to this. Adding Grillo’s votes would also have increased the likelihood of his election. But the other leaders within his own ALDE group were totally opposed to the Grillo liaison, seeing it as a cynical power bid on Verhofstadt’s part – as were the rank and file, who were profoundly irritated that they first heard about it from the press. Grillo’s aides consulted their membership and received approval from over 75% of those who voted. The response was low however and that approval amounted to only around 25% of the total membership of 130,000.
Verhofstadt rationalised the tie-up as a way of bringing M5S into a political context, while Grillo said that it was a technical rather than a political move. Verhofstadt’s authority was diminished by the failure of his miscalculations. His covert machinations contradicted the openess that he appeared to espouse and he stood down as a Presidential candidate. Seven candidates then remained. The two strongest were Italian: Gianni Pitella, President of the S&D group (Socialists and Democrats) and a member of Renzi’s Pd party and Antonio Tajani, one of 14 Parliamentary Vice-Presidents and Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship. Tajani won the almost unprecedented 4th and final ballot against Pitella, after concerted backroom deals ensured Pitella’s defeat – one headline referred to an old boys network having won. The European Council, Commission and Parliament are now all under the control of the right.
Sixty three year old Tajani’s qualifications for the potentially important post of European President are surprisingly limited. When he was young he was a member of the Fmg (Youth Monarchist Front). He was a co-founder with Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia. He was first elected to the European Parliament in 1994. He stood unsuccessfully as Mayor of Rome in 2001. As a Commissioner he did nothing when he was informed about the Volkwagen emissions scandal, preferring later to claim that he hadn’t been informed at the time. His most significant achievement was to introduce a system of compensation for delayed air passengers. Also, Tajani’s conciliatory skills helped Sylvio Berlusconi out of situations where Berlusconi’s enthusiasm for rudeness caused political uproar; notably, he (allegedly) called Angela Merkel an “un****able lardarse”.
The day after the election Corriere della Sera summarised Tajani’s leadership style thus: he“will not be a charismatic President. He is not able to be, neither would he want to be”. Whose purposes does this Presidency serve?