Listening to Italy
As the UK grapples with Brexit, its press has noticeably, and ironically, increased its reporting on Italy. We are currently offered detailed coverage of the country’s financial struggles with the EU over its intention to increase the budget deficit above permitted levels. On 1 December, Julian Coman the Guardian’s Joint Opinion Editor, published an extended article about a town in Tuscany where their Lega mayor was withdrawing financial assistance to migrants. This is very relevant to Lega leader Matteo Salvini’s much reported refusal to permit the embarkation of migrants at Italian ports.
The coalition of Luigi di Maio’s M5S (Five Star) and La Lega refused to retreat from their election promises which would necessitate additional government expenditure. Salvini, who refuses to accept EU diktats, was more adamant than Di Maio that there would be no change of course. The EU initially threatened sanctions. They then softened their approach preferring to say that this was a blunt and counter-productive strategy. Finance Minister Giovanni Tria and Premier Conte then made a trip to the EU Commission to smooth waters. The same Conte that Francisco Manacorda called “the ectoplasm of a premier” in La Repubblica of 3 December.
One of the main issues is the cost of the repeal of the Fornero pension changes whereby Mario Monti’s technocratic government raised the retirement age to 67. This was an election pledge of both parties. This is called the Fornero law after the pensions expert Elsa Fornero who introduced this highly unpopular measure in 2011 as a strategy to save an initial Є80bn in the following 9 years.
Salvini provocatively announced during the current financial stand-off with the EU that the coalition’s repeal of Fornero would start in February. And that they, meaning the coalition, had done more in five months than others had done in five years. Fake news, as La Repubblica easily proved in an analysis of parliamentary bills passed in the first few months of previous new administrations.
Meanwhile Di Maio, Salvini’s co Vice-Premier, received headlines such as the following in La Repubblica of 30 November: “In the space of six months Salvini has eaten the M5S”. This is demonstrated by the rise in La Lega‘s popularity from 17.4 at the General Election, to 33.3% in November 2018, compared to M5S’s 32.7% which dropped to 25.9%. Salvini’s rating, personally, in November, was 52% and Di Maio’s 39%. The parties are now all waiting for the results of the European elections in May.
Di Maio was hit in November by an interesting schadenfreude boomerang. M5S have long pilloried all other Italian political groups for their establishmentarianism, their corruption and dishonesty. Three complex cases led to a position of considerable embarrassment for Di Maio.
First up is parliamentarian and ex-Minister Maria Elena Boschi, “MEB”, often also nicknamed “the Queen”. Boschi worked closely with Matteo Renzi, holding senior roles in his and also Gentiloni’s Pd (Partito Democratico) Government. Her father, Pierluiugi, was the Vice President of Banca Etruria when it went into receivership. He was accused of management failures and, relevantly, his daughter was a shareholder. MEB faced a M5S parliamentary no-confidence motion, in the words of a Huffpost article, for her “constant intertwining of public role and private position”.
Next is Matteo’s Renzi’s father, Tiziano Renzi. He was pilloried by M5S while being investigated for abusing his influence. The case involved his role at Consip the state-owned company dealing with public procurement. Tiziano was investigated for receiving money and also for his involvement with people who had been arrested for various illegal activities. Tiziano was cleared. But at one point a conversation between Matteo and Tiziano had been bugged. Father had said to his son that he hadn’t been at the meeting in question. But Matteo is heard to tell his Father that he mustn’t tell the police that his Mother was also present. Beppe Grillo, the then leader of M5S, said that “the Consip scandal is an atomic bomb in Italian politics”.
And to Luigi Di Maio, whose father Antonio was accused of employing and exploiting illegal workers and building without planning permission and legal contracts. The press found a photograph of Luigi sitting by a swimming pool but in front of an illegally built building. Antonio apologised on Facebook, saying that his son was neither involved nor had anything to do with the family business. Shortly afterwards, on 3 December, Luigi himself dissolved the business, Arsima Srl, putting his brother Guiseppe in charge as liquidator.
The personal and institutional fallout has been significant. Internally his previous close M5S colleague, rival and fellow parliamentarian Alessandro Di Battista actually congratulated him on his handling of the matter.
MEB appeared in a very solumn video and was immediately criticised on Facebook by Peter Gomez the Director of Il Fatto Quotidiano. He called her a hypocrite, with a clear political motive behind the support for her father and her theatrically outraged rejection of what she called “M5S’s mud-slinging”. She called Di Maio (who is also relevantly the Labour Minister) “The Minister of illegal workers”.
Tiziano Renzi stuck a tongue in cheek knife into Di Maio: “if I had done what Mr. Di Maio did, the Five Stars would have already asked for the reinstatement of the death penalty on social networks ” Matteo commented on Di Maio and M5S: “I am convinced that the alleged ‘honesty’ of the Five Stars is a great FakeNews …..from the evader Beppe Grillo downwards” . He asked Di Maio to apologise and said: “But I am also convinced that the faults of the fathers should not fall on children. I have always said this, unlike Di Maio, who has realized it now.”
The journalist and Director of il Fatto Quotidiano Marco Travaglio has twice been fined for defamation this year for pursuing the case of Tiziano Renzi. He, or the independent paper, are faced with debts of Є50,000 and Є95,000. Travaglio and Il Fatto aim to identify hypocrisy. In Dec 2017 Travaglio wrote: In Italy … even in politics the truth has become questionable.” He goes on to say that it is hard to distinguish where this truth lies, who is lobbying and who has interests in what they are proposing. “In short, the news comes to us – good or bad, filtered by those who spread it and offer it” .
To return to the coalition: they are now identifying budget cuts. One will be the withdrawal of financial support for some migrant programmes, another to cut it for some of the smaller newspapers. Both causes are bêtes noir for Salvini and Di Maio.