What Italy’s Political Chaos Means for Europe

YouItaly is heading towards an uncertain future. Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who saved the Eurozone almost exactly a decade ago by pledging publicly to do “whatever it takes” to steer Europe through its sovereign debt crisis, has abandoned hopes of seeing Italy through its current time of troubles. Italy must now weather the storms created by the human and economic losses from the pandemic and the energy and security crises created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with someone else in charge. Draghi’s post will be held until Italy is able to hold national elections by September. But his role as the leader of a rare unity government will not end.

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, the downfall of Draghi’s coalition came gradually, then suddenly. He agreed to form a government in February 2021 – Italy’s 19th in 33 years – only with support from both the left and the right. Due to the COVID-19 crisis and the need for EU assistance, the majority of major parties agreed. The center-left Democratic Party, the anti-establishment populist Five Star Movement, populist firebrand Matteo Salvini’s hard-core nationalist Lega, and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia all signed on.

Over the past 17 months, sniping within the coalition has made Draghi’s life more difficult, but the need to secure relief funds from Brussels and the fear that new elections would unleash chaos held things together. Right-wing leaders who thought they might win another election were aware that the next national election was coming up in spring.

In June, however, the alliance began to unravel. Ultimatums were issued after a more hostile split within Five Star Movement as well as between Five Star Movement (now Lega) began to emerge. Five Star made threats to quit the government. There was some hope that Draghi would remain prime minister, but with a more narrow coalition. However, Lega and Forza Italy claimed that Draghi would resign if they continued to support a right-leaning government instead of a united coalition.

Italy is in a very difficult period right now due to this turmoil. The next elections will be the first in many decades when a country’s vote is held in autumn. This period is usually used to pass a budget. And Italy needs to pass a budget to implement the reforms the European Commission demands in exchange for a promised €200bn in grants and loans from the EU’s pandemic relief fund. That process will now be delayed because Italy’s president has dissolved parliament in advance of the September elections. Instead of fighting inflation, scrambling for ways to get through a difficult winter without Russian energy supplies, and helping consumers by fighting inflation, Italy’s leaders will be politicking, trading insults, and issuing political threats. After the vote is counted it may take weeks for a new government to be formed.

What will the biggest beneficiary of all this chaos? For now, the polls suggest an alliance of Italy’s right-wing parties will form the next government. Salvini’s Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia will have seats at the table. But the big winner will likely be the one major party that refused from the beginning to support Draghi’s government, the nativist Brothers of Italy.

Italians could be about to elect Giorgia Moloni as their first woman prime minister. Meloni, 45 years old, is almost 30 years older than her replacement as prime minister. Her experience in government is very limited but her right-wing views are deep-rooted. She joined the Italian Social Movement as a teenager. It was a fascist party that Benito Mussolini inspired. In 2008, as a member the right-wing National Alliance she was elected Youth Minister under Berlusconi’s government. She held that post, the only government job she’s had, for three years.

She was a founder member of the anti-immigrant Brothers of Italy in 2014. Defense of “God, fatherland and family” and pledges to keep migrants out will likely feature in her campaign speeches. It will be more nuanced in her position about Europe. Her position on Europe will be more nuanced than her previous statements. She insists that EU treaties must be amended and that Italian law should prevail over EU rules. But she has never favored an Italian exit from the EU, and at a time when European money is crucial for Italian recovery and despite the occasional familiar reference to “Brussels bureaucrats,” she’s likely to downplay her party’s euro-skepticism. Draghi had promised Europe that Draghi’s government would open up competition law reform and change tax regulations. Meloni understands that Italy is likely to lose significant EU funding if it doesn’t fulfill some of Draghi’s promises. Meloni will not upset the EU’s support for Ukraine. She has condemned Russia’s invasion and backed Draghi’s efforts to provide Ukraine will weapons and other support.

Giorgia Meloni’s bid to become prime minister is no sure thing. There are still risks of infighting between right-wing parties, and strong election-season swings for public opinion. But Italy’s next prime minister won’t have Mario Draghi’s crisis-management experience or his inclination that problem-solving should transcend party politics. That’s bad news for a country all too familiar with political turmoil.

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