In a summer overshadowed by war in Europe, a pandemic, an energy and cost of living crisis and climate chaos, Italy has decided to follow the UK and trigger a government collapse.
Mario Draghi, the internationally admired former head of the European Central Bank, was never elected but was called upon in 2021 to lead a temporary government of national unity. That unity ended last week.
Other European leaders are dismayed; many Italians are incredulous. The Draghi cabinet achieved consistently high approval ratings. And while Britain at least looks destined for a modicum of continuity as it switches Conservative leaders, Italy after a year and a half of apparent political stability is now heading for a September election where hard-right parties including the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party top the polls.
The immediate culprits for the collapse of Draghi’s administration are easy to identify: his coalition partners the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia decided to boycott a confidence vote on a package of measures to ease the cost of living crisis.
And yet, the problem is not so much that these parties are selfish and irresponsible for collapsing Draghi’s plans: of course they are. The problem is that top-down government by technocrats does not work in the first place and Italian progressives have failed to craft a viable alternative to the right. Just blaming Five Star or the League is a self-absolving narrative that risks becoming an alibi for further inaction.
Draghi’s international prestige is no excuse for ignoring the shortfalls of his technocratic approach. Italy was always constitutionally required to have parliamentary elections by next spring. Ahead of that, it is only natural that political parties that had coalesced artificially to form a government to relaunch the economy post-pandemic would begin to raise their voices to establish distinctive identities with the electorate. This is how democratic politics functions: parties represent different worldviews and the electorate wants to be aware of the differences.
Draghi brought about his own downfall. Understandably but ultimately self-defeatingly, he refused to yield to pressure and hand over symbolic wins to members of his coalition. Such compromise is what politics is made of. Witness Germany’s governing coalition, which agreed to lower the price of gas to please the free market Liberals and ensure almost-free public transport to allow the Greens also to claim victory.
Brushing aside the differences between parties is no way to guarantee the stability of a system. It only places a lid on simmering water until the pot inevitably boils over.
Such explosions in democracies are called elections. But why is the prospect of an election in Italy right now so worrying?
The irresponsible actions of Five Star or the League should not give Italy’s progressives a free pass. They have failed to provide a realistic alternative to either unelected technocracy or the hard-right backlash against it. If such an alternative existed, the prospect of early elections would not be as threatening as it seems and international commentators would not have to urge that Draghi be given six more months, however desirable that seems.
It is too often overlooked that while the Italian right is a more or less stable coalition of three parties, the progressive field includes at least three liberal parties, the left-leaning Democratic party, the anti-establishment Five Star, and three or four left and green parties. Relations between them are far from stable: many of the centrist parties have placed a veto on any coalition with Five Star, which has responded in kind, while several of the left parties would not join with the liberals and some even with the Democrats. This childish game of reciprocal vetoes keeps Italy’s progressives out of power.
Enrico Letta, leader of the Democratic party and a former prime minister, has put in painstaking work to create a broad front with a realistic chance of beating the hard right in the elections. His aspirations have now all but gone out of the window.
The weakness of Italian progressives is a chronic problem for Italy as well as for Europe. A hard-right administration in Italy would weaken the EU at a crucial time of geopolitical confrontation. It would empower Eurosceptic leaders such as Viktor Orbán or hopefuls such as Marine Le Pen, weaken consensus on Russia and impede deeper political integration with ambitious common policies on defence or energy.
And yet, again, we should refrain from using the Italian right as a cover for European inaction. Even with Draghi, previously hailed as the saviour of the euro, in power in Rome, and pro-European administrations in Germany and France, the EU as a whole has struggled to work together in key areas despite converging crises. EU governments have not, for example, taken on board demands of the recent Conference on the Future of Europe, which included a removal of unanimous vote – the practice that stalls most EU decision-making – or been able to construct common defence and energy policies despite the clear and urgent need for both.
Mourning the end of an internationally respected government in Italy should not make us forget these facts: Italian progressives need to build a serious alternative to the right and the EU needs to become a true political actor with ambitious common policies for the sake of all its citizens. A hard-right government in Italy means an even less conducive environment for progress on either. But let’s not fool ourselves: none of this was happening while Draghi was in government. The silver lining is that none of this is made impossible by Draghi losing power.
July 24, 2022 at 06:25PM Lorenzo Marsili