Will populists put Italy on collision course with Europe?

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Rome, Italy – Italy’s post-election rollercoaster found a resolution on Thursday evening, 88 days after voters went to the polls, with the announcement of a new government led by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-migrant League.

New Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte spoke to the nation accepting the mandate given to him by President Sergio Mattarella, marking the start of a government led by the two populist political forces that together swept up half of the Italian electorate on March 4.

The government was sworn in on Friday afternoon.

It was the second time in just over a week that Conte – a little-known law professor who has never held a public office – accepted the mandate.

The leaders of the Five Star Movement and the League, Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini respectively, had found a compromise in the figure of Conte after signing a 57-page programme that included a blend of both parties’ campaign promises.

On Sunday, a mere four days since telling the nation he was going to be the “Italian people’s advocate”, Conte had to renounce his mandate when Mattarella – whose responsibilities include signing off the list of ministers proposed by the prime minister – put a veto on Paolo Savona at the economy and finance ministry out of concern the eurosceptic octogenarian had advocated for a “Plan B” to exit the eurozone.

In a few convoluted hours, di Maio called for Mattarella’s “impeachment”, charging that the president had no right to reject Savona’s appointment “because of his opinions”.

The 31-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement backtracked from that call less than 24 hours later, but meanwhile called for a demonstration on Saturday, June 2, to protest against Mattarella’s decision and demand Italians’ vote be listened to. The demonstration will still go ahead.

In the list of ministers Conte presented to the country on Thursday, the name of Savona re-appeared for the post of minister of European affairs. The economy ministry goes to Giovanni Tria, an economist and university professor.

Di Maio takes the ministry of economic development and work, while Salvini will become interior minister. Both are deputies to the prime minister.

Leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, right, sits by Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five-Star movement, prior to the swearing-in ceremony for Italy’s new government on June 1, 2018 [Gregorio Borgia/AP] 

Calm after the storm

The news of the new government appeared to ease investors’ nerves, spooked earlier in the week amid concerns that the prospect of a new election could have become a referendum on EU membership and the eurozone’s single currency.

Italy’s markets recovered on Friday morning.

“A political government is by far the best solution for the country, because it avoids uncertainty,” said Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official who had been designated as the prime minister of a caretaker government that would lead Italy to elections, during the speech in which he announced his work was no longer needed.

A political government is by far the best solution for the country, because it avoids uncertainty

Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund official 

Cottarelli’s “technical” government had found little consensus. More than 50 percent of Italians rejected it, while none of the parties looked set to offer their support. Mattarella decided to put Cottarelli’s government on stand-by to give a chance to the Five Star-League coalition to revive negotiations.

“It seems to me that what we have witnessed in the past few days is a clear manifestation of populism,” Carlo Ruzza, sociology professor at the University of Trento, who has written on populism and the Italian right, told Al Jazeera.

“This is not only through references like Conte claiming to be the ‘people’s advocate’. It’s also about a degree of incoherence and a chameleonic aspect where everything changes, and fast, when it serves the interest of the leader, without really consulting the base. So Mattarella turned from the possible subject of so-called ‘impeachment proceedings’, to being the object of reconciliation,” Ruzza added.

“This would have been difficult in other parties which would have had to better justify their decisions to their base.”

Andrea Monticini, associate econometrics professor at Milan’s Catholic University, noted that “the fact that fears of Italy exiting the eurozone are subsiding is what is reassuring the markets”.

However, he added that the “government contract” signed by the leaders of the two parties to arrive at a deal “has now disappeared from the debate”.

The contract for a “government of change” included tax cuts for the rich and a “basic income” for the unemployed.

“At one point they [the Five Star Movement and the League] will have to either choose a collision course with Europe, or force their base to accept a re-examination of their promises, which will lead to a fall of support, but will not necessarily mean an immediate collapse of the government,” Ruzza said.

The contract also touted the deportation of undocumented migrants, which critics charged is unrealistic without deals with their countries of origin, and the closure of Roma camps.

Lawyers at the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration pointed to its unconstitutional aspects, such as offering social services like the basic income and free nursery schools to “Italians” and “Italian families”. Polls, however, indicated that 48 percent of Italians approve of the contract.

Government of change?

Salvini’s party, the League, has made by far the biggest gains since the elections, when it became the first political force in the centre-right coalition surpassing former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi‘s party Go Italy. Recent polls indicate that the League, which gained 17 percent of the vote on March 4, stands at 24 percent, thus becoming the second largest party in Italy after the Five Star Movement.

After the closing of negotiations on Thursday afternoon, Salvini wrote a post on Facebook that announced, “We’re almost there.”

But the main subject of the post was the video of a man, identified as a migrant, ripping off the feathers of a bird in the middle of the street, to which Salvini comments: “[Let’s send them] all home.”

“In this government, you have people who are staunchly pro-European, like [Foreign Minister] Enzo Moavero Milanesi, and others like Savona who are anti-Europe. We’ll have to see how things play out in the next months,” Ruzza said.

“At the moment, there are a few things we can say and they are those that both the League and the Five Star Movement have in common. One of them is a negative attitude towards migration, a right-wing politics on this issue,” he added.

Meanwhile, the words “stop Euro” written in large characters were reportedly erased yesterday from a wall on the League’s headquarters in Milan. A spokesperson told Italian newspapers it was due to “maintenance work”.

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