Italy's political chaos is more dangerous than Brexit

Italy's protra...

Posted: May 29, 2018 5:24 PM
Updated: May 29, 2018 5:24 PM

Italy's protracted political chaos risks dealing a heavy blow to the European Union -- and Europe's political unity as a whole.

Sergio Mattarella, the normally politically neutral head of state, has prevented the populist alliance of the Five Star Movement and the League from forming an obscure, anti-European government. Instead, he asked Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund official, to form an interim government of technocrats. This means Italy is headed for a second election.

The outcome of that election could be more dangerous than the first inconclusive vote held March 4, which delivered this coalition that was unfit to rule in the first place.

For the first time in Italy's political history, the electoral campaign's battle lines will be clearly drawn -- and it will not be on domestic issues.

Europe is the battlefield, and there will be repercussions at a pan-European level.

The next vote is bound to turn into a proxy referendum between pro-Europe/pro-euro mainstream forces, and the antagonist alliance of the two populist parties that won the most votes in March -- the League and the Five Star Movement.

But what if at the next elections these two parties secure an even larger share of votes?

Such a result in Italy, one of the founding members of the European Union, would likely lead to this anti-EU sentiment spreading further throughout Europe, threatening European unity at a very delicate moment.

Next year, European parliamentary elections take place, which carry the risk of strengthening Europe's populist parties and delaying crucial reforms aimed at strengthening the future of European governance.

This is something nobody -- neither in Italy nor the rest of Europe -- can afford.

That's why the ball now is in Italy's court. The fates of Europe and Italy are closely linked.

The political manifesto that forged post-war integrated Europe -- the Ventotene Manifesto -- was written on a tiny former prison isle off Rome's coast by a group of anti-Fascists, who later became founding fathers of the EU.

How could the cradle of Europe become its own grave?

Brexit remains a deep wound, but the UK's integration has always been limited. It has never been part of the Schengen area or of the eurozone.

Italy's potential snub to Europe would be much more severe.

Were the populists to win by a wide margin, the result would rock the fundamentals of the wider continent.

The monetary union and the Common Market, two of the greatest achievements of the European project since the end of World War II, would be under serious threat.

Italy is Europe's third-largest economy. As such, it is a pillar of an integrated economic area, which it is both central to and relies upon. If Italy goes down, so could Europe.

But this nightmare scenario could prompt something more positive.

With such clear battle lines being drawn, more pro-European political forces might team up against the populists.

The Democratic Party, defeated at the March 4 elections, will get a second chance to boost its consensus. The new vote could help rebuild Italy's fragmented center-left and bring back into the game former Democratic leader and premier Matteo Renzi, who stepped down from office after losing the 2016 constitutional referendum.

I hold hope that we might see a pro-European movement in Italy, as we did in France in the face of nationalist populism. And this isn't merely wishful thinking.

When it comes to it, the man on the street will be able to weigh the pros and cons of holding tight to Europe, or walking away.

An exit from the euro would almost certainly lead to a sovereign debt crisis. And if the facts are presented accurately to the Italian voters, one would hope that they care more about their bank savings than lashing out at Brussels.

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