28 May 2018

It seemed that the Italian political stalemate since the elections, which has now lasted over two months, was edging towards a breakthrough. But Italy is back to square one. Following a standoff with the would-be coalition partners over the appointment of economist Paolo Savona to the Economy and Finance Ministry, the Italian President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, yesterday decided not to green light the new Five Star Movement-League government.

The two parties – particularly the League – refused to put forward a different name, and Mattarella likewise refused to back down. Explaining the reasons behind his decision, Mattarella pointed to the anti-Euro stances of professor Savona, stressing how leaving the single currency had not been part of the debate in the run up to the 4th March elections, and that any step in this direction should first go through public scrutiny and be a matter for in-depth public debate, and not be pursued through the back door.

The decision has opened up nothing less than a constitutional crisis in Italy. Crowning a dramatic evening yesterday, both the Five Star Movement and the far-right Brothers of Italy – previously allied with the League in the centre-right coalition – have called for the impeachment of the President. Only four times before has this possibility been seriously suggested in the history of the Italian Republic; it never materialised, although on a couple of these occasions the President resigned despite him not being forced to do so through the procedure.

It should be stressed here that, due to the highly complex system of checks and balances that characterises the Italian constitutional setup, impeachment of the President remains a not-so-likely, although not unthinkable, option at this stage. A majority in Parliament is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this to happen, and it is still questionable whether Mattarella breached his mandate – although he certainly stretched it. Some have argued that he had little choice but to stand firm once his rejection of Savona had become clear; backing down would have compromised the independent role of the Presidency of the Republic.

However, reaching a standoff between a majority in the Parliament and the Quirinale (the residence of the President of the Republic) should have been avoided in the first place. Regardless of what will happen next, the latest developments have revealed the existence of a wide gap between two pivotal players in the Italian institutional setup: the Parliament and the Presidency of the Republic. The division does not bode well for a political system already infamous for its paradoxical combination of instability and inertia.

The crisis, furthermore, will likely increase the distance between the electorate and Italy’s political institutions. Despite marked differences between the two forces, the share of votes secured by the Five Star Movement and the League at the last elections is symptomatic of a radical demand for change in economic policies amongst the Italian electorate. The decision, following the failed attempt to secure a political government, to give the mandate to form a government to Carlo Cottarelli (previously a commissioner for spending review in Italy) doesn’t  seem likely to satisfy these demands – and it seems unlikely Cottarelli could win a confidence vote in Parliament anyway.

Which is why Mattarella’s intention to protect Italy from markets’ speculation could ultimately have a boomerang effect. I have previously pointed out that the M5S is not exactly a Eurosceptic party per se. Yet, it is a populist party – in so far as it thrives on a narrative pitching a dichotomy between the establishment and the people – prone to quick policy changes depending on electoral convenience. Fuelling a narrative which pits the will of the Italian people against the European establishment and the global markets, Mattarella’s decision and the justification he put forward for taking it, is now likely to push the Five Stars towards a more Eurosceptic tone.

More broadly, the current crisis might exponentially accelerate the trend towards a surge in Euroscepticism in Italy. I have noted elsewhere that a key determinant for the future of Italy and of Europe will be the ability of its European partners to engage with forces deeply critical of the status quo in Europe – once outsiders and now a prominent force in the Italian political landscape. Incursions into the Italian domestic debate by foreign political figures, as well as the negative role played by foreign media in ridiculing Italy, have reinforced an antagonistic feeling among a sizeable share of the Italian electorate; this will be an easy sell for anti-establishment parties in the run up to the next elections.

The risk for Italy, and for Europe, is that the two parties that are now polling the highest in the country will campaign on explicitly Eurosceptic (and possibly anti-Euro?) platforms. It is worth pointing out here how the M5S’s demand to impeach the President is already a signal that its stance is hardening; a move certainly influenced by the marginal decline in polls it suffered to the benefit of the League.

Meanwhile, the League will certainly be tempted to break with the rest of the centre-right bloc (of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and, perhaps, the Brothers of Italy) and run alone in the next elections – League leader Mateo Salvini has already stressed that the contract with the M5S should not be considered as a thing of the past, and many of the ideas characterising the document are likely to be central themes in a new electoral campaign.

In the uncertainty unleashed by Italy’s constitutional crisis, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the short term. Yet, the possibility is by no means remote that a new vote could result in a situation not dissimilar form the current one, but characterised by even larger support for anti-establishment forces, a stronger League, and possibly a campaign characterised by more explicitly Eurosceptic tones. What would happen then?