Can Europe Make It?

Want to get a feel of where Italy is heading? Look at the Five Star Movement

Luigi Di Maio’s appointment as the party’s PM candidate, stating he would seek other forces’ support in the absence of a clear governing majority, marks an important step change.

Enea Desideri
26 February 2018

Five Stars Movement (M5S) leader and Prime Minister candidate Luigi Di Maio presents movement's parliamentary candidates for the upcoming March general elections in Rome, Italy on January 29, 2018. Giuseppe Ciccia/Press Association. All rights reserved.Has Italy lost its way? And could instability in the country jeopardise ambitions for a reform of the EU and the Eurozone? In the run up to an election that most commentators expect will produce no clear governing majority, ink has been generously spilt discussing the uncertainty surrounding the Italian vote.

Despite endemic reshuffles, Italy was once known for the quasi immutable configuration of its political system, with coalition governments dominated by the Christian Democrats following one another uninterrupted for the best part of its post-war history. Since the early nineties however, following the end of the so-called ‘First Republic’, the country has become much more unpredictable.

The Five Star Movement (M5S)’s establishment as a major force on the national political stage has recently added further uncertainty to an already faltering picture. Its self-declared posture beyond left/right politics disrupted a bipolar system that had crystallised in the previous two decades around the competition between centre-left and centre-right.

While it might be exaggerated to suggest that Italy has lost its way – ultimately it has long seemingly lived on the verge of collapse, and coped with it relatively well – Italian parties are certainly going through a soul-searching exercise in an attempt to adapt to the new political landscape where the M5S has become a force to reckon with. And this could have important ramifications for the country’s role in Europe.

Their soul-searching is nowhere more explicitly revealed than in the parties’ electoral programmes. Much has been said about Italian parties’ unrealistic promises. Less has been written on the strikingly similar content of the main contenders’ agendas, which in many policy areas marks a break with their respective ideological traditions.

Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition has adamantly called for the introduction of a “dignity income” for every citizen, a proposal which recalls the “citizenship income” already advocated by the M5S. On the centre-left, Renzi’s Democratic Party promises tax cuts, once Berlusconi’s traditional domain. And all the main forces agree on the necessity to curtail immigration influxes.

Differences do exist in the way contenders suggest that they will achieve similar goals – and should not be ignored, at the risk of running into the ‘they’re all the same’ rhetorical trap.

At a macro level, the model advocated by Renzi deliberately shares strong similarities with the programme advocated by Macron in France, insisting on the need for domestic structural changes alongside demands for a broader European reform. The right and the M5S, on the other hand, are more actively engaging in an exercise that shifts blame for the precarious conditions of the national economy to the supranational level.

But despite these differences, the general perception is that of a campaign dominated by promises made to secure the greatest electoral support, regardless not only of the proposals’ feasibility but also of their ideological content and coherence. None of the parties, albeit with the above-mentioned differences, seems yet to have found a coherent identity in Italy’s new political scenario, let alone developed a clear vision for the country and its role in Europe in the medium to long term.

The most highly supported party

In the face of so much uncertainty, however, the current evolution of M5S can help cement a new political arrangement and provide us with a useful indicator of where Italy might be heading next. The ball is in M5S’ court; whatever the future moves of the most supported party in the country, they will influence those of other forces too.

In this respect, the appointment of Luigi Di Maio as party’s political leader and prime ministerial candidate has marked an important step (the latest in a series) in the Movement’s development. The move has most notably mitigated the party’s traditional hostility towards political alliances, with Di Maio stating he would seek other forces’ support in the absence of a clear governing majority after the vote.

In the past, the electoral coalition to the left of the Democratic Party, Liberi e Uguali (LeU, Free and Equal), has opened itself up to the possibility of a post-electoral dialogue with the Five Stars. But the low levels of support mobilised by LeU do not make such an option particularly attractive to many in the M5S. In this context, the hypothesis of an alliance with the far-right nationalist League has been gaining ground.

Such a move would probably be resisted. A silent infighting has cemented within the party between the ‘pragmatists’, close to the new political leader and more inclined to accommodate compromise in politics, and the ‘orthodox’ faction, represented by those faithful to the (new left and uncompromising) nature of the Movement’s origins.

Ultimately, should Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition succeed in securing a governing majority in the next elections, it could postpone the showdown within the Movement. But the latter seems set, sooner or later, to endorse a more clearly ideologically-grounded positioning within the Italian landscape.

And this will probably provoke a shift in its European stance too. Currently, this is in line with the Movement’s characteristic broader ambiguity. While sitting with the EFDD group in the European Parliament and generally perceived as highly critical of the EU, a close look at the M5S’s voting patterns in the Strasbourg assembly reveals more resemblance to the Greens and the radical Left than to UKIP.

Should the Movement swing closer to the League in the future, we are likely to witness the emergence of a bipolar division between radicals and moderates in Italy. In such a scenario, the M5S’s European critique will probably begin to revolve more distinctly around the process of European integration than around a target list of single EU policies. This would turn Italy, once amongst the most Europhile Member States, into a much more Eurosceptic country.

If the M5S moves closer to left-wing forces instead, possibly occupying the space left open by the shift of the Democratic Party towards the centre, the resulting system might well be built around three-poles, more ideologically coherent poles than they are at present. In this case the critique of the EU articulated by the M5S is likely to insist not on the process of integration per se but rather on the need to change single policies. The M5S will also insist on making the EU more democratic, echoing arguments voiced by the Greens and the European left, but keeping Italy on its traditional Europhile path.

It is unclear at this stage which direction the Movement is more likely to follow. But for an EU busy drawing the lines on which to build its future, it is the final outcome of this soul-searching process, beyond the result of the upcoming ballot in Italy, that will be crucial.

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