European Council on Foreign Relations

Italy: real and lasting change is possible

 

Today the “first comer-but not winner” of the Italian elections, Pier Luigi Bersani will meet the Head of State, Giorgio Napolitano, to receive a full or explorative mandate to create a new government. Bersani’s “mission-almost-impossible” will be to ensure a majority (that can survive a confidence vote) in the Senate (he already has a majority in the Lower House). The options do not seem promising. 

Berlusconi’s PDL has appealed Bersani to go for a “grand coalition” capable of implementing measures considered urgent for the country. However the Democratic Party has repeatedly rejected the offer: its leftish anti-Berlusconi basis would never understand what Italians call the “inciucio” (although it would be interesting to see if it refused working with the PDL as a whole, or just Berlusconi). Without PDL support, Bersani’s option would be Monti, but this is incompatible with his leftish ally Ecology and Freedom that has fiercely opposed Monti’s stringent austerity measures. Excluding Monti, there is the Northern League: Berlusconi’s ally, and greatly reduced in strength after the last elections. However this option has also been closed out by the election of Laura Boldrini, a former spokesperson for the UN high Commissioner for refugees who is extremely active on migration issues, as President of the Lower House. This leaves Bersani with the a final option: Beppe Grillo’s 54 senators.

This is the moment when we will discover whether Grillo will take responsibility for the votes he received, for Italy and for serious change.

Last Saturday 10 “Grillini” senators bent the rules. They defied the decision of the Five Star Movement not to vote for any of the two remaining candidates for the Presidency of the Senate: Renato Schifani, who has accompanied Berlusconi since the beginning of his long political adventure;and the former national anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso, now with the Democratic Party. Their votes helped Grasso to win.

Since the vote those 10 senators have been under fire from the Movement. In response they said they could never go back to Sicily if they contributed to the re-election of Schifani instead of an anti-mafia icon. They have been brave enough to show that change can happen. Yes, it can happen in Italy too and it can happen now.  

Today two of Italy's highest election officials are not from the system that Grillo wants to dismantle. Laura Boldrini (the third woman in Italian history to become the President of the Lower House), 51, is the former spokesperson for the UN high Commissioner for refugees. Pietro Grasso has spent his life fighting mafia and corruption in the South of Italy, often together with the two mafia martyrs Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. One of the first concrete actions they have taken has been to reduce their own salary by 30 percent - with official salaries an emotive issue in modern Italy. Now it is time for them to show an institutional commitment that goes beyond their previous experience.

It would be a shame if Italy and its parliamentarians do not show responsibility to create a government and allow the change that has already started to become more consistent. While there is a big fuss by the media around the Grillini in the parliament, Italy has to take immediate economic measures and to find solutions to unemployment, a credit crunch, tax evasion, and corruption.

Europe is waiting for the sleeping beauty to wake up, to give a strong signal that its credibility is durable (credit for its restoration must go to Mario Monti) and to be told who is going to be the interlocutor who will have to bear the burden of sustaining reform.

While the South of Europe is burning, Italy cannot waste too much time on its own internal dynamics. There is already one important deadline Italy has to meet soon: by April it has to present to the European Commission a realistic and detailed liquidation plan of its overdue commercial debt (€70 billion) that the state has to pay to enterprises - a crucial element for re-launching growth.

Who is going to present this plan? It has to be a reliable and influential government. The credibility of a government is not just an internal matter: it is the key factor that allows a country to be trusted by its European partners and to be guaranteed some flexibility that otherwise would not be conceded.

In her inaugural address, the new President of the Lower House, Laura Boldrini, recalled that “Italy is one of EU founders and historical supporters of the integration process… it is showing genuine commitment to change … The incoming government has an important task: turn Europe back in to a common dream and restore the mission and vision once envisaged and promoted by Altiero Spinelli”; while her new colleague Pietro Grasso declared that “Europe is not only about economy and crisis, but also about crossroads of cultures and people and there is a need to go back to these values.”

This shows how Europe is the Polestar for the new Italian institutions and at the same time how important the change that is occurring in Italy will be for Europe too. The conditions are there, and there has never been such a moment like this in Italy. If Italy is unable to create a new government, this historic opportunity could be wasted and the country could fall into a deep crisis. It is time to turn the rhetoric of change into real politics. The composition of both chambers has been significantly modified, and in an unprecedented way. If we have a look, for example, at the proportion of seats allocated to women, in comparison to 2008 there has been an increase from 21 percent to 32 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and from 19 percent to 30 percent in the Senate. The average age in parliament is now 48 - seven years less than in 2008.

The positive changes that have occurred must be kept. We give credit to the Five Star Movement for having initiated this process and having forced traditional parties to make a change that perhaps would not have occurred otherwise. At the same time it is de facto responsible for the threat of instability the country is facing: its leader Beppe Grillo has so far rejected every possible compromise.

However, it is time to put an end to this paradoxical moment of being both in a post-election and in pre-election moment. Time for slogans and campaign language is over. Italy cannot afford it, as well as Europe cannot wait any longer for its founding member to wake up.

 

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