Italy’s European election


Italians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for a new parliament. But something is different this time: for the first time in an Italian election “Europe” seems to be playing a central role. I was interested in how exactly the main candidates use “Europe” in their campaigns - so here is a quick overview:

The euro crisis is obviously the most cited explanation of why Europe plays such a central role. I argued before that Italy risked becoming a country in receivership. Lucia Annunziata, the Editorial Director of the Huffington Post Italia and former Chair of RAI, had another take on this. He argued that the main reason for the Europe debate in Italy is Mario Monti. Before Monti entered the race, traditional parties had no need to engage in a real debate over Europe. Monti’s somewhat unexpected candidacy however prompted all other candidates to respond to the "man of Europe". While the "technocrat Monti" was supported by a grand coalition, the "political Monti" has been running an aggressive campaign which inevitably involved his main strength: The European question.

Without Monti’s candidacy the electoral debate in Italy could have been a classic bipolar election: On one side the centre-right Berlusconi PDL and the Northern League as the anti-tax coalition that sees Europe as a nasty bureaucracy imposing restrictions on the “country of opportunities”. On the other side, the pro-European Democratic Party have embraced a vision of a United States of Europe – but crucially without a clear strategy on how to reach this goal. This pattern could have remained the basic frame of the Europe debate in Italy. Monti's candidacy however forced both political forces to take a stronger and a more detailed take on Europe – for better or for worse.

Berlusconi's attacks Monti mainly because of his European credentials. In particular Berlusconi has criticised Monti's relationship with Angela Merkel, accusing him to have turned Italy into a German colony. In Berlusconi’s view Monti has been too weak to oppose Merkel’s austerity measures.

Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the centre-left coalition, has also become more vocal when it comes to “Europe”. At the height of his electoral campaign he travelled through Europe to build up alliances instead of campaigning on local and national issues. Bersani has been emphasising the need for more European cohesion and advocated a more democratic and participatory vision of Europe: "Europe is seen as a sort of condominium, but the problem is whether it can now become a cooperative, with a shared budget - and more democratic control and participation”. When it comes to Brussels control over government spending and the loss of sovereignty - Bersani said he could agree to this in exchange for greater freedom to boost key economic sectors. His statement tacitly acknowledged that Brussels already plays a more important role in economic policy, even if he did not take a strong position on the budget cut approved at the last European Council. Obviously the budget is the real issue at stake because we cannot ask for a Europe to work efficiently and to play a strong role if we don't provide it with the right instruments - and a 1% budget is definitely not the right instrument.

Bersani’s European tour proved to be successful enough to gain several endorsements. François Hollande supports him: “For the renaissance it is necessary to leave more space for justice and closer relations between France and Italy. This is why I want to encourage my friend Pier Luigi Bersani and the Italian people to give a sovereign vote for renaissance, not only in Italy, but also in Europe”. Jean-Claude Juncker, stated: “Bersani appears to have the best intentions for Italy”.

It goes without saying that Monti has also placed Europe at the centre of his campaign. His “Agenda for Italy” foresees a more communitarian and less intergovernmentalEurope, he wants to fight populism and favours a social market economy. His ally Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the Christian democratic coalition UDC, who I interviewed recently, even envisages a scenario of political union for Europe, based on Catholic heritage.

Again, it is interesting to see how this political campaign crossed the Italian borders: Monti received full endorsement from Germany, while the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said “Mario Monti was and is a great prime minister for Italy. And his efforts in terms of fiscal consolidation and reforms in all the different sectors of the Italian economy are absolutely necessary. We have to continue these policies in any case”. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the country needed to remain on the path of stability charted by technocrat Premier Mario Monti. This triggered outraged reactions from Berlusconi who again accused Merkel of interfering in internal national affairs.

Both Bersani and Monti have personal credibility, but both have challenges ahead. The leader of the Democratic Party needs to reassure  the left-wing partners of his coalition, whose leader, Niki Vendola, will oppose reforms for a more flexible labour market and further EU austerity measures (he took a strong stance against the fiscal compact). Monti has to face unpopularity due to tax increases imposed by his technocratic government and has not yet indicated where he will find the savings needed to diminish it.

How will they overcome these challenges? For The Economist an alliance between Monti and Bersani would be the best option: “The best result would be for Mr Monti to stay on as prime minister, and a government led by Mr Bersani, with Mr Monti in charge of the economy, would be a decent outcome for Italy”.

But there is an outsider in this competition who is going to become a key player: the Five Star Movement (M5S), led by comedian Beppe Grillo, is expected to place around 100 "grillini" in the Parliament. And not surprisingly, Europe is a key feature of the M5S campaign or, to be more precise, anti-European rhetoric. In response to Monti "the man of the banks responsible for the crisis", Grillo published on his extremely popular blog his 16 points Agenda. Point number 6 is the introduction of a referendum on Italy’s membership in the Eurozone. He does not define himself as anti-European, but wants to change this kind of Europe that he sees as undemocratic, unrepresentative and led by the markets. In any case his anti-Euro message resonates with a big part of the electorate and manages to give a voice to discontent in Italy – not that dissimilar to the situation in Spain, Greece and southern European countries in general.

If we were to find a minimum common denominator on Europe among these candidates, we could argue that they agree that Europe needs reforms and that it lacks proper representation and legitimacy. Will this be enough to start a serious debate on what could be Italy's role in a "reinvented Europe"? If this campaign had the merit of having introduced Europe to the public debate, much more needs to be said and done after the elections. Clearly, more concrete strategies need to be developed, starting with the European budget but also thinking about the future of Europe: How to improve democratic legitimacy and giving the concept of a “political union” a meaning. Whoever wins the elections will need to do more than just talk about Europe – it is time to do something.

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