Italy’s message for Europe

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The significance of Italy’s election result should not be underestimated.  But Italy’s election outcome is far more positive than many realise. The outcome of the Italian elections caused quite a bit of confusion and sometimes rather hysterical reactions from the markets (which is perhaps understandable) and from European partners (which is much less understandable!). As Europe’s third largest economy Italy’s political instability is a European concern. As we all know, Italy is too big to fail - and even if we imagine for one second that such a remote scenario is likely, it should be clear that the effects of such a collapse would hurt almost all Member States and would certainly be a huge disaster for Europe as a whole.

In April Giorgio Napolitano’s term as president of Italy will come to an end. To conclude his seven year mandate his last state visit brought him to Germany. It was a wise decision and his mission was clear: He wanted to reassure the markets and Angela Merkel that Italy was stable and that reforms would continue. Not surprisingly, the elections overshadowed his visit. Nobody could have predicted the electoral tsunami. If Bersani had won a majority in both houses Napolitano could have portrayed him as a Monti II – he could have told Angela Merkel that the reforms would continue, Italy would be a fiscally responsible country and a new labour law would soon be passed.

Following the ‘clown’ remarks of Peer Steinbrueck (the SPD chancellor candidate described Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi as clowns and populists that won the elections) President Napolitano cancelled the scheduled dinner with him. This diplomatic incident is certainly not a good sign for cooperation and mutual understanding and trust between Italy and Germany. While it is perfectly normal to comment on the election outcomes, Napolitano was right to react in this way. The harsh criticism of the Italy’s election outcome continued on the cover of last week’s  Economist – I don’t think this is a fair description of the Italian reality.

Although Italy’s political reality is not easy to understand at first glance, foreign commentators and politicians should try to provide a more in-depth analysis. Berlin’s approach - “I teach, you learn and execute” - is not a constructive one and it is understandable that voters in Italy do not approve of it. Italy’s election result can be understood as a failure of Germany to show constructive leadership.

We should try to understand the message that comes out of the Italian elections, rather than make fun of it. We should reflect whether this message only concerns Italy or whether it is a wakeup call for other countries too - and perhaps for Europe as a whole. Basically, Italians can't stand austerity anymore. This is a feeling that is shared by many people across Europe – it may be time for Berlin and Brussels to reconsider their policies. 

Italy does not have a phenomenon like Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary. It is also interesting to note that Beppe Grillo quite regularly referred to his ability to catalyse discontent and his interest to develop policies and work on a real programme - unlike other so called populists across Europe. Grillo’s movement managed to bring politics back to those who had lost interest and confidence in Italy’s political system. He managed to transform angry people into active citizens. This should be considered a positive outcome, especially when many political institutions, both on the national and international level, are criticised for a lack of legitimacy.

It is hard to underestimate the feeling of many Italians who for the first time felt like active citizens. During the past 20 years Berlusconi transformed Italy and the political narrative beyond recognition. We should therefore embrace the fact that issues such as participation and legitimacy are back and citizens are taking an active interest in politics - believing that something can be changed. These are precisely the issues Europe should reflect on: democracy and legitimacy.

Perhaps the Italian tsunami could spread through Europe, maybe we will see a continuation of a new kind of politics at next year’s European Parliament Elections. It is also in this spirit that Napolitano gave a speech in Berlin emphasising the importance of a debate about the future of Europe and the prospect for a true ‘political union’:

“If ‘political’ means multitudes of men and women acting in society according to rules based on freedom and solidarity; if ‘political’ means building institutions and then governing them; if ‘political’ means nurturing relations between peoples and between States, then how can we fail to see that the construction of Europe was and is - regardless of the technicalities - a political process resting on political ideals and requiring leadership and political guidance?”.

This message should reassure both Italians and Germans. And instead of labelling domestic politics as a farce we should focus on what is really at stake here: the future of Europe.

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