Interfering in Italy’s Democracy… and It’s Not Russia
Italy’s political turmoil tends to prove the wry old saying that “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”.
The country is facing a mounting constitutional crisis amid calls for the president to be impeached after he blocked the formation of a new government.
The crisis seems to be mainly about a clash over financial policy and a populist challenge to European Union economic austerity, according to to the Financial Times.
But lurking, too, is a concern among the EU establishment in Brussels that a new populist Italian government is proposing to radically restore friendly relations with Russia. That concern is no doubt shared by Washington and NATO.
After the populist parties of Five Star Movement (M5S) and League topped the polls in a general election in March, they have formed a would-be coalition to govern. It has taken nearly three months of negotiations to hammer out a governance plan.
But there are core policies on which the coalition partners are in strong agreement. Those policies include an end to the EU’s orthodoxy of neoliberal economic austerity; and, perhaps just as significant, to end EU sanctions on Russia in a step towards normalizing relations.
Both M5S and League have praised Russia’s military intervention in Syria to bring the seven-year war there to a close. Both parties have also blamed the United States and the EU for meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs as the cause of the ongoing conflict in that country. The latter viewpoint turns upside-down the conventional US-NATO-EU notion of accusing Russia of interfering in Ukraine.
For these reasons, that is why the Italian government-in-waiting wants to abandon the EU position of imposing economic sanctions on Russia for the past four years since the Ukraine conflict erupted in 2014.
The EU’s sanctions require unanimity among its 28 member states for implementation. If Italy were to vote against the sanctions — as the M5S and League are firmly proposing to do — then the US-EU policy of trying to isolate Russia will be split in two.
After the populist parties won the Italian election in March, a Guardian headline captured the apprehension felt among the Washington and Brussels NATO axis: ‘Electoral gains or M5S and League may threaten Italy’s strong support for NATO and US’.
This may, in fact, be the decisive factor in the latest twist of Italy’s political crisis.
Over the weekend, long-time President Sergio Mattarella (pictured) sparked fury after he blocked the key appointment of a finance minister. The nominee for the position, Paolo Savona, is a prominent critic of the EU economic policy of austerity and tight fiscal control.
Savona was nominated by the would-be coalition government because his Eurosceptic views dovetail with the populists’ demands for more public investment and a basic income for poor families. The populists believe that Italy can in this way stimulate its economy and grow its way out of high indebtedness, rather than through the orthodox neoliberal position prevailing in Brussels of reducing debt through cutting public spending and imposing austerity.
Italy’s largely figurehead President Mattarella said he was refusing to mandate the appointment of the populist finance minister out of “fears about Italian and foreign investors” pulling out of the country’s economy. Italy’s economy is the third biggest in the Eurozone, but it has been mired in sluggish growth for years, with a massive debt-to-GDP ratio of over 130 percent and soaring unemployment.
The blocking of the new finance minister’s appointment has rebounded in a constitutional crisis. Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte resigned in protest. A new government cannot be formed, and there are furious calls from M5S and League for President Mattarella to be impeached for impeding the “will of the people”.
Luigi Di Maio, the leader of M5S was quoted as saying: “Why don’t we just say that in this country it’s pointless that we vote, as the ratings agencies, financial lobbies decide the governments?”
The League’s Matteo Salvini was equally vehement: “In a democracy, if we are still in a democracy, there’s only one thing to do, let the Italians have their say.”
He added with notable fury: “Italy is not a colony. We are not slaves of the Germans or the French or finance”.
Incumbent President Mattarella is accused of being “pro-Brussels” and compliant with the dominant economic policy of austerity and strict public finances.
Italy’s 132 percent debt-to-GDP ratio is more than double what EU rules allow, and second-highest to Greece, as cited by the BBC.
So if a populist government in Rome were to relax debt rules and grow its way out of economic stagnation, the result would be a head-on challenge to Brussels, the EU administration and the German government in particular, which is a fiscal hawk.
However, the point is that a radical challenge to EU economic policy is what the Italian people voted for. Large numbers of them are fed up with “slave-like” obedience to fiscal policies that accommodate the priorities of financial institutions and foreign capital.
The fury felt in Italy over the latest crisis is propelled by a sense that their votes are being overturned. That is, “if your vote changed anything, it would be made illegal”.
This perceived blatant interference in democratic rights on behalf of neoliberal economic interests and financial investors is bound to further rile up the populist backlash against the EU establishment — not just in Italy, but increasingly across the bloc, from Britain to the Netherlands, from France to Germany, Austria, Denmark, Hungary and elsewhere.
But there’s another factor that may be equally important, if not quite as openly stated. That is Russia and the geopolitics of the US-led NATO axis.
It is perhaps significant that President Mattarella, like many of the traditional EU ruling elite, is very pro-US and pro-NATO. For instance, when he was previously Italy’s defense minister, Mattarella strongly supported the US-led NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s. Already noted above, the incoming government coalition between the M5S and League was proposing to end the EU policy of economic sanctions on Russia. Both parties have said Moscow should not be treated as a military threat, but rather viewed as a partner and ally.
As a founding member of the EU, Italy’s position on the matter of foreign relations with Russia would be crucial. If the new government had overturned the EU’s sanctions policy and restored friendly ties with Moscow, that would scuttle the pro-Atlanticist axis between Washington and Brussels.
Arguably for Europe’s citizens, that would be a beneficial release from the irrational hostility towards Russia, which Washington has dictated in recent years and which EU leaders have lamentably followed.
In other words, huge geopolitical interests are at stake if the Italians are allowed their democratic freedom to form a populist government. No doubt Washington and its allies in Brussels stepped into “brief” the Italian president on what is deemed acceptable limits of democracy.
And yet, laughably, the US-NATO-EU Atlanticist axis has the brass neck to continually berate Russia for “interfering in Western democracies”.
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Featured image courtesy of Italian Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS