For weeks, the left-wing coalition in Rome has been quarreling over the use of the European Union Recovery Fund. Hence, the ‘Next Generation EU’ fund of which Italy is supposed to be the main beneficiary has become a new reason for tensions after months of disputes over the use of funds from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said he may have to ask parliament for a vote of confidence, and several scenarios are taken into consideration by the Italian media, including that of early elections, no elections but a new government without Giuseppe Conte, or a Conte III government.
At the time being, early elections are the less likely scenario. However divided they are, members of the left-wing coalition are all too aware that since the Conte II government was formed in early September 2019 opinion polls have consistently pointed to a probable absolute majority of the so-called “center-right” in both houses of a post-election parliament. What Italians call “center right” actually comprises mainly Matteo Salvini’s League party, Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI), and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy, FI). AP images Conte’s left-wing government is under threat, but there are fears that Salvini could become prime minister if it collapses The League is actually labeled “right-wing populist” by the European mainstream media and, if opinion polls are to be believed, it would come first with some 25% of the vote. True, it has lost support during the past year, but this has benefited only to FdI which is a nationalist, liberal-conservative party considered as being even more right-wing than the League. With now over 15 percent of support in most opinion polls, FdI has become the third most popular Italian party after the League and the center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD), and ahead of the left-wing “populist” party Movimiento 5 Stelle (5-Star Movement, M5S) which won over 30 percent of the popular vote in the 2018 elections. Berlusconi’s FI, with some 6 percent to 8 percent of support in opinion polls, is in fact the only pro-EU, center-right party of the three, and it might not even be needed by the remaining two to form a majority government after the next parliamentary elections. In Italy, the “center-right” bloc has been a working coalition for years at the local and regional level. In the past, Berlusconi governed at the national level with the League as a junior partner, but now Matteo Salvini would be the most likely prime minister in any right-wing government. In Europe, such an alliance of the right dominated by a so-called “populist” party is specific to Italy. Political parties sitting with League MEPs in the Identity & Democracy group of the European Parliament are usually kept out of power by FI’s friends sitting in the EPP group. This is true for the German AfD and the French National Rally (RN), less so for the Austrian FPÖ.
The Spanish liberal-conservative Vox party which sits together with Italian FdI MEPS and Polish PiS MEPS in the European Conservatives and Reformists group is also overtly treated as “far-right” and not considered as a possible coalition partner by the Spanish center-right PP party, and it is kept out of local coalitions by the PP and its center-liberal partner Ciudadanos (Citizens). A majority made up of the League and FdI without Berlusconi’s FI could potentially lead to a return of Italy to its national currency, the lira, and even to Italexit, although Salvini’s League is not in favor of exiting the eurozone and the EU unless it becomes necessary to preserve Italy’s sovereignty. “The EU must change, or it will not make sense for it to exist any longer,” Salvini said last February pointing at the example set by Brexit as a possible solution for Italy too. Meloni’s FdI is generally even more keen on quitting the euro area and the EU altogether. In general, while Italians used to be one of Europe’s most enthusiastic peoples as regards further integration, they have grown very euroskeptic over the years, with polls last spring showing for the first time ever about half of respondents in favor of leaving the EU.
In the 2019 Eurobarometer poll , only 37 percent of Italians considered that their country being in the EU was a good thing, which put them at the bottom of the EU-27, at an even lower level than the traditionally euroskeptic Czechs. Such an evolution in the mood of Italians is widely seen as a direct consequence of the EU’s inability to properly manage its last three major crises: the financial crisis and the crisis of the euro, the immigration crisis, and then the health crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. For all three crises, Italy is one of the countries that has suffered most. Few commentators expected a left-wing coalition to seize power after Salvini broke up with his M5S partners in August 2019. The M5S presenting itself as being “anti-system” and the arch-systemic PD were traditional foes, but the left’s fear of losing early elections was stronger than their mutual animosity. Next year, the Italian Parliament will choose the country’s next president as current president Sergio Mattarella from the PD will see his mandate come to an end, and this is another strong incentive for the left-wing coalition to come to terms once more and avoid early elections before that deadline. Giuseppe Conte’s majority in parliament relies mainly on PD and M5S MPs and senators, but not only. Conte also needs the votes of minor coalition partners: Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equals, LeU), Grupo Misto (Mixed Group) and Italia Viva (Italy Alive, IV) of former PD Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Renzi is the one who has been threatening with switching to the opposition because of a conflict with Conte over the management of Next Generation EU funds. Without IV voices in parliament, Conte will not have a majority. Renzi also demands that Italy use funds from the European Stability Mechanism to which the M5S is strongly opposed, while the PD is also strongly in favor of using those funds. AP images Former PD Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is threatening to pull out of the governing coalition. Whether the current conflicts lead to early elections in Italy or not, elections will have to be held sooner or later, the ultimate deadline being in two years’ time. If current trends are confirmed, it is very likely that Rome will then become a close ally of V4 countries in Brussels, even more so than when Matteo Salvini was only minister of the interior and vice-president of the council of ministers but had to compromise with his leftists allies from the M5S. The League and Fratelli d’Italia share a lot of convictions in common with PiS and Fidesz, such as a similar approach to immigration, Christian conservatism and a similar view of the need to make the EU a union of sovereign nation-states again and to temper federalist and progressivist ambitions in Brussels. Given the political inclinations of the League, it is clear why the Juncker commission blocked the Italian budget under the M5S-League coalition. French socialist and former Trotskyist Pierre Moscovici was then European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs, and he called League politicians “fascist” while declaring in October 2018, after having just rejected the Italian budget: “I will fight those people to my last breath”.
Illustrating the European Commission’s highly political and ideological approach to member states, Commissioner Moscovici also talked at the time , at the EU level, of “the divide between those who are pro-European and those who are anti-European. It is the divide between those who are fond of liberal democracy and those who are opposed to liberal democracy. And from that point of view, Mr. Orbán, Mr. Kaczyński, Mrs. Le Pen, Mr. Salvini are those whom we should fight politically because if they win, then Europe will change. But there is also a second divide: I don’t think it is enough to be pro-European or a democrat to be a progressive.” Undoubtedly, the progressive Von der Leyen Commission will probably soon have the opportunity to try its brand new “rule of law mechanism” not only against Poland and Hungary, but also against Italy.