Italy's new government is unlikely to break with the past

The left-right coalition represents a continuation of the old, discredited politics - and a victory for Berlusconi.

When compared to other geographical areas Italian politics often looks very colourful. This is the nation which, in some ways, still represents a sort of laboratory for the western world, and acts like a model for other countries – from the building of the nation-states to the rise of fascism and the contemporary relations between media and power. This went along with the presence of characters like Garibaldi, Berlusconi, and, of course, Beppe Grillo. Different to some northern European states, Italy also experiences high levels of politicisation in national life, and a strong political and ideological polarisation and fragmentation. This contributed in making Italian politics so argumentative and, often, quarrelling.

Yet, miracles, at times, happen and for the second time in a row a "grand coalition" is being established, gathering together the centre-left and the centre-right. A government led by one of the leaders of the Partito Democratico, Enrico Letta, has been established. It is clear that Italy does need a government and a leadership. But is this the right one to deal with the economic and social turmoil Italy faces? President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, talked about the need for "unity", like during the years of the anti-fascist Resistance (probably overlooking that politicians in Berlusconi’s party never rejected interwar fascism). Other commentators looked instead excited at the welcome, but cosmetic-only presence of young and female senior ministers. A source from the Partito Democratico even suggested that they had to back it because this government represented a "chance" for Italy.

Along with an evident lack of political strategy, the centre-left is showing a quite high degree of hypocrisy. Over the years, anti-Berlusconism was the only magnet to keep together some of its own forces and streams – and these anti-Berlusconi stances are very strong in the leftist electorate. At the same time, their poor attitudes contributed to the incredible endurance of Berlusconi’s political activity, and recently to the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement. It also seems that they hardly learned from the history of Italian elections. Elections took place on 24-25 February, and the Partito Democratico was leading in polls. However, Berlusconi came very close, and the centre-left could not gain any realistic and stable parliamentary majority. Following the establishment of this governmental coalition, the real winner is Berlusconi, the one politician who many European elites and international organisations would have loved to see disappear.

We might wonder what these leading foreign and economic forces think about this development – especially if we consider that Berlusconi has recently employed anti-EU and anti-Euro propaganda which generated criticisms in Brussels. Moreover, it is unclear what this mixture of centre-right, centre-left, and liberal politicians will do in foreign policy, economic plans, conflict of interests, unemployment, and, intriguingly given Berlusconi’s ongoing trials, justice. It will probably be the centre-left losing votes again as it happened following their backing of Mario Monti's technocratic government. Berlusconi will, in fact, play the card of elections when he feels to be strong enough. He has already done this, and then played an electoral campaign against austerity, Germany, and the same Monti (after having initially supported him).

In some ways, Grillo won too. The left-right coalition gives strength to his argument that all parties are the same. However, millions of Italian people voted against traditional politics, against austerity (at least in part) and the technocratic government of Monti, yet they end up now with this type of catch-all government. The coalition also represents an attempt to react against Grillo and common citizens voting for the Five Star Movement. Traditional parties prefer to stay together, hoping that the economy will improve and Grillo lose votes. However, this is well in line with the ethical decline of contemporary Italian politics too. This is, in fact, the outcome of a couple of decades of failing political elites. Many people, and especially the youth, voted for the Five Stars because they wanted a moralisation of public life, meritocracy, cuts to politicians' privileges, a halt to the brain drain, and have deputies pursuing collective interests. A good part of the centre-left electorate also probably hoped that a new political era could start after years of Berlusconism, scandals, bribery, foreign media attention, and economic downward. Will a government backed by the heirs of the Bunga Bunga-like politics reverse the economic trend, save the country from mafia and corruption, and regain international prestige and the votes of the young generations?

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge)

Slight ritorno: Berlusconi, in the Italian senate on 30 April 2013. (Photo: Getty.)

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.