Italy’s elections and the European “misunderstanding”

Does the political return of Berlusconi represent a realistic danger for Western democracy?

Will Italy’s parties be able to establish a proper government? How long will this last before calling for elections again? These are hectic times for European politics. A weak leadership is evidently part of a European landscape characterised by an inability to cope with the economic crisis and, in some cases, a popular disillusionment with the same process of European integration. Anti-EU propaganda is unsurprisingly getting stronger across the old continent. Socially and politically, all this may generate an increasingly painful impact. Along with a group of other southern countries such as Greece and Spain, Italy is one of the main areas where the future of the same Euro-project, and of western economy too, is being played out. 

The Italian peninsula is in a state of agitation following an election where political coalitions were unable to get a realistic parliamentary majority. In truth, the electoral result showed not only the (now “historic”) inability of the centre-left to deal with Silvio Berlusconi, but also the massive victory of the Five Stars movement, the under-funded and recent group led by comedian Beppe Grillo. These elections demonstrated the impressive endurance of Berlusconism, and dealt a tremendous blow to Mario Monti, as well as the European Central Bank and other overseas political and economic actors (including Germany), which fully supported him.

International eyes across the Atlantic are therefore focusing again, and with some preoccupation, on Italian affairs. In particular, there are questions about the endurance of the Italian economy with a non-technocratic governmental phase and poor government stability. Another concern is whether the political return of Berlusconi represents a realistic danger for Western democracy at large. Given this, and for a number of other reasons, many world leaders and international institutions hoped and, implicitly or explicitly, backed another Monti’s leadership. Yet, they showed only a very limited knowledge of the Italian context (and Monti’s electoral strength), and  of people’s disillusionment and the country’s moral crisis.

International pressures on national politics might, at times, lead to tricky outcomes too. The Cold War years are, moreover, well behind us. Where is the democratic legitimacy of these often perceived “intrusions” in domestic affairs? Would this pressure be acceptable or well received in countries such as, for example, Britain or Denmark? In some cases, the missing real political unity of the EU would suggest using diplomacy and international relations more proficiently. Numbers (and votes) are numbers after all, and they are supposed to be weighted similarly in all western nations. It is true that international elites were, for example, rightly worried about the overtly anti-EU and anti-Merkel rhetoric of Berlusconi. However, what have they done to stop this? Did they pay the same attention when world-leading economists criticise austerity plans and EU policies? 

Foreign politicians who offer suggestions to Italians on how to vote, or who overtly criticise the media tycoon, are and will be seen suspiciously by some sectors of the electorate – and it is now clear that this is not only an Italian trend. Instead, they gave vigor to Berlusconi’s extremist discourse: portraying himself as the champion of Italy’s freedom against the plot orchestrated by financial markets, the European Central Bank, the EU, German banks, the US administration, and a (nebulous) international technocracy. In truth, intercontinental preoccupations with the current state of democracy in a major Mediterranean nation are – at least partially – welcome and accurate. Smart observers may, however, wonder where is the “novel story” here, or why the leading political and financial global institutions have not acted before. Berlusconi led his first government with the presence of a neo-fascist party and the promoters of a sort of autonomy for the northern Italian regions in the early 1990s. This idea of “bad” EU, Germany, and banks, similarly contributed to an overall picture which helped Grillo’s propaganda (though this is far from being the only reason for his success).

Monti’s semi-technocratic and serious platform certainly offered, in other words, a better electoral option to voters, but this proved not to be enough. Without any form of violence and street riots (like in other southern European democracies), this vote represented, in many ways, the Italian response to these peculiar European socio-economic (and political) times. However, to avoid the recurrence of these types of democratic emergencies in Italian history, it would now be time to promote a genuine transformation in national and popular culture to overthrow some obsolete principles and ideas – like the one promoted by Berlusconism. It is, nonetheless, too early to say if the “common people” elected by Grillo will be the best answer to all this. International elites cannot, however, really do a lot about it.

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). He has also been a commentator on the far right, Italian politics, and other European affairs, for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Observer, BBC, and Voice of America, among others.

A woman walks passed an electoral information banner at a polling station in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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