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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
31 May 2018

The impact of the Italian crisis on Brexit

The political turmoil in Italy could strengthen the hand of Labour’s Eurosceptics.

By Stephen Bush

Crisis over? Sergio Mattarella has given the Five Star Movement and Lega Nord more time to form a government, potentially staving off an election that could become a de facto referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro.

The two possible coalition partners have very different motivations here: for Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement, his party could well do worse at the next election than the last, while, if the polls are right, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord are likely to do better. So Di Maio has an interest in being genuinely constructive in a way that Salvini doesn’t.

Although its repercussions bear much greater concerns than the impact on domestic British politics, and most of the comparisons with Brexit are either facile or so broad as to be useless, the Italian crisis will regardless have important consequences for the political debate here in the United Kingdom.

The first, as I lay out here in greater detail, is in depriving pro-Europeans of one of their most potent weapons in a referendum re-run: the ability to contrast the hash that the government is making of Brexit with a European Union that is reforming itself and growing faster than the United Kingdom post-Brexit vote.

The second, which has implications not only for the conduct of the next referendum but also for the chances of getting a rematch in the short term, is that it strengthens the hand of Labour’s Eurosceptics.

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The unity Brexit position in the Labour frontbench is to defeat the government and to keep its electoral and parliamentary coalitions united. But the mindset is different: for some it’s “and as hard a Brexit as we can get away with” and for others it is as “and as soft as a Brexit as we can get away with”. Jeremy Corbyn’s natural instinct is to go hard – he’s still the same man who hadn’t “closed his mind” to voting to leave in 2015 and who has voted against every European treaty in his parliamentary career, after all. But he’ll compromise if he has to.

Now, here comes an Italian crisis and a European response – Guy Verhofstadt has said that what Italy needs is “reforms, reforms, reforms” to tackle the crisis – that Labour’s Eurosceptics see (and more importantly can spin) as a reminder that the EU’s rulemaking institutions will never be anything but hostile to a radical left-wing government. Now, of course, the preference of Corbyn to escape the European Court of Justice isn’t anywhere near as important as far as votes in the Commons go as the preference of John Spellar, John Mann et al to escape the free movement of people.

But a quick look at how the leader’s office outriders have seized on the Italy crisis to make the left-wing Eurosceptic case highlights how one consequence of what’s happened in Italy is that it will become easier for the Labour leadership to sell a more drastic breach with the EU than it was last week.

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