Leader: how the Italian election result exposed Europe’s fraying union

There is now an increased possibility that Italy – the world’s eighth-largest economy – could leave the euro.

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The eurozone crisis was never resolved; it was merely deferred. In recent times, Donald Trump’s presidency, the horrific Syrian war and Russian adventurism have all distracted from the single currency’s woes. However, the Italian election result made a new confrontation inevitable.

For the first time in a major EU country, two Eurosceptic parties – the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega Nord – won a parliamentary majority between them. On 28 May, after the longest period in Italy’s postwar history without a government, President Sergio Mattarella decided not to allow the populist coalition to take office and appointed Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF official, as interim prime minister. Mr Mattarella did so on the grounds that economic stability would be threatened by the parties’ proposed finance minister, Paolo Savona, who refused to renounce his long-standing opposition to the euro.

The president acted within his constitutional rights and, it should be remembered, neither M5S nor the Lega advocated withdrawal from the single currency during the election campaign (for fear of alienating cautious voters). Yet Mr Mattarella’s decision was politically reckless and a gift to Italy’s insurgent populists. The EU budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, displayed a similar disregard for public opinion when he declared that “the markets will teach the Italians to vote for the right thing”.

Voters’ support for the M5S (which won 33 per cent) and the Lega (17 per cent) reflected profound discontent with the EU and austerity. Mr Mattarella’s rejection of Mr Savona and his appointment of Mr Cottarelli – nicknamed “Mr Scissors” for his fondness for public spending cuts – merely reinforced the impression of a political elite subverting democracy.

The risk is that, far from being weakened by recent events, the M5S and the Lega win an increased majority at the fresh election anticipated this autumn. An opinion poll found that 59 per cent of Italian voters believed the president should have approved Mr Savona’s appointment as finance minister.

Although most of the public continue to support euro membership, the remarkable possibility that Italy – a founding EU member and the world’s eighth-largest economy – could leave the single currency has been increased. Even should this outcome be averted, the euro will remain a permanent threat to European stability. From the currency’s creation onwards, Britain and others warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is not matched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states did not and have been condemned to stagnation. Italy has endured two lost decades, with living standards close to their 1997 level.

Germany’s refusal to stimulate growth (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. Until the eurozone is reformed to better serve its members, the EU will continue to create the conditions for political extremism to thrive. 

Repealing the Eighth

In Ireland’s constitutional referendum on 25 May, the proposal to repeal the Eighth Amendment and liberalise abortion law attracted the support of 66.4 per cent of voters. This decisive result is a welcome one. As the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said following the Yes campaign’s victory, the new legislation should bring an end to lonely, frightened women travelling across the Irish Sea for a termination, or buying pills illegally on the internet.

As Helen Lewis writes on page 19, the focus will now inevitably move to Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act has never been applied, and where women have been arrested for buying pills to end their pregnancies. The Labour backbencher Stella Creasy secured a victory last year by ensuring that the NHS in England would fund abortions for Northern Irish women, but wider reform is long overdue across the UK. The 1967 act, although groundbreaking at the time, is now outdated in its demand for two doctors’ signatures. Meanwhile, Scotland has already changed the licensing of the drugs used for early abortions to allow them to be taken at home; England should follow suit. Access to free, safe and legal abortion is a cornerstone of women’s rights. Ireland has shown that reform is possible. 

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead