By Nick Wright
The weather is hot, tempers are short and, once again, government is in crisis. It normally is — and this one will not be settled while Italians are heading for the beaches. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has split from the populist Movimento Cinque Stella (Five Star Movement, M5S) taking 60 of the party’s 227 members of the country’s Chamber of Deputies.
As head of his own parliamentary grouping, Di Maio is thus even more firmly aligned with former European Bank president Mario Draghi, now the country’s Prime Minister and the main mover and shaker for the country’s neoliberal pro-EU, pro-Nato government.
M5S and the Democratic Party are the key components of the present government’s majority and the schism doesn’t immediately affect its parliamentary position — Italy’s fissiparous parties frequently divide and reassemble — but it does herald a further period of instability with foreign policy both an issue of contention but also the pivot on which more domestic political issues turn.
In particular, energy policy remains highly contentious with Italy’s long-standing commercial arrangements with Russian energy suppliers under stress. The country’s dependence on imported Russian gas is now a quarter of national consumption — down from 40 per cent a year ago. Draghi’s determination to reduce Russian imports was clear when he told the EU leaders’ summit that despite inflation and rising prices piling the pressure on Russia was paramount.
The country’s ecology minister is even dreaming up plans to increase coal consumption. Conte hasn’t let up on his criticism of Draghi for sending Italian weapons to Ukraine and boosting defence spending to a tight 2024 timetable rather than 2028 as originally promulgated.
For the bankers and business class Draghi remains their man even though the European Central Bank supremo who once said he would “do whatever it takes to defend the euro” is now confronted with a debt crisis while Italian spreads — the difference in borrowing costs between German and Italian benchmark debt — has increased the most in two years. Last time it took a gigantic bond-buying bonanza by the ECB to stabilise confidence in Italy’s ability to service its debt.
With the departure of Di Maio’s faction M5S, which has already lost a few parliamentarians to a newly constituted left-wing grouping in the Chamber of Deputies, may be in a better position to renew its appeal to the original M5S constituency which exploded into life and electoral success around widespread contempt for establishment politicians and government corruption.
A key factor is existence of a persistent majority among the Italian people that is either hostile to Nato or sceptical about its role and is against sending weapons to Ukraine. An opinion poll in March found six out of 10 oppose an increase in military spending. Only 27.3 per cent were in favour of allocating Trump’s 2 per cent target of GDP to fund Nato.
Where previously M5S polled up to one third of the electorate, more recently its highly problematic participation in government — first in an unlikely alliance with Salvini’s Lega and latterly with PD — has eroded its support with barely 15 per cent backing the party and resulting in a string of defeats in its big city bases.
A government lash-up between the anti-authoritarian, anti-corruption M5S with the right-wing populist Lega was always likely to fall apart. When, in the summer of 2019, Matteo Salvini moved a motion of no confidence against Giuseppe Conte’s government it was to precipitate an election and bolster support for Lega.
Salvini’s pitch for national status — transforming his Northern League (Lega Nord) into the national league (simply Lega) was coming apart — and he needed to renew Lega’s insurgent appeal. The mechanism which destroyed Conte’s government was not simply Salvini’s maladroit manoeuvre but the scheming of former PD secretary and premier Matteo Renzi. In the midst of the Covid crisis and with Italy due to receive €191.5 billion from the €750bn injection of Covid recovery funds Renzo picked a fight with Conte.
M5S has always contained incompatible tendencies, is now formally divided and risks becoming an even more marginal force while Salvini’s bid to command the right wing in Italian politics — despite the fact that with the M5S split, his is the biggest party in parliament — is now fatally undermined by the rise, from 4 per cent in the last Chamber of Deputies election to 22 per cent in the latest polls, of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratellid’ Italia (Brothers of Italy).
Meloni’s party which now holds sway over the substantial array of fascist, racist, anti-migrant, xenophobic and so called “post-fascist” forces that can always find a place in Italian politics has displaced Lega on the right. It is set to capitalise on its independence from the establishment set-up.
Lega’s Salvini is adrift trying to reinvent himself after his connections to Putin’s regime proved unfashionable in the new global situation. Draghi is the key figure in pioneering a form of statecraft in which the functioning of the Italian state is drawn even more deeply into a subordinate role with European and Atlanticist structures, while the representative institutions of Italian society are subordinated to the executive. Draghi made the principle explicit in relation to the export of arms to Ukraine when he argued that acceding to Conte’s insistence — that this was a decision for parliament — was impossible.
And at the European Council meeting in May he spelled out his Euro-federalist aims — including majority voting in the EU and an end to the EU’s unanimity rule, most explicitly in relation to what he described as the challenges arising from the Ukraine war: “We need pragmatic federalism that embraces all of the spheres hit by the transformations taking place, from the economy to energy and security,” he said.
“If this requires the start of a path that will lead to the revision of the treaties, this should be embraced with courage and confidence.”There is an growing contradiction between the settled views of a clear majority of Italians and the direction of government.
One pole of opposition is the politically divided trade union movement. In 2019 Italy’s main, traditionally communist-led, Confederazione Generale Italianadel Lavoro (CGIL) organised, along with the other unions, a massive rally against the economic policies of the M5S/Lega government, and its newish leader Maurizio Landini has a track record of successful confrontations with Renzi.
With an internationalist and working-class left existing barely on the margins of Italian political life and the main trade union confederations — including the CGIL — still substantially incorporated in practice into consensus politics, the opposition to the neoliberal economic policies built around Italy’s position in the EU and the war psychosis in foreign policy is struggling to find a clear expression.
One likely consequence is that Fratellid’ Italia will be able to project itself as an authentic voice of people unrepresented by the coalition government and scoop up angry and anxious voters into a demagogic programme.
From below there is a rising if still inchoate rebellion. A insurgent “base” trade union movement has proved capable of both symbolic actions and quite widely supported strikes. The Italian Communist Party — one component of Italy’s fragmented and fractious left — described the strike against the war last May by what it categorises as “the grassroots and conflictual trade unions” as a success.
Nevertheless, Italy’s never-ending governmental crises will not be resolved until the working class movement finds a way of imposing its will on a political class firmly wedded to the EU’s neoliberal order. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: Morning Star