Italian Elections and the European Union: Till Politics Do Us Part

Posted by ACELG on 01/03/13

Law, politics and the economy are core determinants of the success of the European integration project and of the welfare of Europeans. None of these three determinants can be made sense of in an isolated national or European context. The recent Italian elections demonstrate the particular political temptation of opposition in a compound Union of fate and the difficulty of making a constructive message attractive in a crisis.

By Christina Eckes and Sara Lorenzon

In law, European integration leads to the incremental interlocking of the national and the European legal spheres, not only superficially but also at a deep level – a legal Union. National law gives effect to and is predetermined by EU law. The force of EU law depends on national law and even more importantly on national courts. Indeed, the interlocking of legal authority makes disobedience to EU law legally very difficult to justify for any individual national court. Disobedience would require both (lower) national courts and citizens to also defy the authority of national (constitutional) law and higher national courts.

In politics, the situation is different – there is no political Union. National politicians can choose and do choose to criticize, undermine and misrepresent the EU’s political authority whenever an artificially created dichotomy between national politics and interests on the one hand, and EU politics and interests on the other, strengthens their electoral power basis. This electoral power basis remains of course exclusively national. The possibility of withdrawal, introduced under the Lisbon Treaty, is a legal recognition of the possible clash of the political.

 

Italian Politics in 2013

Italy is the most recent example where such a narrative of artificially created contrasts between European and national interests has dominated the electoral discourse and where national politics have failed to convey a positive and constructive message explaining domestic and European interests and obligations. This creates a ‘we’ and ‘them’ discourse; it opposes South against North; and leaves the national voter with the feeling of being remote controlled. Indeed, during the past 3 years, most Italian politicians – especially the populist ones – have misrepresented the financial spread floating as the Europeans tightening the noose around national economy.

In a setting marked by economic stagnation, austerity measures and an unemployment rate of 11.2%, Beppe Grillo’s protest party Movimento 5 Stelle (‘Five Stars Movement’) had an easy game and became with 25.5% the biggest individual party in the Chamber of Deputies after the 2013 elections. Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition won the majority in the Chamber with very a narrow 29.5 % of votes (his party individually obtained 25.4 %), but the situation in the Senate is highly unstable and leads to a gridlock. Indeed, due to the contested and irrational workings of the national electoral law, Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition edged out Bersani’s center-left coalition in the Senate by the total number of seats, despite the fact that Bersani secured 31.42% and Berlusconi just 30.58%. Grillo’s movement received 23.79%.

Given that the Italian parliamentary system is perfectly bicameral, having the clear majority in both chambers is crucial both for the vote of confidence and for the governability of the country. A large coalition is a must. Furthermore, since the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano is currently in the last 6 months of his seven year term, he is not entitled under the Italian Constitution to dissolve the parliament. However, the new Italian parliament is hanging, spread across populist wings, with the Five Stars Movement having a total of more than 160 seats [23.79 & 25.5%] and Berlusconi’s coalition having 240 seats [Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom) 21.5 & 22.3%]. Despite of this gruesome scenario, both Berlusconi’s People of Freedom and its ally Lega Nord (North League) have lost 46% and 54% respectively compared to 2008 [6.3 and 1.6 millions of voters; <http://www.cattaneo.org/it/pubblicazioni-menu/comunicati-menu>]. If designated by President Napolitano to lead the new government, Bersani’s center-left coalition would need all the votes from Mario Monti’s senators and nearly half of Grillo’s votes in order to reach a majority in the Senate. The only alternative would be another government of technocrats to guide Italy until the election of the new President, who would then be entitled to dismiss the government and to call for new parliamentary elections.

The Five Star Movement: A Populist Temptation?

The Five Stars Movement did not participate in the 2008 elections, but over the past three and a half years, exclusively through a concentrated use of Grillo’s blog and social media, it has become one of the three main parties, outclassing Berlusconi’s People of Freedom by almost 5%. The Five Stars Movement has a strong popular base, representing both the youngest generation [40% of voters between 18 and 25] and the Italian middle class. Both are frustrated and furious in the face of corrupt and overly expensive politics. Particularly the young generation is craving for employment. Grillo’s simple manifesto – centered on the five core themes public water, transportation, development, quality of internet connection and its availability, and the environment – together with a strong rhetoric and striking narrative (‘no more tax raises’) resonated well with popular frustration and successfully spoke to the heart and wallet of Italians.

The identity and the vague ideology of the Five Stars Movement are difficult to portray. The movement is multifaceted and fragmentary and can hardly be seen as a politically solid ‘party’ in traditional terms. Indeed, it is not clear whom these deputies and senators will vote for or whether they will vote in block. Grillo himself is not a member of parliament, but aims to continue to inspire and direct the movement through his social network. Thus in the event of a coalition between Bersani and Grillo, Bersani will need all the patience and savoir faire of an experienced strategist to keep everyone on board.

However, the Five Stars Movement is a distinct step away from Berlusconi’s agenda, which is disruptive, timeserving and self-centered – both in the national and European context. While both are clearly euro skeptic, Grillo’s political programme does not mention a referendum against the Euro, which he has however proposed in the past. Nor does it mention any opposition in principle to EU law as such. His distrust is strictly and solely related to austerity measures lacking growth-oriented elements, economical stagnation, remote control, and the lack of citizens’ representation and participation. By contrast, Berlusconi’s political strategy simply aims to discharge every responsibility for the national financial crisis to Europe, blaming EU institutions and foreign governments. On the bright side, the Italian electoral outcome might also have a more unifying influence on the course of EU policies: whoever will lead the new government will need to come to terms with Grillo, combining austerity with social policies and above all generating employment. Yet, it remains to be seen whether and how Grillo’s EU-distrustful approach can in detail be reconciled with the EU’s current strategy to tame the economic crisis driven by the northern Member States.

The Irrationality of Divorce Talk

The Italian case is particular(ly extreme), but populism exacerbating distrust of the EU is nothing new in Europe. Lack of trust in political parties, media, and government combined with the (perceived) urgent need to fight against existing elites and political corruption, have grown across the EU. Even though the fight against corruption and entrenched interests of the governing class were also part of Mario Monti’s and Bersani’s political programmes, they both failed to identify intertwined national and European interests and convey a constructive message. Politics have avoided a clearer joint political vision for the European Union since its inception. The Union has travelled a long way on this destination-less journey that has legally and economically welded the participants closely together. This legal and economic interlocking, best exemplified by the Euro, creates (a perceived) irreversibility and (a forced) necessity to cooperate. Irreversibility and necessity arguments however are sober, somber and inherently apolitical in that they seem to exclude national disagreement. At the same time, the failure to properly communicate the reciprocal relation of largely overlapping national and supranational interests, which are the raison d’etre of the EU’s existence, leaves national citizens unaware of the great benefits of European integration and suspicious of allegedly “EU-tyrant” policies. The Italian elections demonstrate how much room this leaves for colorful politicians to speak to that feeling of being at the mercy of global, European or national economic forces.

Dr. Christina Eckes is associate professor in EU law at the University of Amsterdam. Currently, Dr. Eckes is Emile Noël Fellow at New York University for the academic year 2012/2013. Her personal page can be accessed here.

Dr. Sara Lorenzon is research associate at the University of Ferrara and 2012-2013 Emile Noël Fellow-in-residence at New York University.


 

4 Responses to Italian Elections and the European Union: Till Politics Do Us Part »»

  1. Comment by Elio PENNISI | 2013/03/01 at 13:23:42

    This article portrays an objective and balanced picture of the struggle Italy is going through.
    Which populism to choose of the two? The old notorious one, with the old corrupt guard, epitomising the cocksure type, and missed promises or the new populism made up of the very young inexperienced guys (virging to corruption, at least in the beginning)?
    Who would you choose if you long for integrity? I feel that people in Brussels are pre-judging rather than capitalizing on what newness can add to the Union.

  2. Comment by Dennis van Berkel | 2013/03/02 at 19:27:45

    National politicians all over Europe seem to lack the vocabulary to talk in a sensible way about EU politics and policies. Political discussion at the national level rarely goes beyond the question: for or against. Current political discussions usually aim at the structure of the EU, not its actual policies. No surprise that voters who are concerned with the economy, jobs, pensions and healthcare are not swayed by a politician that claims more Europe will be be the solution. The argument against Europe sadly enough does not suffer from the same fate. Less Europe means more power for the national politician to act upon the concerns of her constituency. Less Europe means: ‘Trust me, I will take control and solve your problems!’ The pro European politician has a much more difficult time claiming the same because he will never be able to claim that he controls Brussels politics.

  3. Comment by Giacomo Fassina | 2013/03/19 at 10:59:27

    A very good analysis of the European dimension of the Italian vote. Three quick remarks. Firstly, although there is a distinctively euroskeptic cord in the Grillo and Berlusconi’s vote, this can hardly help explaining Berlusconi’s resilience and Grillo’s success. And the article rightly recognises that the EU was not the primary reason informing the vote of the Italians. Europe made itself visible only indirectly through three recurrent images: austerity, the spread with the German government bunds and Monti as a proxy of Ms Merkel. EU politics as such played only a superficial role. The Italian elections, also due to the tight time-frame in which they were organised, should be explained first and foremost by Italian politics. Secondly, the result of the elections was never going to dramatically change the EU’s quasi-legal approach to austerity/rigour/fiscal consolidation (whatever the preferred lexicon is). A centre-left government, with a solid majority, could have managed to have a better negotiating position vis-à-vis European partners and institutions. The final outcome of EU policies is always the end-product of the strength and strategies of the negotiating positions. The outcome of the Italian elections is the worst one as it leaves the country with no negotiating position, little leverage and a broken institutional system. Thirdly, divorce talk (whether from the EU or the euro) is indeed irrational, and no one in his right mind should support it. Just to give an example, Italy would not even manage to organise a referendum on the euro, because investors would make the default and euro-exit happen at a much earlier stage after the announcement of such a public consultation was made. The lesson for EU institutions is nevertheless a different one: if we want to stop the growing apathy and dissatisfaction with the EU, we should take the democratic deficit seriously. This debate is not anymore simply an academic one. As things stand, national and European elections all appear to be by-elections to the German ones. A growing sense of impotence and frustration is affecting the peoples of Europe. More European democracy (and a real European stimulus to relaunch growth) is part of the answer.


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