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.