Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
“I want never gets” was the Calvinist phrase my ex’s mother used to discipline her charges.
Italy’s election propelled two “I want” parties, the right-wing populist Lega and maverick Five Star Movement, to the brink of forming a government, under the nominal leadership of a law professor who faked his CV. But they reckoned without Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic now turned stern matriarch “never gets”.
The sticking point was over the proposed finance minister, Paulo Savona, a longtime eurosceptic, and fatally for his chances of office, author of a plan for Italy to leave the Euro by stealth. Unlike in Britain, where the head of state’s role in Cabinet-making is only ceremonial, in Italy the President is known to exercise a veto over ministers. The most recent Prime Minister to have his choice blocked was Matteo Renzi, whose nominee for Justice, Nicola Gratteri, got the kybosh in 2014.
English commentators who jumped to condemn this as a travesty of democracy failed to understand Italy’s constitutional traditions. Its post-war system is full of checks and balances unusual elsewhere (like the formal prohibition of a party whip) to prevent another Mussolini taking over.
Mattarella’s argument was that Savona’s secret plan to leave the Euro was a trick against the people. His injunction: if you want to make that government policy, campaign on it so it can be debated and its consequences understood by the people. A coup! screamed the Five Star Movement, who demanded the president’s impeachment. Very well, let’s go to elections, said the Lega’s Salvini, rising in the polls.
As I write, tempers have calmed somewhat. Di Maio of Five Star has withdrawn his impeachment threat, perhaps under pressure from Beppe Grillo, the party’s founder. The latest news is of a return to discussions to form a “political” (as opposed to a technocratic) government. Even Salvini seems a little reluctant to risk his party’s good showing by trying to repeat it.
None of this gets round the central problem. A solid majority of Italians has voted for parties that want to increase the budget deficit beyond the three per cent allowed by the EU. It’s not impossible (Spain was granted latitude), but Italy’s debt/GDP ratio stands at 130 per cent. Investors – and Germans – have little confidence it would be spent well.
Despite Savona’s secret plan, leaving the Euro is no solution for Italy. The bulk of its debt is held domestically. Italian savers would be wiped out by a return to the Lira. The Lega’s and Five Star’s “I want” illustrates the irresponsibility of national populism. It applies a 19th Century idea, that the will of the people is sovereign, in a 21st Century world where no country, even a biggish one like Italy, has control.
A fully sovereign government isn’t feasible in the modern world. Joining the single currency was the moment hiding from globalisation became prohibitively, and not merely, as is the case in the UK, highly, expensive. The single currency made both traditional national sovereignty and national democracy impossible. If Italians actually want more democracy, they need to create it at the level of the legal regime they want to put under popular control. For governance of the Euro, that has to mean in European institutions.
This isn’t, of course, something Britain should be involved in. It needs to find its own way on the outside. If staying out of the Euro made Brexit possible, Italy’s membership of the single currency made it necessary.
If the Italian system – Berlusconi and the Partito Democratico – imposed stagnation on Italians, the Italian anti-system – Five Star and Lega – would impose devastation instead. The markets know this, and reacted with justified panic. Mattarella has given Italy time to walk away from the cliff. It remains to be seen whether Italian leaders will make use of the opportunity he’s given them.