To the no-nonsense free-thinking plain-speaking Anglo-Saxon mind, the Italian President’s recent conduct exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the EU. How dare Sergio Mattarella veto Paolo Savona, a critic of the Euro, from the post of finance minister. Why should the wishes of a democratically elected government be trampled upon in this way? What possible justification can there be for the imposition of Carlo “Mr Scissors” Cottarelli, an IMF official who no-one has voted for, as prime minister over the heads of the voters? However you vote in Italy, the argument runs, you get Germany – that’s to say, the growth-cutting, job-wrecking straitjacket of the Euro, together with the uncontrolled immigration and unaccountable government which the EU has made its own.
But the English mind is not well placed to get inside the Italian one. Now on its 62nd government since the war, with every prospect of moving soon to its 63rd, Italy really is another country. The President is arguably within his constitutional right to have acted as he did (though just as arguably outside it). In any event, it is not at all clear that Italy’s parliament will impeach him. Furthermore, Italy is no stranger to takeover by bureaucrats: the unelected Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner – now there’s a suprise – formed an unelected Cabinet after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi. One account has it that the latter “was toppled by Brussels and the European Central Bank” because he wasn’t sufficiently enthused by…the Euro.
Berlusconi himself rode a popular wave in the wake of the collapse of Italy’s Christian Democrats. Barred from serving in any legislative post for six years, he is waiting in the wings for the bar to lapse. Since Berlusconi came and went, Matteo Renzi has come and gone, too – ejected in the wake of his failed referendum on constitutional reform. Brexiteers warm instinctively to the Brussels-hostile new government of the League and the Five Star Movement, but it is not a stable combination, and its programme is Arthur-Laffer-meets-Jeremy-Corbyn: that’s to say, lower income tax and a universal basic income, plus a lower pension age. Reality is so dispiriting in Italy that it’s little wonder voters have opted for unicorns.
Our point is not that Mattarella was right to veto Savona and send for Cottarelli – or that the government somehow lacks legitimacy. It is, rather, William Hague’s familiar truth: that the Euro is a burning building with no exits. Whatever happens, Italy’s options are grisly. On the one hand, a future in the Eurozone means stagnation, mass unemployment, uncontrolled migration (by extension), a democratic deficit and, in effect, rule from abroad. On the other, to leave the zone, by whatever means, risks market turmoil, investment flight, bust banks and economic upheaval. Once upon a time, Italy, since it can’t seem to manage structural reform, would devalue and spend. That option is not available. In the fable, an Irishman says that one wouldn’t start from here. Perhaps it should feature an Italian instead.
In a strange way, Mattarella has a point. If Italian voters really are to ask those they elect to leave the Euro, or experiment with parallel currencies, it would be best for them knowingly to take the plunge, rather than see a government – probably one that is an inchoate coalition – blunder into doing so without full democratic backing. The League-Five Star combination is a distance from adopting depature from the currency as policy, and it is reported today that there may not even be fresh elections. A poll could see Italy’s voters choose a different path to that taken by their Greek counterparts, with consequences so momentous for Europe as almost to defy description. But the EU has a long history of quelling voter protest. This beautiful, cynicism-worn, bewildering country is hard to read.