We have been here before. In 1992, Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum. For a moment, that seemed to herald the end of it. But next year, after Denmark was given four opt-outs from the treaty, a second referendum approved it. In 2001, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, again in a referendum. The following year, after reassurances on defence policy and enhanced co-operation had been offered to Irish voters, a second referendum approved the treaty. In 2005, French voters rejected the European constitution – in yet another referendum. This time there was no second vote. A second version of the constitution was later approved by France’s parliament. More recently, Greek voters rejected bailout conditions agreed between their government by the EU. Even more stringent ones were then applied.
When the Euro was launched, some British eurosceptics believed that it might collapse. It is still there. When Philippe Séguin opposed Maastricht, and later became president of France’s National Assembly, some hoped here that he might turn the tide in France against ever-closer union. He didn’t. Yanis Varoufakis outwitted neither Germany’s leaders nor the EU Commission in Greece. Viktor Orban is migrant-hostile, populist and anti-liberal…but pro-EU.
Now our point is not to assert that the EU won’t somehow bust up, at some point, because of east-west tensions over immigration; or north-south ones over money transfers; or because of the structural weaknesses of the Euro, or because (most likely of all) of what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”, rather than these known unknowns. Or even, turning at last to our actual subject, if Italian banks at last go under, sparking a wider financial crisis.
Rather, it is to plead for a sense of proportion about the formation of what is being called Europe’s first populist, eurosceptic government. Maybe the tensions between Italian debt and German-led austerity will become too great to endure, and the country will be forced out of the Euro. Perhaps the new government will bring about the same end by different means – issuing fiscal credit certificates. Maybe Italian voters are made of tougher stuff than the Greeks, their hostility to Brussels and Berlin runs deeper, and the size of the country makes it less easy to browbeat. None the less, British Eurosceptics should learn from having their fingers burned so many times. Any coalition between Lega and Five Star is unlikely to be a stable one – the tax-paying and tax-eating populists, as Garvan Walshe described them on this site.
Italy has a way of conjuring up fresh elections or temporary government by bureaucrats when administrations become gridlocked. Silvio Berlusconi is waiting in the wings – which will surprise Italian voters as little as it will astound British ones. He himself was the product of a wave of previous populists who themselves rose and fell. One day the country’s voters may dig in against the long squeeze imposed on them from northern Europe. But don’t be too sure it will happen yet.