Can the new Italian government lead to a better dialogue with Europe?

by Francesca Catassi
After pulling the plug on the government in an attempt to seize power, Salvini has been outplayed by the PD and M5S.

A new alliance is forming between the Democratic Party (centre-left) and the Five Star Movement (anti-establishment).

However, with the first disputes emerging on the composition of the government, how long can this ‘marriage of convenience’ last? How did the government crisis unfold? And what does it mean for the European Union?

Who really pulled the plug?

‘This Government stops here’. It is with these words that Giuseppe Conte, resigned as Prime Minister (PM) of Italy on August 20.

In the beginning of August, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party and Interior Minister, announced a motion of no confidence against the government he was himself a part of, following long standing tension between coalitions partners that culminated in disagreement over a crucial vote on the Turin-Lyon high speed rail link.

Scoring high in the polls, Salvini’s gamble was to force a snap election and possibly become Italy’s new Prime Minister. But contrary to all expectations, Prime Minister Conte preferred to unplug the government himself by announcing his resignation, thereby avoiding a non-confidence vote. Conte used his resignation speech to hit back at Salvini, criticising him for pursuing his own personal interests and for his lack of institutional sensitivity and constitutional culture.

A game of chess

Following the fall of the M5S-League government, intricate political negotiations started with politicians running around trying to find a new majority. The complex functioning of the Italian parliamentarian democracy gave old enemies ample room to find different ways to keep Salvini away from power.

In the last few weeks, the role played with the President of the Republic has arguably never been so important and challenging. After Conte’s resignation, President Sergio Mattarella was put in the delicate situation of finding a solution to the political crisis. Mattarella had to preside over countless meetings and consult with different party leaders, to try and discover whether a new majority was possible within the Parliament.

Following a period of intense negotiations and back and forth, the M5S and the PD finally agreed to form a government together, a new yellow-red alliance. The two parties agreed to continue under PM Conte, but in a spirit of discontinuità (discontinuity) as the PD leadership was quick to underline. Despite the original reluctance of the current leader of the PD, Nicola Zingaretti, to reappoint Conte (perceived as “a man of the MS5”), the two parties reached an agreement with key ministries promised to the PD. On 3 September, the positive results of the vote on the M5S online platform, called Rousseau, confirmed the proposal of the new government. Still the willingness to shut out Salvini – the man who already saw himself as Caesar – became a priority for both parties.

A new policy towards the European Union?

The M5S’ position towards the European Union (EU) has never been totally clear, possibly not even to themselves.

Throughout the years, the movement has moved back and forth on the EU. Initially calling for Italy to leave the euro and hold a referendum on its membership of the Eurozone, the M5S later also tried to adhere to the pro-European and liberal party in the European Parliament, ALDE (now: Renew Europe), and was decisive in pushing for the election of EPP politician Ursula Von der Leyen as new President of the European Commission, both in the European Council and the Parliament. However, when in government with the League, the M5S was also quick to pick a fight with Brussels over the Italian Budget Law.

Still, with the League out of the government, the new yellow-red alliance can be expected to change its stance and tone towards the EU. In fact, the PD has always been a strong pro-European voice, and even more so in reaction to the euro-sceptic (if not Europhobe) stances of Salvini and some politicians within the M5S. The lack of a strong positioning of the M5S on Europe, may provide the PD with ample space to deliver a strong support for the European project. PD politicians may want to show that Italy is now back in Europe – moving away from confrontation towards more cooperation. In fact, its stance on the EU is possibly one of the policy areas that may change the most from the government of Conte I to Conte II. In addition, the new yellow-red alliance will push for an agenda where they have (or should have) a lot in common with the EU, such as social and climate policies, as it is evident in the common 28 points-programme made available on 3 September.

With the government crisis unfolding, Italy also missed the deadline (26 August) for disclosing its nominee for Italian Commissioner for the next European Commission. Debates previously took place on who the League or M5S would appoint. However, given the new political situation in Italy, there are reasons to believe that the PD will oppose itself to a M5S Commissioner. In this regard, Paolo Gentiloni, Prime Minister from 2016 to 2018, seems to be on course to be nominated as Italy's Commissioner. However, the new two coalition partners could also agree on a more ‘neutral’ candidate, such as a a technician without a specific political colour, or a woman, such as Elisabetta Belloni, General Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Paola Severino, former Minister of Justice.

With the other member states waiting, a candidate is expected within the next few days.

Italy’s new face will surely make the country a more reliable and credible interlocutor within the EU and avoid it becoming isolated during political discussions with other member states.

However, despite these few encouraging signs for the EU, how long can this new union last in Italy?

The League’s next move?

Salvini seems to have scored an own-goal by triggering the government crisis, as he aimed to gain more power, but ultimately ended up in the opposition. This time, Salvini may indeed have played the wrong move.

Nonetheless, we should not forget that his party finished first in Italy in the last European elections and – despite a fall following the government crisis – he continues to score the highest in the polls. Even if currently and based on the last Italian 2018 elections, the League is ‘only’ the second party in the Italian parliament.

The new Italian government may be welcomed by Pro-European forces. Seeing the PD back in power may ease the pain and revive Italy’s credibility in Brussels. However, many factors suggest that this ‘marriage of convenience’ may not necessarily be a long or a happy one. In fact, there are few reasons to believe that this government will last much longer than the previous one. It should be recalled that the M5S has, since the very first speeches of Beppe Grillo, based its political discourse on opposing and criticising mainstream and established parties, of which the PD is one of the main representatives.

Moreover, there is a high chance that an alliance of the M5S and the PD, may only feed into Salvini’s rhetoric, strengthening his position before inevitable elections, sooner or later. Salvini will be quick to present himself as a victim of the political plot devised by his detractors in shutting him out, contrary to the “people’s will”. He will certainly exploit any signs of disagreements and disunity that will emerge from the new yellow-red alliance, and within a context of difficult economic times for Italy.

Being in the opposition may ultimately serve Salvini who will have a strategically advantageous vantage point during the upcoming discussions on the next Budget Law, which will be a thorny issue due to the VAT safeguard clauses and the respect of the EU budget rules.

Salvini will display himself as capable and ready to take over whenever Italians vote in favour of giving him “full powers to do what [the League] has promised to do” – as he has already called for. This may become an ideal scenario for Salvini, who has many flaws but is certainly a great communicator.