Europe at centre of unpredictable Italian elections

“We have to brace ourselves for the worst scenario and the worst scenario could be no operational government.” This was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s warning ahead of the Italian elections, taking place this Sunday (4 March) – even if he was later forced to retract his comment, tweeting: “Italy remains a central player in Europe and in defining its future”.

There are several political forces in the running to govern the country, and all of them will be looking to form a majority. The pro-European and centre-left Partito Democratico led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has joined forces with +Europa, a new party led by former Foreign Minister and EU Commissioner Emma Bonino, which advocates for a stronger EU role in domestic policies, and a centre party called Insieme, supported by former PM and Commission President Romano Prodi.

The populist Movimento 5 Stelle led by Luigi Di Maio will also be one of the main contenders. The latter’s stance on Europe is not clear and has evolved during the campaign, from its proposal for a referendum to exit the Euro, to triggering a vote only as a last resort.

The pro-Europe, centre-right Forza Italia led by veteran former PM Silvio Berlusconi – who is currently banned from public office due to a tax fraud conviction and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights – constitutes the main party in a centre-right coalition which also includes Lega, Fratelli d’Italia and the centre party Noi con l’Italia.

Lega´s leader Matteo Salvini has campaigned for a referendum to exit the Eurozone, a review of all European treaties to wind back to a pre-Maastricht scenario and a hard stance on illegal migration. In the same vein, Fratelli d’Italia’s right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni says Italy must re-gain its sovereignty and oppose increasing migration and an intrusive European Union. Outside the two big coalitions and the Movimento 5 Stelle are several minor parties, including the former left-wing minority of Partito Democratico which has formed a new party called Liberi e Uguali.

According to the last polls, which in Italy can only be conducted up until two weeks before the elections, the centre-right coalition was expected to win around 37% of the vote, falling short of the 40% threshold needed to form a stable government. The Movimento 5 Stelle was on course to be the single largest party, with around 28% of the vote, but is unwilling to form alliances with “traditional” parties. Renzi’s Partito Democratico will likely fall to around 23%, far below the almost 41% it scored in the 2014 European elections. Undecided voters account for around 35% of the electorate.

The voting will be held under a new electoral law, which combines national proportional representation and a first-past-the-post system within constituencies. Several possible scenarios might emerge:

  • The centre-right coalition could reach the threshold to govern – Depending on which party has the most votes, the stance towards the EU might vary considerably. Even if Forza Italia becomes the biggest party in the coalition – with European Parliament President Antonio Tajani having agreed to become Prime Minister if this is the case, Matteo Salvini will realistically get a key role such as the Home Office, thus able to set Italy´s agenda on issues such as migration. On the other hand, if Lega gains the majority (unlikely given the last polls), Salvini has already claimed he will be Prime Minister.
  • Grand coalition – In case of a hung parliament, the only grand coalition to be envisaged would be formed by the Partito Democratico – together with +Europa and Insieme (if they reach the 3% necessary to get a seat in the Parliament) – and Forza Italia, even if neither have been vocal on this option in order not to lose votes. The grand coalition would have a strong European footprint but with a tougher stance on migration than the current government. Nevertheless, Italian politics would not be in favour of this option, having never worked on a common programme as in Germany.
  • New elections – In case of a hung parliament the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, could also call for new elections. But this would be a last resort. Nevertheless, to avoid a new stalemate, President Mattarella may urge the Parliament to approve a new electoral law, something that will be lengthy and uncertain.

From a European perspective, the main takeaway from these elections – if the polls are confirmed – would be the fall of the Partito Democratico, which is currently the second largest party in Europe and the largest member of the Party of European Socialists and Democrats (PES). Its defeat would further weaken the position of the PES in the lead-up to the 2019 elections; the party has already been rattled by rumours of a possible deal between Matteo Renzi and Emmanuel Macron to create a new European centrist force. The Italian vote could also result in a big setback for the European Parliament, which may lose both its President, Antonio Tajani, and the leader of the S&D group, Gianni Pittella, who is running for a seat in the Italian Senato.

The electoral campaign has so far been characterised by a climate of social and political tension, highlighted by the recent shooting in Macerata (Marche region), where a far-right extremist wounded six immigrants from Africa, and the recent violent clashes between far-right and far-left activists. Although the EU has been at the heart of the electoral campaign, as never before, Euroscepticism is rapidly changing Italians’ views about the European project.

This phenomenon is fuelled by a sense of neglect that characterises how Italians feel about Brussels, which is considered guilty – among others – of having left the country to face the migration crisis alone. Italy’s endemic political instability has led to the marginalisation of Rome in the EU decision-making process. The country is often treated as a political light-weight – rather than the third economy in the Eurozone – that is not able to influence decisions taken by the French-German duo. The upcoming elections won’t break this vicious circle but could make it worse, further limiting Italy’s influence on EU policy-making and casting a shadow over the prospects for European stability in 2018.

Authors: Pietro Bertaggia, Sara Carrer, Chiara Gaudenzi-Morandi & Chiara Trovati


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