Italy not yet ready for Leave, but watching Brexit closely

The Italians are suspicious of Europe, perhaps no more than that, right now. But they are watching Britain and if we make a success of Brexit their suspicions will take root. They will want out. As Salvini said after the UK election, ‘Go Boris’

Italy's politicians are watching Brexit
Tim Hedges
On 17 December 2019 13:02

How will Boris Johnson’s win be seen abroad? Here, around a half of Italy is rather jealous of Britain.

Of course it would be almost impossible to have such a decisive election result in this land of proportional representation, but at least the Brits had an election. And did something about Brexit.

Here it is indecisiveness that rules. In June, 2018 a government was formed after three months of talking, featuring a joint effort between the two main populist parties: anti-establishment left-leaning and environmental 5-Star movement and Matteo Salvini’s Lega movement which had been described as ‘hard right’ but these days prefers ‘centre-right’.

The whole thing was a bit of a gamble and, like so much in Italian politics, possessed none of that air of durability so desirable in a new government. In fact, it lasted 14 months. Salvini, hoping to trigger fresh elections, tabled a motion of no confidence in his own government, but instead of going to the vote, his partners 5-Star set up with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). They had previously sworn they would make no alliances and were enemies of the PD but, hey, business is business.

Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister, is now one of only two genuinely popular politicians in Italy. He is popular because he represents continuity, having held power for fully 18 months. He has no power base and belongs to no political party.

The other popular politician is, of course, Matteo Salvini. The Nigel Farage of the Italian peninsula, his popularity has spread widely from its narrow base in the North (his party was formed to promote independence for the Po Valley). He listened to the grumblings of ordinary Italians about immigration and took a stand, preventing the NGOs who had collected migrants from the Mediterranean from landing their ships.

This is enormously popular here. Although the percentage of the population born outside the country is lower than in France, Britain or Germany, immigration has been a real upset to a people which prides itself on a newly discovered uniformity. Italians are horrified by people who eat different food, much less have a different culture.

And Salvini is also a eurosceptic. Although he has toned this down (most Italians think it may be possible for Britain to leave, but not for them) he remains openly cynical about Europe, as do many of his supporters. Italy has experienced almost zero economic growth since it joined the euro.

Salvini’s latest attempt to get the government to resign surprised almost everyone. The eurozone is making changes to the European Stability Mechanism, which is there to bail out states in trouble. A proposed change is like that for banks in difficulty, that there should be a rescheduling of their debts. On the face of it, this seems unexceptional, and would normally be nodded through with the usual platitudes about peace and security.

Salvini doesn’t like it, and he has a point. Italy is, as everyone knows, deeply indebted, but its debt, unlike that of most major countries, is held largely domestically: by Italian banks, pension funds and private savings (the Italians are great savers).

This means that it would be Italians themselves, not foreign investors out to make a profit, who would be rescheduled. An Italian family which has saved its money in the form of government securities might not be able to sell them for years, or might have the interest reduced.

Salvini’s attempt failed; the pro-EU factions were eager not to rock the boat, particularly at a time when Italy is trying to get its budget through, and the change has been agreed to. This is something people will only realise when (if ever) it is too late.

Salvini has, of course, some opposition. There is the nucleus of an organised protest, mainly of young and left-wing people, against his immigration policies. They call themselves ‘the sardines’ because they pack themselves into Italy’s many small piazzas. My guess is that they don’t trouble their target one bit.

However, it is not difficult to discern a mild racist tinge to Italian politics, not dissimilar to what we see in Germany and Austria. But are the Italians eurosceptics? In many parts of Italy there is a grudging admiration for Britain’s stance on Europe and for Boris Johnson, whose untidy hair would prevent him from being taken seriously here.

The Italians are suspicious of Europe, perhaps no more than that, right now. But they are watching Britain and if we make a success of Brexit their suspicions will take root. They will want out. As Salvini said after the UK election, ‘Go Boris’.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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