The Italian elections of Sunday March 4th were keenly anticipated across Europe. Some commentators considered them critical, as it was expected that anti-EU parties would make big gains, and Italy’s membership of the EU would thus be put in question.
Oh no! What if Italy leaves? Rich country, big economy, founding member? How can poor Europe survive if another country follows the path of the UK, which has made itself a standing joke?
The election has indeed resulted in major gains for the anti-political Five Star Movement and the Lega, which was once a collection of northern secessionist parties infamous for refusing to speak standard Italian and depicting southerners as dogs and monkeys stealing northerners’ taxes. Both parties are profoundly Eurosceptic, and their rise reflects a run of success in local elections which makes them more than flashes in the pan.
But will this really make a difference to the EU? It is very unlikely. If the same thing had happened in Belgium, the EU would have a problem. But this is Italy.
Italian elections: Nothing interesting, muddy politics as always
The one thing you can predict is that nothing in Italian politics will ever change: not because that isn’t possible, but because one vital ingredient of any change is missing, and no one is really interested in finding it, being too set in their corrupt ways to do anything about it.
The Italian political system has always been notoriously corrupt. Even without the intricate systems of pervasive kickbacks which got huge numbers of politicians jailed during Tangentopoli, it has always had one serious flaw.
Whatever formal characteristics the system has had, and there have been many changes over the last century or so, the same things happen: parties and individuals sell themselves to the highest bidder, changing their votes in exchange for local investment, favours or outright bribery.Every so often, big bosses like the Fascists and the old Christian Democrats come along and shake it up. But inevitable they do the same things all over again internally, because that is the way Italian politicians operate, for good or ill.
One feature of Italian elections between the Second World War and the scandals of the 1990s, which destroyed the parties active then, is that party support remained broadly the same time after time. Parties would only gain or lose support through differential turnout rather than by capturing “floating” voters. Allegiance reflected a tribal loyalty rather than any commitment to a particular ideology, or programme of change or continuance.
In consequence, nothing much ever changed. The Christian Democrats were in government for over 40 years, as the dominant partner in different coalitions, which sometimes included unlikely elements such as the Socialists or even Communists, not in Grand Coalitions but because these supposedly contrary groups had been bought off by the party holding the purse strings in the time-honoured way.
Italian politicians play their own private game which has nothing to do with the public welfare. The public know that, so would never open their doors to a politician, or vote for one in the hope of achieving anything. Even now, when the old parties have dissolved and become new alliances, the people have realigned themselves in the same way, with the same expectation that politics represents identity rather than practical action.
This is the system which created Five Star and Lega as a reaction to it. Both may be compared, in their different ways, to populist movements such as Syriza in Greece. This was elected as the anti-austerity party, and by extension anti-EU as it was Brussels which was imposing the austerity. As such, it was seen as part of a new wave of public control which would cleanse the system of inherent corruption, as Italians also like to pretend they want.
The result? Syriza has adopted greater austerity than before, just to continue in power. It has led its supporters nowhere. If this happens in a country with very different political traditions to those every Italian knows and understands, there is no prospect of anything changing in Italy.
Both Five Star and Lega will have to do the same old deals to get anything done in Italian politics. The Italian people will respond by insulating themselves from the politicians who have turned their backs on them, just as they have always done – and deep down, they prefer it that way.
Vote for Aunt Sally
Italy has a number of traditions which seem odd to outsiders, For example, it is very difficult for any government to collect tax revenues because each person has to declare themselves for tax, not be charged it automatically. If they can avoid doing this, they will, and everyone knows this, so the system takes this into account.
Similarly, there are many different and very distinct forms of police force. The state police are not the traditional cabinieri, and are not the highway police or financial police, which are separate institutions. Furthermore, policepersons are often good looking and well groomed, because they have to be to get people to listen to them. If Italians see a law exists they will break it just because someone is telling them not to, and the system is obliged to accept this, and act accordingly.
In such a culture there is no room for a politics based around people. All politicians will always be seen as bad, and European ones even more so, as the workings of the EU are even more arcane than those of the Italian system. In many ways, this is inevitable. People only tend to know the politicians and parties of their own countries, apart from a few superstars like Merkel or Blair. When decisions affecting people’s lives are being made by people they have never heard of, whose politics they do not understand, but they are nevertheless told this is a democratic system, there is going to be an understandable reaction to the whole concept of EU politics and politicians.
But in Italy it suits the politicians to live in a world of their own, cut off from the people, and it suits the people to complain about it. If people felt they were connected with their politicians, they would have no one to blame but themselves if those politicians did things they didn’t like. Five Star and Lega are fine as gestures, means of sticking two fingers up at real politicians. But if they really did anything different they would give people nothing to complain about, and that is something their own supporters don’t ultimately want to see.
In Italy the authorities must be one thing, the people the opposite. Five Star and Lega have been supported precisely so they can betray the electors again. They are supposed to be different, but only for as long as the people can still think themselves different from their politicians. When their members have been made into politicians themselves by their electors, they will have to revert to type to have any future, even though they may genuinely want to bring the people closer to the government, and change the corrupt system everyone has had to endure for so long.
The deep state can only get deeper
We have a long way to go before a new Italian government is formed. But even the biggest of the Eurosceptic alliances will not be able to govern alone. Some of the more traditional Europhiles, who have now been punished by the electors, will have to be brought in, and when they are they will exert influence out of proportion to their numbers, because the whole political system isn’t going to change due to one election.
The public resistance to all authority has given Italian politicians a free hand to run everything as they want. Almost every institution, from a public authority to a private business, is run by boards of political appointees. If these individuals don’t start out that way, they have to become political folks to stay in place. Consequently every institution swings the way the government does, left or right, over a period of time through these patronage appointments.
Five Star and Lega attack this system as being behind the corrupt contracts which see, for example, rubbish piled in the streets of Rome because the rubbish collection contract was a political backhander with no enforceable performance standard attached. Rome’s current mayor, Virginia Raggi, is from Five Star, and capturing the capital was one of its signature achievements at the last local elections. But Raggi can’t sack all the officials of all the public agencies, or replace them all with Five Star supporters, who hate the whole idea of those corrupt public agencies anyway.
Such contracts will continue to be signed because they are one of the resources defeated politicians have to cling on to effective power. Those who may have been shut out of the process in the past, but are not part of Five Star or Lega either, will easily be brought into the process as there is nowhere else for them to go. Either Five Star and Lega will have to do the same, or the contracts will just multiply until they overwhelm the strength of the new anti-politicians to do anything about them, whilst five Star and Lega, newly responsible, get the blame from electors happier to be proved right about their politicians once again.
Labyrinths and catacombs
So where does all this leave the EU? It is right to be concerned about the gesture Italian voters have made. But as with Brexit, it holds all the cards because the devil is in the detail. The practicalities of steps such as withholding EU budget contributions can be made insoluble by the EU, and it will undoubtedly do this and get away with it because it suits too many Italians to keep things this way.
Italian politicians who take part in such a system are generally Europhiles because Europe works in a similar way. In the same way the extreme left and extreme right often find themselves agreeing on specific issues, such as Brexit, whilst being diametrically opposed in the big picture, the rather more democratic EU is looked on favourably by most Italian politicians because it has the same complex structures and back room methods of working they themselves hide behind.
Five Star and Lega will have to enter those to bring them down, and will never have the time or personnel power to succeed. This will expose their Euroscepticism as a posture, an act of being contrary to the established order for the sake of it. It has no real consequence for the EU, which has already exposed the British Brexiteers as opportunists who lied at every turn to suit themselves, not those who supported their cause.
The EU has all the tools to buy off the establishment politicians Five Star and Lega don’t like, and at the same time make Five Star and Lega the hated establishment if that is what suits it. The same EU which can laud Mikheil Saakashvili as an enlightened democratic reformer will have no qualms about turning today’s hate figures, such as centre-left former PM Matteo Renzi, into the moderate, reasonable guardians of the Italian nation who protect people from the excesses of their government.
If the established figures are part of that government, their presence will be seen as a quid pro quo for future European support, and therefore the safety net Italians won’t give up. As Brexit has demonstrated, people only want out provided they don’t lose money in the process.
The EU has nothing to fear from what has happened in Italy. There will no March on Brussels like the March on Rome, outsiders allegedly overthrowing the system in order to actually take control of it themselves.
Rather, they can expect the new Italian government, if it is even formed, to do as Mussolini did on that occasion: let others do all the dirty work, arrive by train when the fuss is over and pledge to keep the same rulers in power with a different image, which will consist of gestures accepted by the people simply because they are gestures.
Driving in a circle
Now Italians have had their bit of fun, they will get on with their lives as usual, thinking no politician will really help them. The Five Star Movement claims that it “does what is rational”. A country with a party of protest which does what is rational, rather than what is ideologically superior or what is better, has bigger problems than one election could either solve or make worse.
The Italian system does work, as the country is relatively prosperous, education and literacy levels are high and it has avoided revolutionary change. But Third World dictatorships often work well enough too, even though few want them apart from those who pockets are being lined.
The Italian system works because each person finds their own way of lining their pockets from it, either literally or metaphorically. As Vaclav Havel found when he took over the Czech Republic with huge popular support and then threw everyone out of work and into the free market, people may say they don’t want corruption, but not when they themselves are affected by removing it.
Italy would only leave the EU if the EU became a transparent, functional body which responded to its populations and had a strong relationship with them. In those circumstances, Italy wouldn’t feel at home there, and the EU wouldn’t want it. As it is, the two bodies are joined at the hip by their own weakness, and their electors don’t want that to change as long as they can preserve their sense of independence.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.