New government, familiar problems for Italian PM Conte
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte must be breathing a bit easier this week. His second government, this time a coalition of the extreme left-wing, populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the center-left Democratic Party, on Monday won a vote of confidence in the lower house of the Italian Parliament with a rather surprising margin of 343 members for and 263 against. This was followed a day later with a positive vote in the upper house, the Senate, by 169 votes to 133.
Conte has now established another government barely a fortnight after the extreme right-wing League, led by then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, pulled the rug on its coalition with M5S due to sharp differences over the handling of key issues, such as migration, approach toward the EU, fiscal policy and climate change. The many contradictions between M5S and the League had always been evident, but over time they became too great to allow the government to function cohesively. It was a surprise that the disjointed coalition even lasted 14 months.
However, despite having won these votes, Conte will continue to face many challenges for a long while yet. The first challenge is his estranged partner. Salvini’s League continues to be the biggest party in Italy and he has been pushing for a fresh election, betting on his harsh stance on immigration and Europe to pay rich dividends at the ballot box.
Conte also still has to find a workable formula on two key issues: Immigration and the budget. Though Conte has brought in a career bureaucrat as Salvini’s replacement as interior minister, his room for maneuvering on sensitive issues like immigration is practically nonexistent, as a large number of Italians continue to be wary of any moves by the government to ease the clampdown on migration that has been in place for a couple of years. However, most would perhaps not mind the country taking a more humane approach by not letting migrants be stranded on the high seas for weeks or even refusing to save those in extreme distress or drowning off the Italian coast.
Salvini is certain to brand any change in policy or even the mildest of relaxations in the curbs on migrants as a sell-out, and it could cost the government dear.
Conte’s room for maneuver on sensitive issues like immigration is practically non-existent.
The issue of the Italian budget for the year 2020 is also a tough one to handle. Conte’s previous government had been caught in a logjam with Brussels over its fiscal policy, as neither M5S nor the League were in favor of the extreme austerity demanded by the European Commission to ensure that Rome’s budget deficit stayed under the 3 percent limit set by Brussels. The tensions over this issue had led to the EU threatening to impose hefty fines on Italy for a breach of fiscal discipline.
But, with the Italian economy in crisis and growth in the rest of Europe and indeed the world also coming down sharply, Conte would be hard pressed to meet the fiscal deficit target without pushing Italy into a recession and the Italian voters into the waiting, open arms of Salvini and the other populist parties. These groups have already accused Conte of being a puppet of Brussels who is looking after the interests and welfare of the “establishment” and bureaucrats rather than the common person.
It is not just the populists, though, that strongly reject Brussels’ obsession with fiscal discipline at a time when many euro zone economies are flirting with recession. Even Germany, historically the economic motor of the euro zone and indeed the entire EU, is close to entering a recession. There, in view of a run of poor results in state elections, the fractured coalition of the conservatives and the socialists, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, will see greater tension over whether to inject some stimulus into the economy. The socialists, who have been the biggest losers in the state elections, are keen to see greater social spending by the government, as well as more stringent measures to fight climate change, both key issues on which the socialists have been ceding ground to the Greens and other leftist parties.
The situation is not too different in Rome. The Italian economy does need a strong stimulus to restart the engine. Conte may be tempted to align his policies with the mandate from Brussels, but that would not go down well with M5S, which has based its rise on populist promises. And, with local elections looming large within a year, Conte could be pressured into taking heed or he may pay the price with his government.
For the past several years now, and almost for far too long, Italy’s domestic problems have kept the EU’s third-largest member away from playing its role in Brussels. With major EU-level challenges, such as Brexit, climate change, the rise of ultranationalism and how to deal with an increasingly aggressive Russia, the EU could do with some proactive inputs from Rome. But, unless a strong government is in place, neither Brussels nor the Italian population will get any reprieve.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.