the Italian vote in Europe’s scenarios


 According to an interlocutor in Berlin who is accustomed to analyzing Italian affairs, there are three potential scenarios for the March election and for its impact on Europe. The first scenario is a "German-style" scenario with a broad coalition that would be a mirror image of the government currently being put together in Germany, if it succeeds. That is the result that we Germans would prefer. You will have noticed that Berlusconi has been rehabilitated not only by Scalfari but also by Merkel, with European Parliament Speaker Antonio Tajani's blessing.

The second scenario, my German friend added without a pause, is a "Spanish-style" scenario with no governing majority possible and thus with a presidential or a minority government. Such a government would last as long as it may, with Italy in a situation of fragility, but it is a scenario that would not be considered unwelcome either by the Commission in Brussels or by Paris – particularly if it were to be led by Paolo Gentiloni, as Macron hinted during a recent visit to Rome.

And last, although I am sorry to have say this, there is a "Greek-plus scenario," my interlocutor said in conclusion.  Italy certainly is not Greece, it is the third largest economy in the euro area.  But if antisystem parties were to carry the day, the system of which Italy is a part – I am referring to the international markets rather than to Europe – would react just as they did over Tsipras.

In view of Italy's size, that would be a problematic scenario for the euro area as a whole, but it would be a problem primarily for your country, with a cost that would unquestionably be high, although it is difficult to put a figure on it.  It is the least likely scenario, in fact I would say that it is almost unthinkable in view of your election system, but the Italian people would do well to bear it in mind.

I hung up and thought things over for a moment. Our general election, seen from Europe, is attracting interest but it is not causing anyone to lose sleep. There is very little of the suspense that preceded the Brexit referendum, and certainly none of the pathos aroused by the French election, which was experienced in spring last year as a crucial test of the EU's staying power as it showcased an epic challenge between pro-Europeans and sovereignists. Today, now that Brexit has revealed its cost and now that Macron has won in Europe's name rather than in opposition to Europe, the mood is more relaxed.

This, among other reasons, because the sovereignist front in its national-populist version is strong in central and East Europe but it seems to be stalling in the heart of continental Europe. Marine Le Pen is no longer seen as a useful prop by anyone, probably not even by Putin. In Italy's case, both the Five Star Movement and the Northern League appear to be on the rise but they have shelved their dreams of a referendum on membership of the euro area. It would appear that the famous "external bond" (the boundary markers dictated by the international context), while verbally so strongly deplored, still wields a preventive influence.

In theory, the great clash over Italy's European fate should be the issue broadly defining the agenda for the March election, but in practice it is not.  Both the pro-European alignment (with the exception of the Bonino Ticket) and its adversaries are adopting a softer tone with an electorate that has swung, in the space of only a few years, from euroenthusiasm to harboring skepticism toward the EU. The talk is of other issues, and thus Italy's electoral showdown has the appearance of a withered and confused version of the great battle that took place in London and Paris, and Italy seems rather to have settled back into well-known rituals, including freewheeling economic promises that everyone already knows are not going to be kept.

A word of warning, however. The crucial question for Italy after 5 March is going to be what kind of government (and with what composite majority) can best interact with Europe at a moment so sensitive – so sensitive and so fast-moving, with Macron's France and with Germany (if governed by a broad coalition precisely with Europe at the top of its agenda) set to bring major reforms for the euro area to the negotiating table. Italy has nothing to gain from remaining on the sidelines of a debate that is of crucial importance for its future. 

Our country needs to avoid two errors of judgment that mirror one another. On the one hand, it must not kid itself that the rest of Europe is experiencing the case of Italy as an existential risk for the EU and that the country can therefore turn its weakness into a bargaining chip: Above and beyond EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici's remark on the political risk involved in the Italian election, no one is going to be inclined to be particularly indulgent toward us when push comes to shove. The cost of Italy's fragility would fall first and foremost on its own shoulders. But on the other hand, neither must Italy underestimate its importance in connection with certain issues that can shift the balances within the EU in such spheres as the euro area, the management of the migrant influx, defense, and security.

Caught between kidding ourselves over our weakness and underestimating our strength, we are in danger of losing sight of the key issue: Namely, that Italy must prove capable of playing its game not in yesterday's Europe, which is being consigned to the history books, but in the Europe of the future which is now taking shape. 

An Italian version of this article has been published in the newspaper 
La Stampa on January 17.

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