Italy’s turbulent week: current trends and future prospects

Prof. Alex Warleigh-Lack joined some of our colleagues (Dr. Cristiano Bee, Dr. Roberta Guerrina and Dr. Luca Mavelli) in conversation about the latest developments in Italian Politics over the last few weeks.

Clearly, these are very interesting and worrying times for Italy and Italians. It is therefore important for scholars of European politics to consider the long term implications of this transition both on the national political landscape and the project of European integration and Economic and Monetary Union as a whole.

It is unsurprising that Prof. Warleigh-Lack’s questions started a lively discussion between our Italian colleagues

AWL: So, what do you make of Berlusconi’s departure? Is this the end of Berlusconi’s political appeal in Italy?

CB: I wish I could be happy about Berlusconi’s collapse from power. However, the current landscape is so complex and the challenges so great that Monti’s ability for manoeuvre will be severely constrained. In addition to this, I would also urge caution to those who think last week’s events represent Berlusconi’s permanent withdrawal from Italian politics. He has already declared that this is not the end of his political career. Moreover, it is not so long ago, that public opinion was still supporting his propaganda that Italy’s economic crisis was greatly overstated by the international media. Let’s not forget that his control of key media outlets has reproduced his message and the political coverage remains largely biased.

RG: He is not going to be able to make a come back?! You are right, Berlusconi was still trying to push his rhetoric however, the press and the media are no longer behind him. The reports of people celebrating his departure outside the Presidential Palace on Saturday night highlight the change in the mood of the country. Italians’ concern about the future is also reflected by the tone of the headlines in some of the key news outlets. The social indicators also point to a deep sense of disillusionment and, some would say, desperation. The country clearly needs to take a new direction, if the state is to challenge some of the most worrying signs of economic and political stagnation. For example, youth unemployment has now reached 30% in some areas.

LM: The public’s concern is palpable. If the new measures – and the new technocratic government – do not work out, then we are seriously facing the possibility of a recession if not a depression in the country. My perception is that public opinion is changing. Berlusconi’s main problem is that he has no-one else to blame at this stage. His popular support is declining. The main channels pushing Berlusconi’s political agenda are losing ground. Even the rhetoric of the Right wing press has changed. It is much more defensive. A number of right wing journalists are considering the possibility of a come back, perhaps leading a new party/list, so he might not be completely out of the political scene yet. I wouldn’t rule out a come back.

CB: I hope this is the end of a particular type of political propaganda. My main concern is that this shift in focus and support implies U-turn in public opinion. Perhaps, it is too early to judge.

AWL: Are there any real alternatives available to take on the leadership of the country?

LM: There is a real sense that the people of Italy have lost hope. The sense of jubilation and the celebrations following Berlusconi’s resignation might be short lived.

CB: Do you think, things would have been different if Prodi had been in power? The indicators would not have changed much under a different leadership.

LM: Well, under Prodi we would have had a different kind of government and some of the structural problems might have been addressed. Berlusconi has legitimised a moral decay that was already present in Italian politics. Under his leadership, he has given a voice to some of the “dark sides” of Italian society and politics, including familism, corruption, an inefficient bureaucracy, and a general distrust of the ‘res publica’. These are some of the underlying problems of Italy as a state and a nation.

RG: The main problem here is that Berlusconi validated a political agenda where the national interest was aligned with his own personal interest. However, this is a potentially a crucial juncture for Italy as a state and Italian political elites.

LM: Indeed. Look at Berlusconi’s  reaction after speaking to Napolitano last week. His first instinct was to push for elections, but then backtracked to a government led by Monti. We will need to see what kind of concessions have been made to him, but my reading of the situation is that he will try to negotiate some sort of immunity for his support to Monti in order to be protected from various legal proceedings. Whether he will succeed is a different matter – but again this illustrate the conflation of private and public that has characterized his political career.

CB: I agree with you on the issue of moral decay. However, Berlusconi was not responsible for the introduction of contract labour and short-term contracts in the Italian economy. This practice is largely the result of global economic trends. To be honest, no single political party would have been able to deal with the financial crisis that has hit the country.

RG: I can see both of your positions. From my perspective, this is an opportunity for Italy to become a mature polity. However, this requires a much higher level of trust in the state. Berlusconi has undermined further, what were already low levels of trust. The Italian political leadership needs to regain credibility with the people of Italy.

CB: Yet, Italy has a long history of social movements and organised civil society. See the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently the peace movements in 2003-04. Berlusconi tried to destroy this tradition, but it is still present. The way that people mobilised on Saturday is a clear example of the longevity of Italian social movement. These are indicators of a democratic participation and ownership that contribute to the nature of the polity.

LM: And yet, Italy still has a high level of distrust of the state, see the high levels of tax evasion.

AWL: What do you think will be the impact of Berlusconi’s departure on both the Right and the Left in Italy?

LM: Clearly there are a number of structural problems in Italy that have yet to be addressed. However, it is worth noting that in 2008, under a Centre Left government, Italy achieved a surplus.

CB: To be honest, I am increasingly sceptical of the role played by the Centre-Left in Italy. First of all, the Left has been marred by internal divisions and factions. This, rather than Berlusconi, has led to its demise. The Centre-Left in particular, in the quest for power, has unfortunately undermined the long Leftist tradition in the country. Secondly, we have yet to come to terms with the shift from Left to the Right that happened in 2008, whereby traditional working class centre-left support in the north of the country voted in favour of the Legal Nord. We do not yet know if the Centre Left can reclaim this lost ground.

LM: This is important because it relates not only to the crisis of the Left in Italy but also in Europe. That said, the opening towards Monti is a significant breakthrough, as it potentially provides a bridging position between the Centre Left and the Centre Right. This however, needs to be read in the context of the ongoing negotiations that are currently taking place in relation to the formation of the government.

AWL: What do you think will be the impact of the new government on people’s lives and social conditions in Italy?

RG: What is important to highlight here is the position of Italy and Italian governments in Europe. Clearly, under Berlusconi’s leadership, the position of Italy in Europe has weakened. This has become absolutely clear in the last couple of weeks. The leadership of Europe has also decided to stop masking their disdain for Berlusconi. This is kind of public behaviour is unprecedented. The new government will have to work very hard to reclaim the country’s position as a leading European and world economy. Many of the measure necessary to achieve this will be unpalatable to the Italian public. This is why we are now at a critical juncture for the future of the country.

CB: Monti will have to face a very difficult and pressing situation. I’m curios to see how the different political forces will react to a technocratic government and if this will actually have full possibilities of working properly. The Lega Nord, for example, has already declared that it will stay on the opposition, not supporting the new government and therefore planning an aggressive political strategy towards Monti.

LM: Napolitano’s invitation to Monti to form a technocratic government is recognition that the country now needs someone with international stature. Monti has these kind of qualities. He received substantial praise for his achievements as EU commissioner and has the support of the European partners. I have faith that the country has the intellectual, political, civic and moral resources to overcome this crisis.