Pandaemonium

THE EU AND THE ITALIAN JOB

Italy & EU

This essay, on the confrontation between the EU and Italy over the Italian budget, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the nature of public debate.) It was published in the Observer, 16 December 2018, under the headline ‘Europe’s merciless treatment of Italy only hardens popular resentment’.


A standoff with EU officials. Ministers flying to Brussels to negotiate last-minute deals. Cries of betrayal at home. Dark warnings of economic calamity and social unrest.

No, not the Brexit soap opera in Westminster but the EU crisis that everyone seems to have forgotten – the confrontation between Brussels and Rome over the Italian budget.

In October, Italy’s coalition government, comprising the far-right Lega and the populist Five Star Movement (MS5), presented a draft budget that included many of the parties’ electoral pledges, such as a basic income for the unemployed and the shelving of a previous proposal to raise the retirement age. The budget would have increased Italy’s deficit to 2.4% of GDP, higher than that planned by the previous administration, but lower than the EU limit of 3%.

Nevertheless, in an unprecedented move, the European commission rejected the budget for breaking its fiscal rules. Rome’s growth forecast, it insisted, is overoptimistic and the real deficit-to-GDP ratio would exceed 3%. Italy was threatened with sanctions. Last week, the government in Rome caved in, drafting a new, more austere budget. Whether it’s sufficient to placate the commission remains to be seen.

Italy’s real difficulty stems not from its annual deficit but its cumulative debt. This now stands at €2.6tn (£2.3tn), about 133% of GDP, and second only to Greece within the eurozone. If Italy were to default, Europe’s fragile financial system could shatter. So, the commission wants Rome to move towards balancing the books and quickly.

In Britain, the Tories’ pursuit of a similar strategy has ripped at the nation’s social fabric. In Italy, where a third of young people don’t have a job, and more than 5 million people live in ‘absolute poverty’, the impact could be catastrophic.

The budget standoff is not simply an economic argument but a political debate, too, raising questions about democracy. Brussels is effectively telling Rome: ‘We don’t care what the Italian people voted for. Democracy matters less than our fiscal rules.’

This is not just antidemocratic but politically perilous, too. The current coalition government is in part the product of the EU’s response to Italy’s last debt crisis in 2011. The EU demanded then that the Italian parliament pass a savage austerity package, imposing almost €60bn of cuts. The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had to resign, to be replaced by an unelected technocrat, Mario Monti, who oversaw the austerity programme. It was later revealed that the EU had been plotting for months to replace Berlusconi with Monti.

Two years later, when elections were eventually held, popular outrage at both the suspension of democratic procedures and the consequences of austerity led to Monti’s centrist movement being swept away and the populist MS5 tasting its first electoral success. Five years on, continuing public anger propelled the MS5 and the far-right anti-immigrant Lega into power in elections this March. Today, the Lega is the most popular party in Italy. The EU seems to have learned nothing from this history.

The contrast between the EU’s treatment of Italy and that of France is revealing. Until last year, France had broken the EU deficit rule every year since 2008. It has never been sanctioned. President Emmanuel Macron’s recent capitulation to the gilets jaunes protesters, promising to raise the minimum wage and cancelling tax increases for low-income pensioners, makes it likely that France will break the 3% rule again next year. As early as 2003, the European court of justice ruled that EU finance ministers were negligent in not penalising France and Germany for continually flouting eurozone rules. Fifteen years on, the EU’s big beasts remain free to trample over the rules, while smaller nations (even ones as large as Italy) have to suffer democratic and social penalties.

The Italian government has many obnoxious policies, especially the brutal assault on migrants pursued by the interior minister and the Lega leader, Matteo Salvini. The MS5’s economic policies, while not as utopian as the party claims, are, nevertheless, among the coalition’s most progressive. So what’s the EU’s response? It accepts the reactionary policies towards migrants, but will not countenance an economic package seeking to ease the burden on the poor.

In 2013, having been ejected from office by the Italian electorate, Monti, in a valedictory statement to a EU summit, observed that ‘public support… for the European Union is dramatically declining’. To counter ‘the mounting wave of populism and disaffection with the European Union’, he added, the EU must start ‘listening to people’s concerns’. It wasn’t listening then. It’s not listening now.

7 comments

  1. Jürgen Thiede

    How can Kenan Malik join the populist EU bashing of the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg? The EU is not a foreign power meddling with Italian politics, the European Commission insists only on compliance with the Fiscal Compact agreed by Italy and 24 other EU member states in 2012. His statement “The Italian government has many obnoxious policies, especially the brutal assault on migrants pursued by the interior minister and the Lega leader, Matteo Salvini. The MS5’s economic policies … are, nevertheless, among the coalition’s most progressive” reminds me of Slovoj Žižek’s plea in 2017 that the fascist Marine Le Pen should be elected French President because she was more focused on the protection of workers’ interests than the other candidates, whereby Žižek abandoned the project of a united Europe and the ideals of liberal democracy. Italy’s League party, whose complete name is Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania (Northern League for the Independence of Padania), dreamt of the independence of the industrious north of Italy from the rest of the country, until their new leader Salvini exchanged the scapegoats in 2013: now he accuses the refugees, instead of the lazy Southerners, of stealing. Progressive economic policies can never be an excuse for racism and the violation of Human Rights. Otherwise the neo-Nazis would be right who defend Hitler with the argument, he might have gone too far in dealing with the Jews, but he had built the autobahn and reduced unemployment.

    • How can Kenan Malik join the populist EU bashing of the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg?

      It’s an extraordinary expression of how inflexibly tribal politics has become that any criticism of the EU is seen as akin to the politics of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. I oppose austerity policies imposed by the Tories in Britain (and enthusiastically supported by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg). I will equally oppose austerity policies demanded by the EU, whether of Italy, Greece or of any other nation.

      “The Italian government has many obnoxious policies, especially the brutal assault on migrants pursued by the interior minister and the Lega leader, Matteo Salvini. The MS5’s economic policies … are, nevertheless, among the coalition’s most progressive” reminds me of Slovoj Žižek’s plea in 2017 that the fascist Marine Le Pen should be elected French President because she was more focused on the protection of workers’ interests than the other candidates, whereby Žižek abandoned the project of a united Europe and the ideals of liberal democracy.

      If you can show me which part of the sentence you have quoted (or of any other sentence in the article, or indeed of anything else I have written) suggests that ‘fascists should be elected’ please do so. Otherwise, your comment is simply the kind casual smearing that too often passes for political criticism these days.

      Progressive economic policies can never be an excuse for racism and the violation of Human Rights. Otherwise the neo-Nazis would be right who defend Hitler with the argument, he might have gone too far in dealing with the Jews, but he had built the autobahn and reduced unemployment.

      Again, if you can show where I suggested that ‘Progressive economic policies can… be an excuse for racism and the violation of Human Rights’, please do so. Too often those who are concerned about racism and the violation of human rights will speak out against Matteo Salvini or Victor Orban or Donald Trump, but are silent about EU policies. Such selective denunciation is not just anathema to me, it’s also deeply corrosive of any kind of politics that seeks to promote social justice.

  2. Cable Strada

    If my prescription had been followed, Italy would not now have “far right” people, i.e. fascists in power. I repeat what I said about Lenin. He did not become the greatest Marxist of all time by granting “free speech” to bad people. He became the greatest by taking all necessary steps to gain, secure and maintain the power that allowed him to advance human progress.

    If Lenin were alive today and given a chance to seize the tiller of state in Italy, he would jail Salvini and his fellow pondlife, prior to opening Italy’s borders to the maximum. Fascism is an ever-present threat in Europe so long as there is a white majority with Christian traditions. The stake of progress can only be driven through fascism’s putrid heart when Europe is a truly diverse continent. I welcome your support for open borders because I know that migrants from outside Europe have no time for your bourgeois fetishization of the so-called “Enlightenment” and so-called “free speech”. They want better lives for themselves and their families. They do not want fascists, racists and similar scum to be allowed any opportunity to abuse, demonize or otherwise target them.

    You mock Diane Abbott, possibly because you’re uncomfortably aware that 1) she is representative of BAME opinion on “free speech”, while you are not; 2) unlike you, she has serious political power and influence and may soon be our home secretary alongside Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn. And here is Diane speaking for Muslims and all other BAME communities in the UK:

    Diane Abbott calls on Twitter to clamp down on hate speech

    The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has urged Twitter to take action over “highly offensive racist and misogynist” abuse on the platform after a study found thousands of tweets disproportionately targeting black female politicians and journalists.

    The Amnesty International study found black women were 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets, with one in 10 posts mentioning black women containing “abusive or problematic” language.

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/18/diane-abbott-calls-for-twitter-to-clamp-down-on-hate-speech

    Racism, sexism and other forms of hate have no place in a progressive society. Diane understands this. As more BAME folk enter politics and the media, there will be less and less room for stale pale male fetishes like “free speech”. Sadly for Italy, its BAME communities have been unable to prevent the rise of fascism, but the fight is by no means over and “free speech” may be stamped out there as Jeremy and Diane are trying to stamp it out here. “Free speech” is the manure on which fascism grows. No manure, no fascism. See Diane’s words above.

    • damon

      Cable Strada, you sound like you welcome chaos and strife.
      Italy is primarily the home of the Italians. Of course it can become diverse to a degree, but Italians have the right to make their country how they want it to be. Your suggestions could only lead people into sectarian conflicts with each other.
      By the way, would you happy to see white people migrating to Africa and finding new possibilities and opportunities there? Zambia has welcomed white farmers to come and make a go of it in that country.
      Which is good isn’t it? Making Zambia more cosmopolitan and diverse.

      • Cable Strada

        you sound like you welcome chaos and strife.

        No, I welcome progress. When people stand in the way of progress, it is often necessary to enter strife against them. See Lenin’s victorious war against the forces of reaction and anti-progress after the Revolution.

        Italy is primarily the home of the Italians.

        There is no such thing as “the Italians”. The idea of a racially or culturally “pure” nation is a fascist or crypto-fascist myth. And Italy was a fascist nation within living memory. It now seems set on sliding back to that state. Diversity will stop that and the quickest way to achieve diversity is open borders.

        By the way, would you happy to see white people migrating to Africa and finding new possibilities and opportunities there? Zambia has welcomed white farmers to come and make a go of it in that country.

        I am happy to see anyone migrating anywhere if it advances the cause of progress. However, I do not think white farmers in Zambia will advance that cause. The recent culture of white people is highly toxic and it may take a century or two of progress before whites can safely be allowed to exercise any significant role in a Black nation.

  3. Having read a number of Kenan Malik’s books I think has provided me with a deeper background to justifiably be able to say that I find many of his articles insightful, helpful and very meaningful – including his article, ‘The EU and the Italian Job.’ With regard to the simply ‘helpful’ dimension, I have to say that if I had not read this article I would not have been aware of certain important verifiable facts that I had not been aware of. Reading the posts above does bring into focus how important it would be if we can more easily create environments whereby people can come together to talk and think together. In this regard I would like to suggest that a new form of dialogue has already entered the world, which does have the potential to create environments that can help this urgent need. In this way it is demonstrated that we can potentially access the mutuality of the hidden underlying meanings, which often reside at the core of all our attempts to share our views.

Comments are closed.