Brexit and Italian politics: parallels, warnings and impacts by A. Giovannini and J. Newell

hqdefaultItalian elites’ traditional esterofilia – the tendency to compare Italy unfavourably with other polities and to look to foreign models for solutions to the country’s political problems – looks very interesting in the aftermath of Brexit. Always held up as a model of political stability, home to a civic culture of which Italians could supposedly only dream, British politics must look very different now, in light of the referendum outcome – as must the quality of British and Italian democracy in relative terms. It seems ironic, considering what has happened, that Anglo-Saxon authors could once write books and articles with such snobbish titles as ‘Republic without government’, ‘Sick man of Europe’, to name just a few, and that these titles could be largely accepted by Italian elites as embodying appropriate judgments of the relative quality of Italy as a democracy. For what the referendum outcome has shown is that British democracy shares all of the problems traditionally seen as supposedly distinguishing features of the Italian case, if anything to a far greater degree. Thereby, it has revealed a number of stark warnings for Italy’s political elites, as well as having had several unwelcome impacts.

By way of preliminaries then, let us say that if Italian politicians have always been seen as unusually prone to behaviour that is self-serving and mendacious, then the reader might want to reflect on the fact that Brexit has essentially been the consequence of the actions of a prime minister using a referendum for which there was no public demand to patch up a division within his party, taking a massive political gamble and losing. And it has been the consequence of the actions of a man who headed up the leave campaign not because he seriously believed in the case he was making or believed that he would get the outcome he has now got, but because he went to the same private school as the prime minister and wanted his job. On the scale of selfishness, this beats the clientelism of a Christian Democratic clan leader or the ad personam laws of a Silvio Berlusconi by several miles.

Second, the outcome is tightly connected with the failures over many years of a political class to counter in an effective way a rising tide of anti-political sentiments which, through this referendum result, has revealed itself to be at least as strong as anything we have so far seen in Italy, supposedly the ‘home’ of ‘anti-politics’. Especially in areas like Wales, which has greatly benefitted from EU funds and is usually perceived as a centre-left, progressive region, a vote for Brexit was a vote ‘of rebellion’. Against the establishment at large, and in particular against Westminster politics – which, in spite of devolution, continues to treat Wales as an ‘appendix’ of England. Similarly, the Remain vote in Scotland shows that the political and social divide between Holyrood and Westminster is deepening – another sign of detachment from ‘traditional politics’. Moreover, the fallout from this – the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum which, on current polling figures, looks like having every chance of being successful – reveals that, if the ineptness of Italy’s political elites has helped make the fortunes of parties such as the Northern League with their ambitions for northern autonomy and at times secession, then the ineptness of Britain’s elites has raised a threat of national disintegration which Umberto Bossi and Matteo Salvini have never been able to imitate even remotely.

Thus, the significance of the Brexit vote is hard to overestimate. It has been not just a vote against Europe – put bluntly, it has been an opportunity for ordinary citizens to ‘stick it’ to the political elites. The ‘people vs. caste’ argument has been stirred and was exploited in all manner of ways by the Leave campaign, who portrayed the referendum as a chance for ‘ordinary, decent citizens’ to ‘take back control’. This had a strong appeal especially among voters who feel disaffected with the current political establishment (either because they have been hit by the Conservative government’s austerity measures or because they have been let down by Labour), and are the losers of globalisation. In other words, Europe was only part of the issue, but has been the target of a protest vote aimed at punishing the political class generally. This should come as an especially potent warning for the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in view of the referendum on Constitutional reforms that will be held in October.

There is a supreme irony to all of this, and it is that if, true to the traditions of esterofilia, Renzi has sought to imitate British prime ministers – he has been famously compared, and has indeed compared himself, to Tony Blair, for example – then he may suffer a fate similar to the current one. The risk arises from his new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies, which embodies the principle of a run-off ballot between the two best-placed candidate prime ministers in the event that none achieves 40% at the first round of voting. The law was originally conceived of as a means of dishing the Five-star Movement (M5s) given that its political project and support base render it non-coalitionable – but the recent local elections have revealed the enormity of the gamble it embodies. In only twenty of the 154 councils holding run-off ballots did the M5s make it to the second round. But where it did make it, it won all but one contest: as a significantly-sized, anti-political, catch-all party, where it is faced with a single competitor, it becomes almost unstoppable because it is able to attract the ballots not only of its habitual supporters but also of the supporters of almost all the parties opposed to the candidate, whether of the right or the left, it is seeking to defeat. Such situations parallel closely that of the Brexit referendum and the perception of it as an opportunity to cast a vote of protest against the establishment. Italian voters behaving the same way in a run-off involving the M5s would produce an outcome that might be thought to be essentially equivalent to UKIP winning an overall majority in the House of Commons.

For the time being, the M5s, strengthened by its recent local election victories, has been able to use the outcome to gain a fresh hearing for its demand for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro (which, though we do not have the space to go into it here, has indeed created several headaches for Italian economic policy makers in recent years). Meanwhile, considering the ‘populist shift’ of the Northern League under the leadership of Salvini, and looking at his comments in the aftermath of the vote, it is likely that the party will use Brexit as another means to stir ‘feelings of anger’ against Brussels and the political elites in Italy (such as the Democratic Party) who support the EU. Salvini has had no hesitation in declaring that “Europe has now the opportunity to get rid of the EU” and that Italy too should have a referendum on EU membership itself. In practice, though, this is not feasible, as the Italian constitution does not allow the holding of referenda on international treaties – and membership of the EU falls into this category.

These are not the only worries the Brexit vote has caused Renzi. Perhaps more importantly, Brexit, as we have seen, as brought short- (and possibly long-) term economic uncertainty and volatility in financial markets from which Italy has suffered along with the other states in Europe and elsewhere. And here, incidentally, we encounter another paradox in that if one of the battle cries of Leave campaigners was that the referendum offered British citizens the opportunity to throw off their subjection to decisions over which they could exercise no democratic control, then Italian citizens might argue that the fallout from Brexit raises questions about whether, from a democratic point of view, the referendum itself has a case to answer; for, with the collapse in the prices of shares in Italian banks, the outcome has effectively forced the Italian government to prepare a €40 billion rescue package for its financial system – with very unwelcome consequences for public debt, already running at 134% of GDP.

It is perhaps not surprising, under these circumstances, that the Italian government has joined Germany and France in insisting that Britain’s actual withdrawal takes place sooner rather than later, this in order to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty which would be anathema to trade and investment. Indeed, economic considerations have had a high profile in Renzi’s comments on Brexit – which have highlighted the risks, such as the plummeting of the British Pound and the immediate negative reactions of the market, associated with leaving the EU. He has thus used the economy as a warning to underline that, on the one hand, Italy cannot not afford such risks and, on the other, that the country is stronger in, and will remain committed to, the European Union. In his rhetoric, Renzi has also interpreted the UK referendum as an opportunity for the remaining members of the EU to enact reforms and improve the organisation from within.

All in all, then, Brexit has been revealing of the similarities and contrasts between British and Italian politics, while bringing important lessons and having significant impacts. Both David Cameron’s EU referendum gambit, and the strategy currently being pursued by Renzi, reveal that politicians today are chancers: thrust into the limelight by the mediatisation and personalisation of politics, they become celebrities who must take risks in order to survive. The fact that, in a situation of general uncertainty and extreme apprehension on all fronts we have a British prime minister who has announced his resignation, no effective opposition party (as Labour is currently imploding), and a governing party that is split from top to bottom reveals the almost complete lack of capacity of the British parties to provide leadership at a time of crisis – and brings to an Italy that supposedly had the weaker parties the lesson that difficult times, and crucial decisions, require a strong and coherent lead, and a cohesive political system. Whilst it is not realistic to think that the country will have a vote on the EU, the UK referendum shows that growing anti-political sentiments, mixed with populist arguments, economic uncertainly, and a growing divide between the political establishment and the citizens can end up proving a very dangerous mix. And that referenda can and, indeed, do offer an opportunity for the electorate to voice their dissent and dissatisfaction, irrespective of what is at stake in the ballot questions. Thus, in the aftermath of Brexit, Italian political elites have much to reflect on, with the possibility that the most significant impact of the vote will be felt in October, when Italy has its own referendum – a referendum, ironically, that is designed to make possible that cohesion and strength of leadership which the UK system is currently so sorely lacking.