Europe’s real problem with Italy: can anyone govern it?

The understated reaction of the financial markets and of political figures across Europe to the Italian people’s “no” in Matteo Renzi’s referendum, may be as big a mistake as an overdone panic.

The calm may have been caused by the relief felt – at least by liberals of any stripe – that the Austrian Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer was also convincingly beaten on Sunday, by the former Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen.

It was a demonstration that “waves” of ultra-rightism don’t carry all before them; that while Europe’s established parties are now challenged as never since the last war, each country’s politics is turbulent in its own way. Though Austria’s centre-left and centre-right groupings, the “natural” parties of government, are now both out of office, the country hasn’t decided, in its majority, to embrace one whose rebarbative rhetoric against immigrants was softened too late; and whose party is still surrounded by the wraiths of nazism that attended its creation.

Italy’s turbulence is, indeed, of a different sort. It’s much more about the stagnation of the economy and which party, or leader, can jolt it into growth once more. One commentator was quoted as saying that the problems that afflicted Italy after the referendum’s 60%-40% defeat for Renzi’s proposal to reduce the powers of the senate were the same as they were before the prime minister fell. But that is quite false. The country has a new problem, a huge one. It is: who governs? And more importantly still, with what prospect to offer to the electorate?

Italy has had many governments, and many prime ministers, in the decades since the war, but until the 1980s, the stabilising force was the Christian Democratic party, umbilically linked to the Vatican and with an ideology derived from Catholic social precepts neither wholly right or left, emphasising duty and modesty. The cities and industry flourished from the 1950s, as the country, with generous injections of Marshall aid, reconstructed and modernised at a faster lick than any other European state. The Communist party, more flexible than either its Soviet patron or its other western counterparts, benefited from that – but worked out an effective working relationship with the Christian Democratic party, with which it was near to level-pegging in the polls. This cosiness prompted a flare of far-left and far-right terrorism, not quenched till the 1980s, and with the occasional murder carried out even after.

Matteo Renzi’s ‘willingness to shoulder Italy’s burden should be recognised and admired’. Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock
Matteo Renzi’s ‘willingness to shoulder Italy’s burden should be recognised and admired’.
Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

A web of corruption uncovered in the late 1980s demolished a weakened system – and ushered in both Silvio Berlusconi and wars of ruthless political position by groups quickly created and, as rapidly in most cases, snuffed out.

Renzi, the 39-year-old mayor of Florence when he toppled his Democratic party predecessor in 2014, was the self-styled “demolition man”, tearing into the corrupt and calcified institutions of the Italian state. He was a presentational/televisual trope, effective only if he could show some impressive rubble, and soon after that, some new building for a new era.

Some necessary destruction was undertaken: labour laws simplified and to a degree liberalised; a more powerful anti-corruption unit created; central and regional bureaucracies pared back. But he didn’t demolish enough. And when Renzi really did take on a constitutional challenge of size – to end the equal powers of the senate and the lower house, which had given Italy years of legislative ping-pong – he lost allies in politics and support in the country. Some political groups would never support him. The anti-immigrant Lega Nord, jockeying for leadership of the right, was an enemy to all he did. Forza Italia, shrunken but still ruled by Berlusconi into his 80s, had been for him but – Berlusconi seizing on a slight to justify following a scent of a political victory – peeled off. The left of Renzi’s own party, unable to forgive him for his youth and his open admiration of Blairism, went into the no camp.

The Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo, which polls only a few points below Renzi’s Democratic party (and may rise above, as it has before) now scents not just victory, but power. It took two mayoral palaces earlier this year, in Turin and Rome: it is inchoate enough in policies to appeal to everyone with a grudge; and in Grillo, it has a seemingly tireless agitator, blogger and inspirer of the young, whose not-too-long march towards government – some 15 years – now may succeed.

I saw his act some years ago, in Florence’s Mandela Stadium. There was a stage, but he scorned it, moving along the rows of seats in the large, chilly auditorium, a camera following him and projecting his image on giant screens. He gave a non-stop flow of verbal demolition of Italian politics, of the Catholic church, of the media, of corrupt local government. At times, he would stop by an audience member, seize his or her head and cradle it, as if in protection against the savagely crazed world he joyously denounced.

Grillo is an exemplar of an Italian inventiveness too little remarked. The country has been, in the 20th and into the 21st century, a laboratory of new political movements – of fascism in the 1920s, Christian democracy beginning in the 1930s, Eurocommunism from the 1960s, in Forza Italia in the early 1980s the first party created by an advertising agency. And in the Five Star Movement it has the first fully fledged party to spring out of the acts and the blog of a comedian who had stored up credibility over the years for his hilarious philippics against the corruptions of the state.

Virginia Raggi, the movement’s mayor in Rome, has struggled amid wars and corruption allegations within her administration, and her subordination to Grillo. The coils in which she writhes – governing Rome now may be impossible – were thought to assist Renzi by taking the sheen off the movement. It did not, it seemed. After the referendum result Grillo said that he, and the movement, were ready to govern.

But can anyone govern Italy, let alone a party that has at best a mixed record in recent local government? A patch will be put over the gap where an administration should be, for a while. But Renzi, whose willingness to shoulder the burden should be recognised and admired, had too much against him: the precarious state of several large banks, holding €360bn of bad debt; the high unemployment, especially among the young; the long, unsolved problem of the south, where unemployment is highest, organised crime the most violent and its control most pervasive; the aching slowness of a Dickensian justice system – and as has just been demonstrated, the inability of the political system to recognise that a crisis needs an attitude other than grab-what-you-can.

The list of necessary reforms sounds like a job for … a dictator, untrammelled by parliaments, courts, unions – one who, like Mussolini, got the place moving. That is, until the temptations of imperialism and nazism seduced the dictator and his party, and drove them to ruin, along with the country. It’s a road not likely to be taken. Italians may fall for populism of various kinds but are unlikely to embrace a dictator. But if necessary demolition and reconstruction is to be undertaken, the party that has the stomach for it must count on steadier popular support than Renzi received. Grillo, who likes to rant in the piazzas and who has had huge success in getting an audience for his sharp, well-informed blog, isn’t that leader. Representative democracy – rule by the people through their elected deputies – always, in the end, depends on the people.

There’s no problem with Italian talent and energy, but the patience to take unavoidable austerity while the incubus of public debt is trimmed and the array of deeply embedded problems with which successive governments have refused to deal hasn’t been a feature of Italian politics since the postwar recovery. The political, economic and infrastructural reconstruction that still waits to be confronted hangs heavy over the country and over Europe. Somehow an enfeebled politics has to find the strength, the leader and the support to stop the slide.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and former editor of Time Out and the New Statesman.

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