From a government that ‘didn’t want to govern’ to one that no-one wants to govern: Italy’s crisis and Mattarella’s error

No one can agree on what happened in Italy on Sunday night. To some, a brave President of the Republic faced down the incoherent demands of a shambolic populist government-in-waiting, a government fiscally illiterate and outspokenly xenophobic. To others, an authoritarian head of state blocked a democratically elected coalition; a fascist – backed by international finance and shady foreigners – killed a ‘government of change’ that dared to speak ill of the euro.

In our English-speaking context, the frame couldn’t be clearer: Brexiters and Remainers do battle by proxy. But, as one commentator noted, Europe’s attention has moved beyond Brexit.

To Sunday evening. Giuseppe Conte – now forever to be known as the man with the dodgy CV – was summoned to the President’s office to present the cabinet for the Lega and Movimento Cinque Stelle’s (M5S) coalition government, a government of which he was prime minister elect. No sooner than he entered, the news broke that he’d resigned his position and that this government-in-waiting was no longer waiting for government.

Shortly after, Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, made a statement: he had been unable, he said, to accept the coalition’s suggested appointment as finance minister of Paolo Savona – a man who has held positions in two previous governments, known for his fierce Euroscepticism and for a co-authored PowerPoint outlining a way to leave the eurozone ‘secretly’.

Mattarella continued, underscoring the importance of the euro, noting that Savona’s appointment would jeopardise the savings of Italian citizens, and claiming that the coalition partners failed to suggest an alternative candidate for the ministry.

Immediately, Lega’s Matteo Salvini took to social media to claim that Mattarella’s veto had turned Italy into the slaves of France and Germany. In turn, Luigi di Maio, the leader Lega’s partner, M5S, announced the death of democracy and called for Mattarella’s impeachment.

Some have suggested that the government-in-waiting was not a government that even wanted to govern

Mattarella, many were quick to insist, had not infringed the parameters of his role. Mattarella’s refusal of Savona – on the grounds that he is an unelected and non-political individual (in coming from neither party in the coalition) – had historical antecedents, including when Berlusconi hoped to appoint his personal lawyer to the ministry of justice.

However, this discussion – to some extent motivated by an overhasty joy at the quashing, however momentary, of a distasteful political force – is rather beside the point. The more pressing matter is now the political ramifications of Mattarella’s statement which stretch far beyond the savings of Italian citizens.

A different analysis brings the stakes of his mistake into focus. Some have suggested that the government-in-waiting was not a government that even wanted to govern: Salvini knowingly pushed for a minister whom he knew Mattarella would not approve. Strengthened by a visible and symbolically potent clash between his coalition and the country’s institutions, he would be in a stronger position to achieve a majority government. On this argument, Mattarella showed himself as little more than Salvini’s tool, playing his establishment role perfectly by telling its antithesis ‘no’.

However, Mattarella went a step further, appointing as prime minister a man superlatively ‘establishment’, a man with a professional career in the IMF, known as ‘Mr Scissors’ for his taste for austerity, and as pro-European as Savona is Eurosceptic. Carlo Cottarelli, Mattarella’s pick to lead a caretaker government, is now expected to receive a vote of confidence from literally no one in parliament: Lega and M5S immediately refused to support him, whilst Berlusconi’s Forza Italia said he wouldn’t receive their vote. The left-ish Partito Democratico also said it would abstain.

Mattarella has become the bad guy

Italy now faces new elections in the autumn, and the rest of Europe faces a belligerent euroscepticism renewed and given perhaps its greatest sense of legitimacy yet. Already Steven Bannon and our dear Nigel have been making noises. Marine Le Pen has dubbed Mattarella’s move a ‘coup d'état’. Unfortunately, when she claims that ‘the people’s wrath is growing everywhere in Europe’, she is far from wrong.

Mattarella did what his role permits. Yet, in taking this position – in making the defence of the euro the basis of his statement – he reinforced a narrative that needed little further encouragement. Out of all of this, Mattarella has become the bad guy – even, in a rather disingenuous reach from Yanis Varoufakis, who puts the Euro over the lives of migrants.  

It could have been otherwise. If it’s true that Salvini and di Maio had no real appetite to govern, the President made a serious error in not bringing this to light. Rather, with a statement so Europhile that it doesn’t even need M5S spin, and a subsequent appointment that reads as a V-sign to the coalition, he made the responsibility for the collapse of the government his own.

In so doing, he gave the coalition – and the hard Eurosceptic forces here and across the continent – the fuel for their populist fires.

Mattarella’s decision has paved the way to an election that may well now be fought entirely on the euro – an issue whose political tenor his statement whitewashed. Looking at how things are going, there’s likely to be only one winner.

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