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Italy's political crisis lays bare the gulf between the EU and democracy

JOHN HAYLETT reports on the situation in Italy and why a national debate on the country’s eurozone membership is now on the cards

ITALY’S current political upheaval has been a step-by-step instruction manual issued by the European Union and its local acolytes on how to turn a drama into crisis.

When President Sergio Mattarella used his constitutional power to reject the nomination of Paolo Savona by Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte for the economy portfolio, he made clear that this was because of Savona’s previous backing for Italy’s exit from the eurozone.

Savona did indeed call Italy’s adoption of the euro an “historic mistake,” which is an opinion shared by growing numbers of people across Europe who feel it has largely benefited German economic expansion.

“Membership of the euro is a fundamental choice. If we want to discuss it, then we should do so in a serious fashion,” the president pontificated on TV, without explaining how this could be done by imposing a veto.

What is now certain is that Mattarella’s action has ensured that there will be a nationwide discussion on euro membership, but the likelihood is that this will be coloured by the anti-German rhetoric of right-wing Lega leader Matteo Salvini.

“We don’t have a euro in our pockets. We have a German mark which they called the euro,” he said in February.

Salvini followed this up on Monday by saying: “Today Italy is not free. It is occupied financially by Germans, French and eurocrats.”

His approach will have been assisted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that “we have principles within the euro area and, of course, there will be difficult questions.”

She went on to remind her audience of how the EU treated Greece during its own banker-generated crisis, saying: “Look, when there were elections in Greece and Alexis Tsipras was made premier, there were many questions on the table. We spoke with each other over many many nights, but together we achieved something.”

This bland summary of the EU-imposed impoverishment of the Greek working class and mass privatisation — assisted by complicity from the once dubbed “radical” Syriza government — will have set alarm bells ringing in Italy.

A less guarded assessment of Mattarella’s decision came from Volker Treier, who is responsible for foreign trade for Germany’s Chambers of Industries and Commerce (DIHK).

He welcomed the spiking of the “prohibitively expensive Italian coalition agreement” put together by the Lega and its larger Five Star Movement electoral partner, calling it “a relief for German businesses.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose own devotion to democracy can be gauged by his decision to rule by decree, praised his Italian counterpart’s “courage and great spirit of responsibility” for defending his country’s institutional and democratic stability.

Such sentiments were repeated across the upper echelons of the EU, welcoming the Italian president’s action in putting eurozone interests — effectively, the banks and big business — before the voters’ choice.

They may well recall former president Giorgio Napolitano’s similar action in November 2011 when he appointed EU commissioner Mario Monti to head a government of “technocrats” to push through EU-approved austerity measures to make Italian workers carry the financial burdens of the banking crisis.

Times have changed and the president’s choice of Carlo Cottarelli — known as “Mr Scissors” because of his championing of public spending cuts — is unlikely to win parliamentary backing.

He and President Matarella discussed the situation yesterday, after which Cottarelli claimed “new possibilities for the birth of a political government had emerged” during his consultations that “compelled him to wait for further developments.”

Possibilities are boundless, including driving a wedge between Lega and Five Star to produce a rejigged coalition between Lega and its closest right-wing ally, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, but the prospect of early elections can’t be ruled out.

Two years ago, when David Cameron embarked on his EU membership referendum, anticipating a clear Remain majority, he was “assisted” by a succession of EU worthies explaining why this was the only possible position.

Some flattered while others threatened or sneered that life outside the EU would be unsurvivable.

Even former US president Barack Obama, whose Democratic Party is still obsessed with alleged Russian interference in the last US presidential election, felt entitled to swan over to Britain to tell British voters that Remain was the way to go.

Much has been made of the official Leave campaign being led by Tory ministers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to portray leaving the EU as an indelibly right-wing choice, but two-thirds of Labour-held constituencies backed Britain’s exit, exposing a gulf between many Labour voters and those elected to represent them in Parliament.

Those who watched a referendum campaign TV programme of a dressed-down Neil Kinnock returning to his former south Wales stronghold to chat in the local pub about why “we” want to and have to stay in the EU will remember the stony-faced politeness of his company.

No-one mentioned Kinnock’s huge earnings as an EU commissioner, his gold-plated pensions or his rejection of previous antipathy to the House of Lords to take a peerage, but awareness of the disparity between his and their situations was more eloquent for remaining unspoken.

In the event, the all-Labour fortress of the south Wales Valleys, the greatest recipients of EU regional aid in Britain, registered clear Leave majorities, dramatising the disconnect between those working-class areas often described as “left behind” or, as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady puts it more accurately, those “shafted” by successive governments.

Deindustralised areas all over Britain — former citadels of mining, steel, docks, manufacturing that epitomised skilled work, good pay and conditions and, in an obvious link, high levels of trade union membership — have their equivalents across the EU, not least in Italy.

Industrial heartlands in the north where the Italian Communist Party was strongest, boasting in the 1970s 1.5 million members, followed dutifully at first the party’s inexorable drift to the right, through various mutations, to appear as the Democratic Party (PD), but they vote increasingly for the Lega now.

Former left-led areas of the south have gone over to Five Star, a populist outfit with an eclectic batch of policies — some progressive, such as its call to end austerity, others not — but including an implacable antipathy to immigration.

Public anger has grown over the blanket refusal of the rest of the EU to assist Italy to deal with economic pressures linked to large numbers of refugees — themselves the result of wars of intervention in Libya and Syria backed by the EU, especially France and Britain — arriving on their shores.

In response, Five Star and Lega declared that their government would expel half a million asylum-seekers from Italy.

Whether this was a substantive threat or a negotiating ploy to spark a response from its EU partners is unclear, but Brussels was unfazed by it in any case.

Just as it has tolerated racist legislation and neofascist ministers in other member-state governments, such a potential human disaster was less of an issue than the possibility of weakening its eurozone and nothing will divert the EU bureaucracy, its national supporters and, above all, big business, especially the finance sector, from doing everything possible to nip any threat in the bud.

Italian voters are being assailed already with scare stories of falling stock market values, economic uncertainty, doubts about Italy’s credit worthiness and a generalised forecast that the sky will fall in unless the electorate returns to the orthodoxy of an EU-approved, neoliberal government, irrespective of party label.

EU budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger made no attempt to disguise this scenario, declaring: “The markets will teach Italy how to vote properly.”

Neither the Lega nor Five Star has the answers to Italy’s economic crisis, especially problems afflicting the working class, but using this reality or hysterical assertions that they are somehow fascist to justify the president’s bloodless coup d’etat, as the increasingly discredited PD has done, is unjustifiable.

As the Communist Party of Italy, the small but growing organisation seeking to regroup dispersed supporters of the late major party, puts it, the PD has revealed itself as “the true party of Brussels, the European Central Bank and the IMF in Italy.”

The left-leaning Il Manifesto daily paper has voiced opposition to the presidential coup, warning that it could just as easily be used against a left government in future, advocating political mobilisation against reactionary — especially anti-migrant — policies.

Impending elections aren’t expected to end Italy’s political crisis but will mark another stage in the development across the EU of an increasingly open contradiction between national democratic accountability and the eurozone’s economic-political straitjacket.

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