In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Fabrizio Tassinari, Executive Director and Berggruen Fellow at the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance, and the author of “The Pursuit of Governance: Nordic Dispatches on a New Middle Way”. They talk about the forthcoming general election in Italy, the political context, the possible outcome, and its consequences for the European Union.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): I would like to ask you about the snap elections that were called recently in Italy. Why Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government had to resign before its time was over?
Fabrizio Tassinari (FT): The genesis of this government is rather unusual by European standards, but rather typical for Italy in at least past two decades. The genesis is connected to the fact that often, when political parties and the parliament are unable to form a government (especially during a crisis, as it was in case of the pandemic or the Ukraine crisis), Italian institutions resort to technocrats. This was the case of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who then became the president. Of course, the popularity of these governments often stems from the fact that these are national-unity governments or that a party supports them more or less gradually, but with the understanding that they have an expiration date.
In Draghi’s case, it should have been in the spring of 2023, which would still be within a fairly good two-year timeframe, especially considering the winter that Italy and Europe are going to face with the inflation and energy shortages. The government decided to pull the plug earlier and this is entirely because of the domestic policy calculation rather than any other reasons. The bottom line is not so much about the popularity of the government, as about domestic calculation and political dynamics.
LJ: Can you give us some insight into what kind of party is Fratelli d’Italia?
FT: The party’s record in parliament, as well as in European parliament, is clear in a number of areas. They are rather firm on issues such as immigration. In general, any issue pertaining to European integration is looked at with very critical eye and with the view to repatriate the power competences to Rome and to the national capital.
It should be noted and not underestimated that, in the last two years, the party went from about 5% of support to estimated 25% – if not higher, judging by the polls conducted during the election of the 25th. This growth is staggering, and it is in the same spirit as the growth of the Five Stars five years ago. But it also required from the party, particularly from its leader, Giorgia Meloni, to somehow smooth the edges of some of the more extreme positions. To give you a concrete example, Italy is one of the top beneficiaries of the NextGenerationEU program, given how much the country was affected by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will receive in total over two hundred billion euros in large loans. Meloni initially said “We need to renegotiate the deal,” which is ironic.
The idea was to renegotiate the priorities, but as we get closer to the date and to the possibility that she will be, indeed, the Prime Minister, she says “you know, we should twitch the edges of some of the agreements.” My guess is that she will need to mellow once in power, as it often happens. The myths in terms of their positions on immigration and some of the issues on gender rights are confirmed by the reality, as well as it is her backyard and heritage of the party in the post-fascism movement.
LJ: Could you tell us more about it? Is there any real connection to the fascism?
FT: Here are the facts. Certainly, there is some sort of a line of descendants of the fascist party, which after the war became il Movimento Sociale and then Alleanza Nazionale. The fact that now the flame of the Italian flag is featured in their symbol is a direct reference to some of those ancestors – this is an actual fact. Another fact, which is less easy to pinpoint, is that in Italy there is a vast landscape of neofascist movements which although are not formally part of the party, they clearly operate within the same ecosystem. Some of these movements are extremist and neofascist by their own admission. The key issue here is that Meloni herself comes from this environment, which in the 1970s and 1980s was implicated in some episodes at the crossroads between terrorism and political protest.
Now, again, because power seems to be approaching, she has renegaded the fascist past. She said: “the antisemitic laws of Mussolini were very bad thing and Mussolini’s regime is not something we look at with nostalgia.” But there is a whole ecosystem that continues to thrive in the football stadium, where hooligans are connecting with far-right movement. The extent to which this is unreal or not is not so much in the numbers, but perhaps there is a reality that is not fully understood.
LJ: Let me ask you a little bit more about the campaign. What are the political leaders talking about? What does the public care about? In general, how does the campaign work?
FT: On the energy issue, this is one area where the Draghi’s government has done wonders. Draghi has been relentless in energy diversification. He has travelled to Africa to secure alternative roots of gas to the point that before the Ukrainian aggression, Russian’s inputs of gas were about 40% of the total. At the moment, the key issue at the campaign is regasification, which is essentially where LNG will be able to come and even though there is some sort of a protest at the local level, it is certainly something that all parties seem to agree on.
Moreover, there is an eternal issue on the nuclear power, which is sensitive topic in other countries. Italy it has voted twice against the nuclear power in referendums. Even after the invasion of Ukraine, there is still 50/50 chance that if there was a referendum today, it would go in favor of “no”. But the fact that many of Italy’s neighbors are somehow reconsidering or even accelerating investment in nuclear power, is a matter of debate, especially on the left, that is something that at least is a matter of debate, especially for the left. It is on the table again.
LJ: Is there any chance that Fratelli d’Italia will not win the election? Is there any doubt about the final result?
FT: At the moment, it looks as if the left is campaigning to prevent the center-right coalition from getting the majority in parliament. That seems to be the prime concern. If you look at the pools, it looks like the center-right coalition has about 49% of the actual electoral vote, which might translate in the majority in the parliament. Indeed, the critical issue there is that if 2/3 passes, as a majority they will be able to pass the constitutional reforms in a referendum. The new fact is that one issue on which everyone seems to agree is to change the Italian constitution into a presidential republic. Changing Italy into a presidential republic does not seem to be the most reassuring move.
LJ: Especially that the president Mattarella will have to resign if the constitution is changed. He would not have this new presidential power.
FT: Correct. It is a long way off at the moment, so it is difficult to imagine. There is a lot of speculation as to whether any of the party leaders aspire to this position. But at the moment it is very speculative.
LJ: Is there any particular change in the campaign due to these constitutional reforms?
FT: Yes. The fact that the parliament itself will be one-third smaller in number means that individuals that have been in the parliament for many years will simply not be able to run for the election, because there will be no seats anymore. This, of course, was to be expected, but the fact that the election came so suddenly meant that the parties were unprepared for such a development, so they had to scramble in the middle of the summer about who would somehow secure a seat and who would not.
Any observer from the outside will tell you that it was not a pretty view in terms of jostling for the position. But certainly, I would venture that in the retrospect this would make the parties a little bit more disciplined. Previously, you would have a lot of mavericks, which was one of the biggest disfunction of the Italian parliament. I think with fewer MPs, party leaders would probably want to make sure that they have loyal entities in their ranks, not people they cannot count on..
LJ: I wanted to ask you about the potential Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni. You said also that Fratelli d’Italia was a small marginal party for quite some time. Is it because they were in opposition to Draghi’s parliament or is there any other reason for shift in the public opinion that they become so prominent and strong?
FT: Certainly, the fact that Meloni has been in opposition to Draghi for the past years has been an enormous bonus for them. You were asking before about the wisdom of the Five Stars to pull the plug on Draghi’s government. Being in opposition during COVID-19 and during a time of unprecedented upheaval has been enormous bonus.
The second factor is that she and the Party have certainly been rather disciplined in the messaging. They have been refining their message. Your podcast is called Liberal Europe so I am by no means advocating that the message is correct, but I am saying that they have been extremely effective in communication. This raises a big question whether she is capable of governing. She is 45 years old, and she has little experience. She was the Youth Minister in the fourth Berlusconi’s government. If she becomes prime minister, there are questions to ask about her ability.
When Berlusconi was heading to power, there was a similar level of skepticism. What often happens in such cases is that the president of the republic will use his prerogative to veto specific ministers in key posts, such as the Finance Ministry or Interior Ministry, where you can have not only representative faces, but also experts. At the risk of being optimistic, the hardest challenge is not to surround Meloni with capable people – that Italy has in abundance. The biggest challenge is the meaning of the election of the right wing government for Italy and what kind of mood and message will accompany that.
LJ: What would this mean for Europe? Should we expect something similar to Kaczyński and Euroskeptics? Or do you expect more pragmatism?
FT: The jury is still out on this one, because it is untested. Meloni and the Party are not given any sign to relent from their Eurosceptic rhetorics. They are, in fact, quite unapologetic about it. In Europe, and European Union, there is always a way to fix the damage and not make it worse. But to some extent it is really difficult to see. This is a concerning area – not because there are no specific measures that they will take, but in the kind of a consensus within the country that their victory will create.
Find out more about the guest: www.eui.eu/people?id=fabrizio-tassinari
The podcast was recorded on September 12, 2022.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.