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Italy: Right-Wing Surge Ahead Of Election Sparks Alarm In Brussels – OpEd

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By Andrew Hammond*

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With the European landscape already in flux, Italy is preparing for an unexpected general election in September that could see the nation’s first far-right government since the war.

The ballot, the first in the Italian post-war era to be held in the fall, was precipitated by the same conservative forces that polls indicate are now likely to win power. Heading up opinion surveys is the Brothers of Italy party, one of the few not to participate in the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

That far-right organization has been riding a wave of increasing popularity and is now polling at significantly over 20 percent. It is a deeply euroskeptic, nationalist party, and its leader, Giorgia Meloni, hopes to become Italy’s first woman prime minister.

Yet, what was decisive in toppling Draghi’s government was not the actions of the Brothers of Italy, but the withdrawal of support by other right-of-center parties, including the League, Forza Italy and key elements of the populist Five Star Party, which split in recent weeks.

Part of the reason this latest bout of political uncertainty is being so closely watched is that Italy has never held a vote in the fall in the post-war era. The reason is that the second half of the year is when annual budgets are negotiated and passed by a prescribed mid-fall deadline.

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Moreover, there is also now the specter of a new wave of political paralysis in this key G7 nation, which has the third-largest economy in the eurozone. This threatens a potential stalling of economic growth, and continued EU recovery funding after Meloni said last week that she worried EU recovery funds were not being used in areas where “Italy is more competitive than others,” indicating she favors a re-examination of the plan.

Last Wednesday, one of the first warnings in this regard was shot across the bows of Rome by the European Commission. It said that Brussels will not renegotiate the fundamentals of a €200 billion ($203 billion), EU-funded pandemic recovery plan, and that Italy’s next government must adhere to reform pledges that Draghi team have been implementing, including cutting red tape, boosting competition in sectors such as transport and energy, and strengthening public administration and investing in health centers. So there is a danger that reform funding by the commission might be reduced because of measures that fail to arrive on schedule.

The warning comes as many of the remaining 26 EU states, plus other nations in the Western alliance, warily monitor developments in Rome amid fears of a brewing sovereign debt crisis. With the second-biggest debt load in the single currency area at over 130 percent of gross domestic product and a banking sector under significant stress because of underperforming loans, Italy is widely seen as posing perhaps the biggest threat to the eurozone’s future.

After about 18 months of relative political stability under Draghi, the fear is not just the likely political bent of the new government, but also that it may well be weak, unstable and incapable of securing structural reforms the country badly needs.

Coming in the midst of the Ukraine conflict and wider economic and political crises, Draghi’s departure is widely perceived as a body blow to Italy and Europe at large. The widely respected former head of the European Central Bank became Italy’s sixth prime minister in only 10 years when he took over in February 2021.

Beyond economics, one of the key uncertainties about the new Italian government is whether it will maintain Rome’s strong support for Ukraine. Alarmingly, it is reported that the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, allegedly sent an emissary, Antonio Capuano, to meet with Kremlin official Oleg Kostyukov in May, weeks before Draghi’s government imploded. As a result, Salvini has been accused of colluding with Moscow in order to bring about the collapse of Draghi’s government and carry his populist anti-EU party into power.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no question that sympathy for Moscow is significant in parts of Italy. Only a few weeks ago the populist Five Star movement divided over Draghi’s strong support for Ukraine, with some members of the party remaining opposed to providing weapons support.

It was this issue that prompted Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio to lead an exodus from the party he once headed, saying now was the time to support “European and Atlanticist values.” He accused party leader and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of weakening Italy’s international standing by opposing support for Ukraine.

With renewed political uncertainty in a nation where there have been more than 65 national governments in the post-war era, little wonder that concerns are again intensifying in Europe, and indeed in the wider Western alliance, about the nation’s future governance.

 Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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