Italy’s alarming new coalition


Italy’s new prime minister-designate, a 54-year-old law professor, Giuseppe Conte, is a complete political unknown. Nervous EU leaders in Brussels will be struggling to find out more about the man who is likely to be leading one of the most serious challenges ever to the Union.

Conte, who is not even an MP, is a frontman for the new coalition dominated by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by Luigi di Maio and now the largest party in parliament, and the rightwing League headed by Matteo Salvini.

After 11 weeks of wrangling following the March 4 general election, on Saturday di Maio and Salvini agreed on their political program and it is nearly all bad news for Brussels. The victors campaigned on radical economic and social policies and peddled an extremely hardline on immigration. Italy is the EU’s fourth largest economy but its debt is a stunning 130 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Brussels now has target deficits for members of just 30 percent of GDP.

The new Italian government is likely to press the EU to revalue its indebtedness by excluding the emergency funding it obtained from the European Central Bank. It seems highly unlikely the ECB will agree to such a maneuver since the Coalition is also set to embark upon a spending spree while at the same time cutting taxes. This would not be an obvious way to bring government finances into anything resembling a balance.

But perhaps di Maio and Salvini’s most worrying plans concern immigration. On the campaign trail they both pledged to send back hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants to their home countries. Now their program includes the priority deportation of half a million asylum seekers as the start of a wider clampdown to deter new arrivals, the majority of them smuggled across the Mediterranean by Libyan human-trafficking gangs. There is no doubt that many of the sub-Saharan Africans who have arrived in Italy are economic migrants. But there are also a significant number of genuine refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. Moreover, it is disturbing that one leak of the coalition’s program mentioned plans to deport Roma gypsies.

Italian voters chose Five Star and the League in large measure because they are fed up with the increasingly strict edicts from Brussels. National fecklessness and the inability of successive governments to push through fiscal and financial reforms lie at the heart of Italy’s woes. But Italy’s fellow EU members have to recognize that the Union has also played a significant role in the disillusionment of ordinary Italians.

In a complete reversal of German values, the Italians have always preferred style over substance. Their creative genius has applied as much to their state finances as it has to their fashion industry. They also pride themselves on their zest for life and their civilized behavior. It is perhaps a measure of their anger and frustration with the EU that the new government’s immigration plans are anything but civilized. But then Italy welcomed asylum seekers on the back of an assurance from other member states that they would take their fair share of the new arrivals. However, they did not. This welching has brought to power one of the potentially most reactionary governments in postwar Europe.