On Friday I discussed the pending formation of a left-right, “euro-skeptic” coalition government in Italy, which would have combined the two biggest vote-getters in the country’s March 4 national elections: the left-populist Five Star Movement and the right-populist League.
Over the weekend, Italian President Sergio Mattarella blocked the coalition’s choice for economy minister, an 81-year-old economist named Paolo Savona. Explaining his decision, Mattarella explicitly cited Savona’s criticism of the euro currency, noting that uncertainty over Italy’s future in the eurozone had spooked investors.
“After both parties refused to switch Savona out,” Politico reports, “the prime minister-designate — a little-known lawyer called Giuseppe Conte — on Sunday rejected the mandate to form a new government.”
On Monday, President Mattarella asked former IMF economist Carlo Cottarelli to put together a temporary government. Per the New York Times, Cottarelli “told reporters that he would form a caretaker government only with the goal of passing a budget and guiding Italy to new elections.”
Even by Italian standards, none of this is normal. Italy “now finds itself in a constitutional crisis as grave as any of the many it has had to confront since the fall of fascism in 1945,” writes Nicholas Farrell in the Spectator. “The way this thing pans out in the next days and weeks will affect the future not just of Italy but of Europe. And indirectly also of Britain with Brexit.”
Indeed, Italy has become a microcosm of the larger elite-populist battle raging across the Western world. As Farrell asks, “Who has more power? The people who voted for populism — or the elites who have now shot down populism? We shall see.”
Just to be clear, most Italians are not clamoring for an immediate departure from the euro zone, and the left-right coalition government would not necessarily have pursued an “Italexit.” As the Wall Street Journal points out in a smart editorial, “Any effort to leave the common currency would require a national referendum to gain popular support, and the costs of exit would be front and center. Polls show a majority of Italians still support the euro, perhaps because many recall life under a frequently depreciating lira that reduced their living standards.”
Yet the current Italian crisis is not really about the euro. It’s about democracy. By rejecting Savona’s appointment as economy minister because of his euro-skepticism, President Mattarella essentially declared that certain issues are beyond debate, regardless of election results. That’s a dangerous message to send, especially amid a populist surge.
The Journal editorial puts it well: “The left-right coalition was a risk but one the Italian people chose to take. The political result after this latest display of elitist disdain may be worse for Italy and the euro.”