The fall of the Berlusconi government in 2011 was a game-changer in Italian politics. The prominent role taken by the EU in the succession of the events was unprecedented and contributed to catalyse the attention of the public on the European level. The magnitude of the change was clearly visible in the 2013 elections, which had a novel “Europeanised” character.
The Fall of Silvio Berlusconi
In the summer 2011 the Italian government was faltering under the weight of internal divisions and its failure to revive the economy. The ruling coalition, consisting of Berlusconi‘s PDL (The People of Freedom - Il Popolo della Libertà) and the Northern League (Lega Nord), depended on an ever-shrinking parliamentary majority. The government was incapable to deliver the structural reforms the country desperately needed, and the cabinet was paralysed by internal tensions between Berlusconi and his Economy minister Giulio Tremonti, who tried to rein the prime minister’s loose fiscal agenda. After innumerable sex scandals, judicial investigations and diplomatic gaffes, Berlusconi was on the brink of political bankruptcy.
When financial contagion spread to Italy, a few basis points sufficed to threw him down the cliff. In July the yield spread between Italian and German bonds rose above the critical threshold of 300, raising fears of insolvency and triggering a run on Italian debt. Market anxiety peaked in October, when credit rating agencies downgraded Italian debt and the budget legislation was defeated in the lower house, demonstrating that Berlusconi could no longer count on a solid parliamentary majority.
On November 12th President Giorgio Napolitano pulled the plug on the government. He accepted Berlusconi’s resignations and offered the top job to Mario Monti. This austere Bocconi University professor and former commissioner was almost unknown to the public. The cabinet he proposed was fully technocratic, having no elected representative among its ranks.
Nonetheless, all parties except the Northern League endorsed the new executive. This bipartisan support demonstrated that the Italian political class was deeply aware of the urgency of unpopular reforms, but also reluctant to take up responsibility for them. A technocratic government looked like the only way to shield parties from public blame.
The role of the EU in the transition
Assessing the legacy of Mr Monti is beyond the scope of this essay. His government presided over a painful fiscal tightening which is still remembered resentfully by most Italians – “Rigor Montis”, used to jest Beppe Grillo mocking his fixation on budget discipline. His defenders, on the other hand, claim that he saved Italy from financial chaos and bankruptcy. Admittedly, there was nothing inherently new in the technocratic make-up of the government. In the 90s Italy had already been ruled by a fully technocratic executive led by former central banker Lamberto Dini. What was unprecedented in the Monti government, however, was the way which EU actors had intervened in the domestic arena to facilitate its rise.
The relationship between Rome and Brussels had not been particularly rosy during Berlusconi’s presidencies. On multiple occasions leading EU figures had bashed the Italian President over his poor judiciary track record and conflicts of interests. His showmanship and exuberance, so dear to his Italian electors, were less appreciated in austere EU circles. In 2003, for instance, he had plunged the European Parliament’s plenary session into chaos after likening Martin Schultz to a Nazi camp guard.
Unsurprisingly, when interest spreads started to soar, threatening Eurozone’s financial stability, so did pressures from European partners. As early as August 5th the European Central Bank (ECB) addressed a confidential letter to Berlusconi calling for major structural reforms. The missive, co-signed by the incoming ECB governor Mario Draghi, was commonly interpreted as laying out the conditions for intervening in financial markets and halting the run on Italian bonds1. The Commission followed suit. Olli Rehn, Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, multiplied calls to the Italian government to implement reforms and restore market confidence.
Berlusconi procrastinated, further exhausting the patience of European partners. The last tumultuous weeks of his government eroded what was left of his international standing. During a joint conference in October, Merkel and Sarkozy exchanged sarcastic smiles when questioned about Berlusconi’s capacity to deliver on his promises.
International isolation reached its zenith at the November G20 Summit at Cannes. On that occasion, EU leaders asked Obama and US Secretary Treasurer Tim Geithner to make any future IMF loan to Italy conditional on Berlusconi’s departure. Isolation in the Council and international summits proved to be a crucial factor in the aggravation of market sentiment, thereby accelerating his fall from power. Merely a week after the Cannes meeting, Berlusconi had been dethroned.
Reconstructing the extent to which Europe contributed directly to the fall of Berlusconi is difficult, for much of the diplomatic manoeuvring took place at an informal level. On the surface, it was Giorgio Napolitano who pulled the strings. The octogenarian, energic President of the Republic forced Berlusconi’s hand on resignation and designated his successor, indulging in what many have been seen as a transgression of his mandate. It is commonly accepted, however, that pressures from European leaders and ECB officials were a determining factor in the way President Napolitano handled the crisis.
European involvement in domestic affairs was not circumscribed to Italy. In 2011 five Eurozone countries experienced a change of government. Of those, three (Spain, Ireland, Portugal) went through elections, while two (Greece and Italy) did not. In all of them, however, the EU played a fundamental role, insofar as political developments in Brussels and other European capitals contributed to shape domestic outcomes.
In this sense, 2011 was a breaking point in the Europeanisation of national politics. The reasons are easy to diagnosticate: the degree of interdependence between Eurozone economies meant that the risk of insolvency in one country constituted a systemic risk to the whole monetary union. It is no coincidence that the wave of resignations touched precisely the so-called PIIGS, where the impact of the sovereign debt crisis had been most felt.
In Italy, it soon became evident that the November debacle had radically changed the terms of domestic political debate. The 2013 election, the first after the fall of Berlusconi, had an unmistakably European character.
In a top-down sense, Europeanisation meant that EU officials and foreign European leaders played a very proactive role and attempted to influence the electoral outcome. The most spectacular sign of this trend was the European People’s Party (EPP) unabashed support for Mr Monti after the PDL withdrew its support to the government in late 2012.
Terrified by the prospect of Berlusconi’s return to Palazzo Chigi, EPP members openly encouraged the incumbent PM to join the political contest. Mr Monti, in spite of not being part of the EPP, was unanimously presented as the only candidate capable to keep Italy on the track of reforms. The prevailing mood within the group was succinctly summarised by Dutch PM Mark Rutte’s statement, affirming that “the EPP supports Mario Monti and not Silvio Berlusconi”
Support for Mr Monti was largely a bipartisan phenomenon in Brussels. Endorsements came also from Social-democrats like Martin Schulz, European Parliament (EP) President at the time, as well as by the Presidents of the European Council and Commission. Almost without exception, the Monti government was held up as an example of fiscal rectitude and credited with saving Italy from the abyss of financial crisis.
Bottom Up Europeanisation
In addition, the 2013 elections were Europeanised in another, bottom-up sense. The role played by Europe in the eventful weeks of November 2011, during which a democratically elected government had given way to a technocratic one, had conclusively demonstrated that the EU could no longer be ignored. As a result, during the 2013 electoral campaign EU issues figured prominently in all parties’ manifestos.
The saliency accorded to the EU was explicit in the “Agenda Monti”, the centrist electoral manifesto of the incumbent PM5. Bearing the title “Changing Italy, Reforming Europe”, it premised that domestic and European policies had become so inextricably linked that had to be considered as one. A relaxation of budget rules could only be secured after gaining the trust of European partners through fiscal prudence. Flexing muscles with Brussels was simply counterproductive.
The European issue was framed in a similar manner by the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), the only traditional party with an unqualified pro-EU stance. Pierluigi Bersani campaigned against austerity, but never questioned the PD’s commitment to the European project. Rather, the electoral programme made clear that the answer to Italy’s social problems would come from more European integration, not less. Accordingly, Bersani sought the support of other European leaders, primarily the French President Hollande, hoping to build a transitional centre-left platform capable to shake the European consensus on austerity. If we exclude these two notable exceptions, however, the prevailing attitude towards Europe was rather confrontational, leading some commentators to talk of “negative Europeanisation” with regards to the 2013 elections.
Maybe attempting to vindicate the humiliation of 2011, Berlusconi was the most outspoken. In the PDL’s electoral manifesto, the former PM disavowed the legacy of the Monti government and rejected its structural reforms as imposed by a German-dominated Europe6. The Northern League adopted a similar position, whereas the stance of the 5 Stars Movement was more difficult to pin down due to its decentralised structure and the plurality of ideas that coexisted among its supporters. The prevailing attitude, nevertheless, was rather critical. Beppe Grillo, former comedian and founder of the 5 Stars Movement, advocated on multiple occasions a referendum on Euro membership.
The 2013 Italian elections were therefore remarkable because of the importance that the EU acquired in all parties’ electoral manifestos. The dominant representation of the EU was that of an out-of-touch “Euro bureaucracy” which had corrupted a mythically pristine “Europe of the Peoples”. This dialectical opposition figured almost identical in both the PDL’s and Northern League electoral programs and has remained one of the most powerful narratives in Italian politics ever since.
There was, finally, another way in which the 2013 elections signalled a profound change in the relationship between domestic and European politics. In the run-up to the vote, Italian politicians – PDL MPs, but also from the leftist SEL party – publicly blamed European leaders (Angela Merkel in particular) for the spending cuts of the Monti government.
This kind of cross-border skirmishes are now standard practice in European politics, the most recent example being the tensions between the French and Italian executives with regards to the Gilets Jaunes protest and the refugee crisis. They were a novelty, however, in 2013, and hardly a positive one. As some observers have noted8, the EU system, with its emphasis on rules and its complex institutional framework, aims to cushion frictions between member states and avoid direct confrontation between their leaders. The proliferation of clashes between Italian and foreign politicians since 2013 is therefore a worrying development, signalling a radical change in the Europeanisation of domestic politics.
A Pyrrhic Victory for Europe?
The fall of Berlusconi was a turning point in the Europeanisation of national politics. The proactive role played by European leaders in 2011 awakened Italians to the importance of the EU in defining the policy agenda. For the first time, European issues acquired the salience they deserved in the domestic arena.
We should ask ourselves, however, whether this type of Europeanisation has furthered European integration or conversely fuelled resistance against it. It is worth remembering that, before 2011, Italians stood out among Europeans for their trust in the EU9, generally seen as an antidote to the mediocrity and corruption of national politics. During the last decade the situation seems to have reversed. According to latest Eurobarometer data10, only one Italian out of three has a positive view of the EU. Only four countries scored less.
The rise of Euroscepticism in Italy has multiple causes. The adoption of the Euro, migration and Brussels’ insistence on structural reforms are usually branded as the main factors behind the displacement of the old “permissive consensus” in Italy.
The top-down Europeanisation process which I have described above also played a part. The Eurozone crisis has shortened the distance between Rome and Brussels, giving the EU a prominent role on the national state and an ever greater say in economic policy. This centralization of decision-making, like in other crisis-hit member states, has often taken unpleasantly undemocratic traits, succinctly exemplified by Von Rompuy’s 2011 statement that “Italy needs a government, not elections”. The result is that many Italians still regard the end of the last Berlusconi government as an EU-led coup against a democratically elected leader.
Eventually, the mantra that “there is no alternative” to technocracy and structural reform, repeated ad nauseam by EU officials in 2011, has played extremely well in the hands of those who claimed to embody the alternative. One could wonder, in this sense, whether the Eurosceptic fever presently gripping Italian voters would have occurred had things unfolded differently in 2011.
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