Opinion

The ESM trials Italian political class

The ESM trials Italian political class

The moment of the definitive negotiation to obtain the so necessary funds from the European Union is approaching more and more, for which a summit at the highest level (heads of state and government) is planned from July 17 to 19, but Italy, which must be together with Spain the biggest aid recipient not only by number of affected people but also by the increasing fragility of its economies, still does not have a unanimous position regarding its once indisputable Europeanism. 

In the meantime, an issue that has been the subject of constant discussion is once again on the political agenda: the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), also known as the "State-saving Mechanism". This mechanism began to be negotiated in the summer of 2019, when the Italian government coalition was partly anti-European: On the one hand, Matteo Salvini's Lega, declared an enemy of the current European construction; on the other hand, a Five Star Movement which, although it has never been in the group of anti-European parties, was at the time rejected by the third large parliamentary group (Margrethe Vestager' s Liberals) when Five Stars wanted its MEPs to join their ranks, as their Europeanism was more than questionable. 

But circumstances, as we know, changed very much in the summer of 2019 and more specifically in August. Salvini, with the polls very much in his favour, wanted to bring down the government, but his action backfired: when he least expected it, the "altro Matteo" (we are referring to former Prime Minister Renzi), who was a declared enemy of the Five Star Movement (even today, being in the same government coalition, he continues to let criticism slide towards them, even though his tone has become very tempered), convinced the leadership of his then party (the Democratic Party) that this was a unique opportunity to send Salvini home and take back the government to, among other things, regain a Europeanist cause that he had already openly defended in his time as "premier" (2014-16). The consequence was the formation of a new government majority (no longer "giallo-verde", but "giallo-rossa" in relation to the yellow of Five Stars and the red of the PD) and the presentation of a new Executive that, nevertheless, continued to be presided over by the same person (the jurist Conte).

All of this allowed for a complete change in the dynamics of the Italian government's relationship with the European Union: if in autumn 2018 (and also in spring 2019) it had been on the verge of receiving a historic sanction for excessive debt, a year later it was the turn of the Italians to take over one of the most important portfolios of the Commission (that of Economic Affairs, which was left in the hands of former Prime Minister Gentiloni) and that an Italian was also elected President of the European Parliament (Davide Sassoli, as Gentiloni is a member of the PD). Moreover, the European Union not only approved without major inconvenience the General State Budgets (GSB) for 2020, but even allowed it to bring the deficit target to 2.2%, when the previous government (led by Di Maio and Salvini) did not let it go beyond 2.04%. 

Now, however, the current government's majority is being put to the test again, since it must vote in favor or against the application of the ESM in a relatively short period of time, and despite the fact that three of the members of the current government coalition (the PD, Italia Viva and LeU) are openly in favor of doing so, the Five Star Movement, who continues to be headless after Di Maio's resignation as party leader last January and who does not cease to see new defections of members to his party (last week a deputy left the Joint Group and a senator also left but to join Salvini's Lega Parliamentary Group), returns, at least for the time being, to his initial position against the ESM and his intention is to vote "no" to its implementation. This means that, at present, a majority is against the ESM in both chambers: 361 against 227 in the lower house, and 175 against only 117 in the upper house (the Senate). One of the three main center-right parties (Forza Italia) is in favor of voting for the ESM, but the more than 200 deputies of the Five Star Movement, as well as the 95 senators of this same formation, weigh too much. 

All this is creating not only a strong discussion between PD and Five Stars, but, above all, calling into question the figure of Prime Minister Conte, who is not capable of putting order in the ranks of the party that led him to the presidency of the Council of Ministers in June 2018. In this respect, Conte is suffering the consequences of the classic system of closed lists that is so widely applied in all the countries of the European Union: we must remember that, in the March 2018 elections, Conte was not the head of his party, but Luigi Di Maio, and that on the list of ministers that Di Maio made known two days before those general elections were held, Conte appeared only as a civil servant, so his role in the party was null and void.

The paradox is that not only has Conte been Prime Minister for more than two years in a row (something that very few can say in the history of the First Italian Republic), but his effective management of the health emergency has made him the most popular politician in the country, and has even established him as a reliable leader for the rest of the EU countries. But this does not prevent the fact that the party he represents (and of which, by the way, he has never been a member, since he is not a militant) is deeply divided between those who are against continuing with the pact with the PD (a sector led by the former deputy Alessandro Di Battista and by Davide Casaleggio, son of one of the two founders of this peculiar formation) and those who believe that the pact should go ahead, as it is the case of Roberto Fico or Paola Taverna. 

At stake are no less than 36 billion, which would be a fundamental capital injection for Italian companies. That's why the possibility of forging a broad government coalition is already being considered (with a sector of Five Stars and PD on the left, and Forza Italia on the right, with small parties like Renzi, Bonino or Totti in the middle) with which to present themselves in a position of strength before the European authorities. On the other hand, Salvini and Meloni see this as a unique opportunity to force an early election that they were unable to achieve in the summer of 2019. And all of this is just a few weeks away from the negotiation of fundamental funds, not only for the countries most affected by the coronavirus epidemic, but above all for the future of European construction, which has a lot at stake. We will see how the umpteenth typical mishap of a political class, the Italian class, which is given to making political action even more complex at a time when union is more necessary than ever, comes to an end. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Senior Researcher at the "Civismo" Foundation and author of the book "Italia, 2013-2018. De la esperanza al caos" (Madrid, Liber Factory, 2018).