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The First Steps of the Italian Government

The First Steps of the Italian Government
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

The Five Star Movement and the League finally managed to form a government in agreement with President Sergio Mattarella. Marc Lazar, contributor on French and European political and institutional issues, shares his insights on the first days of this new populist government.
Since 4 March, Italy has been dividing Europe. In the west of the old continent, political leaders and economic decision makers are not hiding their stupor and concern. In contrast, many Central and Eastern European countries – Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – are following with interest and sympathy the happenings on the peninsula. Meanwhile, everywhere in the world, right-wing populists gloat. Indeed, the government that has settled in Rome well suits them and could even become a source of inspiration. 
This government took almost three months to form. It first seemed unlikely to succeed as Matteo Salvini's League was allied with Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, Fratelli d'Italia, a post-fascist party and a small centrist grouping, while the Five Star Movement presented itself on its side. There were many programmatic differences between these parties, and their leaders did not hide their rivalries. In the end, they agreed on a "government contract" and managed to compose an executive body: eight ministers from the Five Star Movement, seven from the League and three experts. The President of the Council, Giuseppe Conte, an academic with no political experience, no party and no dedicated parliamentarians, is flanked by two council vice-presidents as well as Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Economic Development and Labour, Matteo Salvini, Minister of the Interior, and Giancarlo Giorgetti, Under-Secretary to the Presidency of the Council, a member of the League, close to Matteo Salvini, elected in 2013 to the Chamber of Deputies. As a matter of fact, Conte seems to have extremely narrow room to manoeuvre.

This was confirmed in Giuseppe Conte’s speech before the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, whose trust he gained. He took up most of the government contract by announcing, for example, a flat tax (which should, nevertheless, not be applied too quickly), a citizenship income, which will be spread over time, and the end of the "immigration business," according to his words. There was also a reminder of Italy’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance together with Italy's determination to open up to Russia and obtain the lifting of sanctions, a series of social policies (but no reference to the tricky subject of pensions nor to education and culture), an intention to fight corruption, organized crime and resolve conflicts of interest, ecological measures and the need to completely change European economic and financial policy. To those who accuse him of being populist and "anti-system", Conte responded by reversing the stigma and fully accepting these appellations: he indeed listens to the "people" and wants to "remove old privileges and incrustations of power”.

"However, this government benefits from two main assets. First, it has the support of public opinion. Second, the opposition parties, Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, are almost inaudible."

While waiting for the completion of all these projects, the ministers have already gotten to work, especially Matteo Salvini. A communication virtuoso, he immediately took up the public and media scene. He denounced immigration, criticized aid and solidarity associations, and announced that, with Viktor Orban, he would change European rules: thus, the Council of Heads of State and Government on 28 and 29 June is likely to be tense. Regarding immigration – the first topic on the agenda of this summit – Italy will take the offensive. The country hopes to have the strong support of Austria, which, beginning 1 July, will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and of the Visegrád Group.
How far will this populist government go? This is the main question. On the issue of immigration, it will be determined and ostentatious on televised media, even if its policy of arrests – rounding up and forcing repatriations of 500,000 illegal immigrants which it claims it will carry out – encounters many obstacles. For the rest, this government is trying to square the circle: cutting taxes while spending more. Giuseppe Conte said in his speech, "Europe is our home.” Yet this statement is not followed by facts, as the proposed Italian economic policy, if it is really applied, will create strong tensions with Brussels and the financial markets.
However, this government benefits from two main assets. First, it has the support of public opinion. Second, the opposition parties, Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, are almost inaudible. It can therefore act, knowing that at any given moment it may hit the wall of reality. What is currently taking place in Italy is not an anomaly. On the contrary, the country is experiencing, once again in its history, unprecedented political phenomena now spreading to the rest of Europe.

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