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Predictably, the facile and trite analyses in vogue in London, Paris or New York tend to portray the Italian political earthquake as the product of a Manichaean clash between the forces of progress and a populist and xenophobic far-Right. But these analyses completely  miss the complexity of what is happening. Italians were among the most pro-EU of Europeans, and also historically quite deferential to political and cultural elites. Euroscepticism and an anti-elitism now seem to be growing in parallel. Why?

It is helpful to take a step back to the early 1990s. With the largest Communist Party in Western Europe and one party (the Christian Democrats) in power uninterruptedly since 1945, the end of the Cold War impacted Italian domestic politics more than that of any other Western European country. A difficult process of political and constitutional change was nipped in the bud by two factors: the politicisation of Italian prosecutors and the Maastricht treaty. The ruling class of the 1980s was decimated by “Clean Hands” investigating magistrates, who however spared the former communists. “Clean Hands” had a lot of support initially but the prosecutors quickly began to be viewed as politicised by a significant part of the Italian electorate — indeed, probably a majority. Berlusconi exploited this situation to his advantage and became the dominant political figure for the next two decades.

Throughout the 1990s, the only measure of national political achievement was the country’s ability to meet the Maastricht criteria and join the monetary union in the first round. At various critical junctures, technocrats, such as former governors and senior officials of the Bank of Italy, became presidents, prime ministers and finance ministers, their main credentials being that they had the expertises to ferry Italy to the sunny shores of the euro. During this period Italians displayed none of the misgivings about the European project that the British, and even the French and the Germans, had.

When Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that Italians were so keen on Europe because they would have anyone but their politicians run them, she may have been guilty of a mistake that Anglo-Saxons (Protestants perhaps more than Catholics) often make: to take Italians literally. True, Italians were frustrated with their political system, and some might even venture to say that Italy would be better-off run by the Germans. But they did not mean it then, and hardly anyone would say it now.

Beneath the surface and beyond the caricatures, the striking fact was that all new political movements emerging from Italy’s various crises — including the League and the Five Star Movement — were based on demands for greater democratic participation and devolution of power from the centre. Asked recently what his biggest regret was, the founder of the Northern League and its leader until 2012, Umberto Bossi, said it was not to have understood that the south too ultimately wanted more autonomy.  The Northern League’s great error from 1990 until recently was to characterise the struggle for a federalist constitution as a north-south confrontation. It is an error that Bossi’s successor, Matteo Salvini, is keen not to repeat.
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Anonymous
June 30th, 2018
12:06 PM
Those "in charge" of the European Project only have one goal, to stay "in charge". Consequently, they accept assistance from anyone offering support, without questioning the motivation. To attempt to build an empire from the roof down without even a copy of "Empire-Building For Dummies" to hand, seems foolhardy. We live in interesting times.

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