Saving Europeans isn’t the Italians’ job

In Reggio Calabria, ordinary people have had enough of the pro-EU elite

Reggio Calabria sits close to the southernmost end of the Italian peninsula. Overlooking the Strait of Messina, this city of about 180,000 people has a closer affinity, not least in its dialect, with eastern Sicily than the rest of Calabria. This is Italy’s deepest Mezzogiorno — 250 miles further south than Eboli, the place where “Christ stopped”, in Carlo Levi’s autobiographical account of internal political exile in fascist Italy.

A political laboratory within the political laboratory of the West that is Italy, Reggio staged one of the first “populist” challenges to Italy’s post-war political system. In 1970, the city revolted after the government decided that the seat of the newly-created regional administration for Calabria would be in Catanzaro rather than Reggio. The main parties and trade unions dismissed the revolt as populist and parochial. An eclectic group of local personalities — the Christian-Democrat mayor, a neo-fascist trade unionist, a veteran of the anti-fascist partisan struggle, and a coffee entrepreneur — joined forces and filled  the political vacuum left by the main parties’ disavowal of the protest. They ran Reggio for a few months in what began to look like a secessionist regime. To put an end to the revolt, the army was dispatched. A line of tanks descended on Reggio’s Lungomare, a one-mile promenade along the sea from which on the clearest days the most spectacular view of Mount Etna can be enjoyed (“Italy’s most beautiful kilometre” according to an almost certainly apocryphal Gabriele D’Annunzio quote).

Reggio is now at the frontline of the migrant crisis. The day I arrived, June 9,  a boat carrying nearly 250 migrants docked at the port. A few days earlier, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, was sworn in as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior in Italy’s new government. He authorised the arrival of the boat, but announced that change was on the way.

Shortly after taking office, Salvini clashed with the mayor of Riace, who is one of the symbols of the politica dell’ accoglienza (the policy of welcoming migrants). Riace is the small village on the Ionian coast where the fifth-century BC Riace Bronzes, now the main attraction at Reggio’s museum, were found. The mayor is an old communist, Mimmo Lucana, who says he has never left Calabria. He believes that without immigration villages like Riace, with their rapidly declining population, have no future. His pro-immigration stance brought international accolades. But critics like Salvini maintain that these initiatives are just designed to generate publicity and attract the subsidies that come with the migrants. In an interview shortly after becoming minister of the interior, Salvini described Mr Lucano as “a zero”, marking his words with a hand gesture, the touching of the tips of the thumb and the index finger to create a circular shape, which means OK in English but zero in Italian.

There is much human sympathy for migrants in Calabria, but little support for current levels of immigration. There is also anger at what are regarded as the unfair portrayals of Calabrians as racist for their opposition to the flow of migrants. An opportunity for such portrayals arose tragically when, on June 4, a 29-year-old Malian immigrant, Sacko Soumalya,  was killed in a small village in the fertile plains to the north of Reggio.
The investigators say there is no indication of racist motives, and the most likely explanation is revenge for a theft (it is not unusual for investigators to publicise preliminary findings in Italy). But much of the commentariat chose to ignore the investigators’ assessment and to depict this event as emblematic of the racist reality of Salvini’s Italy. This reaction echoes that of the bien-pensants in the UK following the death of the Polish immigrant Arkadiusz Jozwik in Harlow, Essex, a few weeks after the Brexit vote — it soon turned out that racism had played no part but the stain on a community remained. This unscrupulous and deceptive condescension hardens resentment among people who feel that their communities are being unfairly slandered.

Immigration was one of the main issues in the campaign that preceded the Italian elections in March. The elections were held under yet another electoral law, possibly even more absurd than the one that preceded it. It is no mystery that the centre-Left Democratic Party (PD), which was in power from 2013 to 2018, hoped that, with a little help from a new electoral system, it would be able to  muster enough support in parliament for a grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right Forza Italia, and thus withstand the rise of the two main “populist” forces, the Five Star Movement and the League. But the voters’ rejection of the PD and Forza Italia was definitive.

Looking at a map of the electoral results, it would be easy to get the impression of a deeply-divided country: the areas where the Five Star Movement triumphed almost entirely coincide with the territory of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies; the centre-Right, now led by the League rather than Forza Italia, came first in the north and parts of the centre, while the centre-Left won only in a portion of what used to be known as the “red regions” (Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna). The Five Star Movement and the League together got about 50 per cent of the votes, and nearly 60 per cent of the under-30 vote.

There are doubtless important differences between the League and the Five Star Movement but, on crucial questions such as immigration and Europe, polls show there is a common sentiment among their voters. The League, known as the Northern League before the last election, did not even campaign in the south until recently, and was viewed with suspicion there. Salvini dropped “Northern” from the name, and launched a charm offensive on southern voters which is bearing fruit. The Five Star Movement is the first party in the south, but the League is rising fast and benefits from the weakening of Forza Italia.

By a fortuitous operation of the new electoral system, Salvini was elected to the Senate to represent Calabria. The leader of the party which used to call for the secession of the north from the rest of Italy now represents Italy’s deepest south. This fact perhaps more than any other exemplifies the extraordinary transformation of the League into a national sovranisti party. After the elections, Salvini chose to spend the Easter weekend in Ischia, where he seemed to have won over everyone he met. At the Albergo Regina Isabella, one of Ischia’s oldest hotels with a sense of discreet Italian elegance and taste that is reminiscent of the 1950s, a Neapolitan member of staff who saw him regularly during his stay says: “There is not one anti-southern molecule in him. And anyway in Europe we Italians are all terroni now.” Terroni  is a disparaging term for southerners, which until recently would have been associated with Northern League supporters. Is Europe perhaps helping to unite Italians?
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.
Italians’ demands for political participation and federalist devolution were bound to clash with a project, the EU, that is defined by technocracy and centralisation. For many years Italian support for the EU was so unquestioning that there was little awareness of the inevitability of this clash. The scales began to fall from the eyes with the financial crisis and the removal of Berlusconi in 2011, in what was generally believed to be a move dictated by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy with the then Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, as the axeman.

Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed to replace Berlusconi in 2011, was initially welcomed by Italians. His credentials were impeccable: he had been an EU Commissioner and Rector of Bocconi in Milan, Italy’s best university for economics and business studies. But the honeymoon was brief. He and his government of professors soon became exceptionally unpopular and a rift emerged between public opinion and experts. There is a revealing interview given by Monti to CNN while he was prime minister. When asked how he was going to support domestic demand to stimulate growth and help Italy out of the recession, he replied: “We are destroying domestic demand through fiscal consolidation.” The interviewer was visibly shocked. So were most Italians, who came to regard the Monti government as an economic tsunami. At the end of his two years in power, his Civic Choice party gained only 8 per cent of the votes in the 2013 election.

Monti’s reason for an approach that many of his economist colleagues would regard as economically illiterate was that monetary union left Italy with no other option. “Percorsi obbligati” (prescribed routes) was the refrain. The euro is not, as a currency should be, a means to an end — but an end in itself. Some, like Romano Prodi, the former president of the EU Commission and twice prime minister of Italy in the last 25 years, now say they realised at the time that monetary union was deeply flawed, but they expected the problems to be fixed over time. Most would now regard such a choice as reckless. Why surrender monetary sovereignty if you understand that what is being set up will not work? The idea that the EU and the Italian political-economic elite were one and the same thing — and neither competent nor benign — took hold during the Monti years. It is difficult to see how Italian public opinion can revert to being as enthusiastic about the EU as it used to be, unless there is radical change in Brussels.

True, there is no majority at present in Italy for leaving the euro. But the numbers also say something else. Already in February 2017, nearly two-thirds of Italians, and even a majority of PD voters, thought that joining the euro was a mistake. There is no contradiction between this and not wanting to leave the euro: the euro is the kind of mistake that is very difficult to undo. People realise that and are worried about the costs. But marriages in which you stick around because you are afraid you may not be able to afford your own place are not happy ones.

Over the last few months, many Italians appear to have become aware of another problem: that monetary union may be difficult — perhaps impossible — to reconcile with democracy. This is the view of the League, which had big banners saying “Basta Euro” outside many of its offices throughout the election campaign. According to a recent poll, a majority of its voters still do favour leaving the euro. One difference between Italy’s political earthquake and Brexit is that Italian Euroscepticism is stronger in the most productive parts of the country, those which the League represents. If this revolt had been concentrated in Italy’s south, it would have probably ended up like the Reggio revolt of 1970: forgotten and inconsequential. But, even if you have not read your Gramsci, you will know Italy’s northern middle class is the force that shapes the political direction of the country.
In his The Revolt of the Elites: The Betrayal of Democracy, published in 1996, Christopher Lasch argued that the elites were turning against democracy, and predicted that a clash between them and the people would soon come to dominate Western politics. It feels a bit like that reading a few issues of Il Foglio, the daily which until a few years ago was often described as the newspaper of Italy’s “neo-cons”. Il Foglio now leads the charge against the populists and the sovranisti, and has grown closer to the PD and the centre-Left. References to barbarians and talk about the plebs abound — some in jest, no doubt in line with the eccentric and provocative liberalism of the newspaper. But, as in Britain, a sense of moral panic about democracy and popular sovereignty has set in among the elites.

In a country with a constitution that in Article 1 recites that “sovereignty belongs to the people”, it is strange how the idea of popular sovereignty should ever be viewed as heretical. A small but conspicuous group of jurists, philosophers and political scientists has gathered around a magazine, Logos, to propound sovranisti positions. The founder of Logos, Giuseppe Valditara, a Professor of Roman Law at the University of Turin, is regarded by the League as one of its intellectual reference points. Valditara, whose book, Sovranismo, has just come out, tells me: “Sovranismo is the only hope for democracy — we have only limited time to reshape Europe and the global order to ensure that popular sovereignty remains a central political value.”

As I left Italy to return to London, the crisis of the MS Aquarius dominated the news. Salvini denied access to the NGO boat carrying 690 migrants, and announced the closure of Italian ports to other NGO boats. In a poll taken during the Aquarius crisis, 59 per cent of Italians approved of the closing of Italian ports to migrants. Support reached 85 per cent among the League and Five Star Movement voters; even 30 per cent of the PD electorate was in favour.

On immigration Italy may have its way in the end, not least because Merkel’s CSU allies are making similar demands. But Salvini does himself and Italy no favours, with statements about deporting Roma in TV interview on June 18: “The Italian ones [Roma] we are  unfortunately stuck with.” A state can choose to keep economic migration under strict control and remain liberal, but one that stigmatises a group of its own citizens on ethnic grounds will cease to be so.

A bigger clash with Europe looms on the new government’s radical fiscal plans. The League seems ready for the fight. Salvini does not mince words on what he regards as German hegemony in Europe. One thing that will not be necessary to complete the transformation of the “League” into national party is the adoption of a new political symbolism. At the heart of the Northern League’s symbolism has always been the Oath of Pontida, which representatives of the Italian Comuni allegedly took in the 12th century in their struggle for liberty against the Holy Roman Empire of Frederick Barbarossa. The League may now realise that this imagery was better suited all along to unite the country than divide it.

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