In a referendum four months ago, Italians voted to slash the number of members of parliament from 945 to 600. The mass support for this initiative was a stinging condemnation of Italy’s political classes, viewed for decades as preoccupied with selfish intrigues in Rome.
Now, the government of prime minister Giuseppe Conte is in crisis thanks to one of his predecessors’ partiality for intrigue. By withdrawing his party’s ministers from Mr Conte’s ruling coalition on Wednesday, former premier Matteo Renzi has injected uncertainty into the political outlook just when Italy is in sore need of stable leadership.
The national death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic passed 80,000 this week — the second highest in Europe after the UK. The economy, which has recorded scarcely any growth for 20 years, shrank last year by about 9 per cent.
But instead of getting on top of these problems, Mr Conte must now turn his attention to reconstructing his government and its majority in the Senate, parliament’s upper house. He is merely the latest of dozens of Italian premiers who have fallen prey to political intrigue in the post-1945 era. But few have been tripped up in such testing circumstances for the nation.
The good news for Italy is that a repeat of the turmoil that blew up in 2018 is unlikely. At that time, financial markets concerned about Italy’s sovereign debt plunged into a panic sparked by the economic proposals of the incoming government, made up of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the hard-right League. Now, Italy enjoys the protection of the European Central Bank’s emergency measures and hopes to revive the economy with the EU’s €750bn pandemic recovery fund.
Moreover, Mr Renzi’s manoeuvres may not lead to the creation of a substantially new coalition, as in 2019, let alone force snap elections.
All politicians — from Five Star and its coalition partner, the centre-left Democrats, to Mr Renzi’s small Italia Viva party — are aware that, because of last year’s referendum, the next legislature will not have space for many of them. For those that are excluded, the perks and privileges that make a parliamentary career so attractive in Italy will be no more.
As a result, the latest round of intrigue may prove a storm in a teacup. If so, Italy will be free to focus on its highest priority: the efficient implementation of a recovery plan built on Italy’s share of the EU funds.
This amounts to around €200bn, or 10 per cent of gross domestic product, spread over five years. It is a once in a generation opportunity, a sum that previous Italian governments could only dream of spending.
However, the outlook here is not so promising. Mr Renzi was correct to identify shortcomings in the government’s plan, even though his chief goal seems to be to make himself an indispensable part of Italy’s political landscape. The task is to ensure that the EU funds do not drain away in waste and corruption, but do go to projects that raise Italian productivity as well as improving public administration and the justice system.
In a speech last month, Ignazio Visco, Italy’s central bank governor, mentioned some of the challenges. “In the selection of managers, family background, social and political connections often appear to hold more weight than competence, managerial skills and education,” he said.
“This also tends to hamper corporate performance due to the lack of openness to external talent and modern management practices, leading to lower firm efficiency and weak propensity to innovate.”
Italy’s EU partners know all too well about these deficiencies. Far from indulging in intrigue, Italy’s politicians should focus on making the best use of the EU funds. If they fail, frustration with Italy will only grow around the rest of Europe.