S.or less than a month now, the Italians have been prepared to be left without a government every day. For so long, the former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been threatening to withdraw the two ministers, which his small party Italia Viva (Iv) provides, from the coalition. On Wednesday evening the time had come: the governing coalition had burst.
The focus of the disputes was the financial aid that the EU has granted Italy to deal with the consequences of the Corona crisis. Actually, the situation is absurd: A coalition that is pro-European, overturns the very aid that the EU has promised to support it against the opposition that is critical of Europe.
In its absurdity, the crisis shows how firmly old EU resentments sit and how immobile the unequal governing coalition has become in a little over a year. In order to understand how it came to this, you have to know that the anti-EU course has been used again and again by various Italian parties to attract votes over the past few months and years.
Renzi insists on using the euro rescue package
But let’s start from the beginning: The dispute was triggered by the plan to use the EU funds that Italy will receive from the Corona reconstruction program “Next Generation EU”. Rome has to present this plan to the European Commission by mid-February in order to reach the record sum of 209 billion euros, which the international community will make available to the country in a mixture of loans and grants – but only after it has examined said utilization plan. Italy urgently needs the money to tackle overdue reforms and cannot afford to delay.
Renzi had taken advantage of this time pressure. As the smallest party in the government’s three-party alliance, it put pressure on the coalition partners, the social democratic Partito Democratico (PD) and the populist five-star party. Renzi criticized the plan – and brought himself and his small party to the center of attention. The former hopeful and Prime Minister Renzi got a big stage, even if his party is 3.2 percent in polls.
Thanks to Iv’s abstention, an agreement was reached on the contents of the plan late on Tuesday evening. But then Renzi insisted that the government also commit to wanting to use the European ESM rescue package. The EU had set up this last spring as quick help to cushion the consequences of the corona crisis. In this way, Italy could obtain around 36 billion euros in loans on favorable terms and put them into the health system, which had shown itself to be particularly in need of improvement at the beginning of the pandemic.
The fear of the Teutonic austerity dictate
Renzi deliberately hung the government crisis on an EU aid mechanism, which he knows is symbolically so poisoned that the government cannot use it without the largest of the three coalition partners – the five-star party – you Would lose face. Because the five stars around Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio, who were voted the strongest party in the 2018 parliamentary election because of their anti-European stance, have always raised the mood against the ESM. The fact that they are now in a coalition with the pro-European parties PD and Iv has not led to a complete change of course. And so the five stars still represent the ESM as an instrument with which Italy, if it uses it, would lose some of its national sovereignty to the EU.
This reasoning is based on the history of the ESM, which was created as a result of the euro crisis after 2008 to keep EU countries facing insolvency liquid with cheap loans. In return, countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain had to implement strict reform requirements. The reforms that the so-called Troika monitored in Greece are often painted as a horror scenario in Italy – and cited against the ESM.
Anti-German resentments also play a major role here. In Italy and other southern European countries, the reform requirements introduced during the euro crisis under pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) have for years been demonized as a Teutonic austerity dictate. During this time, books such as “The Fourth Reich. How Germany subjugated Europe ”. Anti-European parties from right and left came to power.
These resentments flared up again in the Corona crisis. Not only the left-wing five stars railed against the ESM. Also Matteo Salvini, head of the right-wing nationalist Lega, the Italian party that has long been the strongest in polls. Among other things, he tweeted in May: “The ESM is a contract that provides for conditions and that’s not just me saying that. As soon as the health emergency is over, Italy risks special surveillance by the Troika. “
There is actually nothing to prevent the use of the ESM, as the Italian economist Marcello Messori from the Roman LUISS University explains in an interview with WELT: “Access to the ESM is linked to similar conditions as the funds from the Recovery and Resilience Facility, which are in Next Generation EU plan are included. ”So if the Italian government calls up the 133 billion euros in loans from the Corona reconstruction plan as planned, it could just as easily use the loans from the ESM.
The facts don’t count anymore
In Messori’s view, this would even be advisable because the ESM has meanwhile been realigned – and is now specifically intended for the health system, whose glaring shortcomings in Italy became abundantly clear in the first wave of the pandemic. But Messori also knows that the facts have long played only a subordinate role in the Italian debate about the ESM. The arguments that the coalition is discussing are “not necessarily of an economic nature”, he formulates cautiously. Because: “The ESM that is now being discussed has nothing to do with the old ESM.”
But the opportunity to explain the difference between the old and the new ESM to voters has long since passed. The term is too negative, which is why the non-party Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made it clear in December that the government did not intend to apply for funds from the ESM.
This is only surprising at first glance, because the coalition with Iv and the PD consists of two extremely pro-European parties. But Conte is close to five stars and follows their line on this issue. They do not want to use the ESM under any circumstances – even if that means going through a government crisis in the middle of a pandemic that could even lead to an end of the coalition. That’s exactly what happened now.