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The Same but Different: Italy’s new governing coalition

July 12, 2018

Max Rodgers – Research Assistant

For decades, Italian politics has been ruled by instability. In the period from 1946 to 2016, Italy had 65 governments. By comparison, the UK had only 25 in the same timeframe. With such volatility, it therefore might come as a surprise to some that the new Italian government, the 66th since 1946, is the first one that can lay claim to a populist label.

Consisting of Lega Nord, a party embodying values of right wing nationalism, Euroscepticism and anti-immigration; and the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment, big tent party encompassing ideas from the left and right; the match has been defined in terms of their common ground on Euroscepticism, immigration and anti-establishment policies. With the focus pressing strongly on these areas, others such as security, defence and foreign policy have not received much attention by comparison.

Both Lega Nord and Five Star have pro-Russia views when it comes to foreign policy. Lega Nord has signed a co-operation protocol with United Russia, the party of President Putin. This followed in the wake of their opposition to the 2014 international sanctions against Russia for actions in the Crimea and their support of Russian efforts against ISIL. Like their coalition partners, Five Star also support the removal of sanctions against Russia, though there are some areas of deviation with Lega Nord. Five Star leader Luigi di Maio adopted a cautious attitude on the US, UK and French airstrikes on Syria in April, whereas Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini was far more critical.

Both parties have been skeptical of Italy’s membership of NATO, as well as the alliance’s current direction. Some of this criticism was softened during the campaign, but in light of their mutual pro-Russian stances, it would not be surprising to see a continuation of their calls for NATO to reorient away from Eastern Europe to carry over into government. Five Star also committed to abolishing Italy’s F-35 fighter procurement program if elected and wants to limit defence spending generally. For Lega Nord, defence spending does not appear to be a priority and with their pro-Russia and anti-NATO sympathies, it would not be surprising for them to go along with Five Star’s ambitions for defence cutbacks.

Immigration is also considered the critical national security issue for the two, with both framing immigration in security terms. Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who founded Five Star, called for the Schengen agreement, which has largely abolished internal border checks within the EU, to be temporarily suspended in the event of terrorist attacks. Lega Nord also define their anti-immigration policies in terms of stopping terrorism, arguing that Islamic extremism poses the greatest security risk.

However, Lega Nord strongly defines itself as being against Islam in general, arguing that it is incompatible with Western values. Similarly, di Maio once called for an “immediate stop to the sea-taxi service bringing migrants to Europe”. With such comments being made from both, there is definite cause to show the two parties view immigration less in security terms and more in cultural and economic ones. Lega Nord in particular has a history of denouncements by many for racism and xenophobia. Their proposals for mass deportations of migrants back to home countries also feeds into the idea of their anti-immigration motivations being cultural rather than security fed.

In spite of this however, their fervency on immigration and public framing of it as the most critical issue for national security shows that whilst their motivations for anti-immigration policies come from cultural and economic biases, it will be considered a security issue also by both during their time in government.

Whilst there are areas of great agreement on foreign, security and defence issues between the two parties, there is capacity for splits going forward, as a result of the governing situation. Salvini and di Maio serve as Deputy Prime Ministers in the new government, with Salvini also as Minister of the Interior and di Maio as Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Social Policy. Giuseppe Conte, a former law professor plucked from obscurity as a compromise candidate for Prime Minister, officially leads the government but is not a party leader.

Since assuming power on 1 June, the new government has established itself in several ways. Salvini announced the closure of Italian ports to migrant rescue ships – a measure that included refusing the Aquarius, a vessel carrying 600 migrants, docking permission at a port. Salvini also announced plans for a census of Romani people in Italy for the purpose of deporting any in Italy illegally, in a move labeled as unconstitutional by the opposition and even Luigi di Maio, marking the first major split between the two party leaders in government.

Conte recently met with President Trump at the G7, becoming the only leader to back his proposal to readmit Russia into the group. In tandem, Conte also urged more moderation on Trump’s tariffs on EU exports, yet managed to avoid the kind of ire directed at Justin Trudeau by Trump, instead being praised by the President. Conte has also advocated the removal of international sanctions against Russia whilst proclaiming support for NATO, straddling a fine line between not just his coalition but also international players.

Whilst the government has been in power for only a month, it displays a radical departure from the policies of the Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni governments. In the 2013 to 2018 period in which the three governed, at the height of the migrant crisis, Italy took in around 700,000 migrants from Libya. In contrast, Conte recently rebuked Macron for saying Italy has acted irresponsibly with its new immigration policy whilst also clashing with other EU leaders – most notably Merkel and the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez at an EU summit to address the migration issue.

With the immigration and Russia policies of the Conte government, it is clear Italy is now governed by figures wanting to break from the conventional foreign, security and defence policies commonly agreed upon by Western leaders – with the exception of Trump – over the last few years. The US president now has a European ally who is far more likely to support his whims and the same will undoubtedly apply for Vladimir Putin. The key question remains as to whether the Conte government, with its populist nature and new coalition, will survive amidst the winds of change it will herald to Italy.

Image: Giuseppe Conte’s government (source:  Presidenza della Repubblica)

About Max Rodgers

Max Rodgers is a recent graduate of the University of Warwick, having successfully completed an MA in US Foreign Policy and prior to that a BA in Politics and International Studies. His research interests include US politics and foreign policy, particularly in a Cold War to present setting; international relations within the Asia-Pacific; the politics of intelligence/national security, and finally perceptions of US superpower status in the Obama and Trump eras. He has previously interned at the Spectator and in Parliament, as well as being the Summit Coordinator of the Warwick Economics Summit, the largest student run economics based conference in Europe.