Geopolitics on the rocks

Three trends characterising Italy’s internal geopolitics

Europe, Italy

Machiavelli's prophecy, increased regionalism and unbreakable bureaucracy

Italy’s 2013 general election saw the emergence of a system split three-ways.

The centre-left coalition obtained a disappointing 29.55% in the Chamber of Deputies and 31.63% in the Senate, the centre-right scored 29.18% and 30.72% respectively, while the Five Star Movement, running on its own, achieved 25.56% and 23.80%. 

Five years after the 2013 election, the system is still split in three, with a resurgent centre-right, a declining centre-left and a stable Five Star Movement.

How did this happen and what trends will shape Italy’s future in domestic geopolitics? We will briefly assess the following three issues.   

The Past: Machiavelli and the “cruel summer” of 2015

First, it is wrong to consider the December 2016 referendum as the turning point of the last five years. What mattered was rather the summer of 2015, when the state of Italian banks and migration became the two dominant issues in Italian politics.

The government’s failure to cope with the international and political consequences of these two issues at the correct time triggered a long-standing reaction.

More specifically, then prime minister Matteo Renzi has carried this burden since the summer of 2015.

As Machiavelli said, when times and affairs change, someone “is ruined because he does not change his mode of proceeding”.

As far as migration is concerned, this happened because of Italy’s ill-timed reaction to the shift from being a transit country to a country of destination.

Interior Minister Marco Minniti’s multi-faceted response in 2017 came too late. He has acquired personal credibility for his policies among the electorate, causing a backlash on the left.

However, Minniti’s credibility in tackling migration could not be “shared” by the centre-left, while this problem remains the key issue for Italy’s swing voters. 

The Present: Increased regionalism is here to stay

Increased regionalism marks a real shift in the Italy of 2018 compared to 2013.

The debt crisis forced a reduction of monetary transfers from the centre to the periphery. The 2016 referendum was supposed to certify this change. Both the rejection of reforms and local authorities’ reduced ability to invest have fostered a revolt of the peripheries.  

Regional politics therefore have a strong impact on national politics. Regional leaders such as Luca Zaia, Vincenzo De Luca and Michele Emiliano will play a pivotal role in choosing Members of Parliament for the Veneto, Campania and Apulia Regions.

Moreover, none of the three main movements in Italian politics can be certain of their power at a national level. The Democratic Party’s stronghold in the political centre has diminished and is under siege. The Five Star Movement relies on strong support from the young, but remains weak in northern Italy. So far, Di Maio’s visits to the north have been ineffective.

Even in places such as the Veneto, Italy’s regionalism remains mostly a power of veto against national politics rather than a force for drastic change, such as independence.  

The Future: Italian bureaucracy remains at the helm

In order to function properly, every country needs a compromise between elected officials and unelected bureaucrats (pejoratively known as “the Deep State”) so as to advance and defend the national interest.

In Italy, bureaucracy remains at the helm. Neither Renzi nor the Five Star Movement, despite excessive revolutionary claims, have succeeded in entering a new agreement. After five years, Italy is not fond of its political leaders and, more precisely, political leaders are only able to preach to the converted.

Moreover, in the absence of real political parties, after a few years even the anti-establishment ones come to rely on the bureaucrats. For instance, in the event of a strong performance in the March elections, the Five Star Movement is expected to rely on parliamentary bureaucracy as an indispensable tool for policy. 

Therefore, so as to understand Italy’s future, it would be more useful to look for changes in Italy’s bureaucratic apparatus than in the political debate.

So far, European influence on Italy’s economic policy has been significant, while European influence on Italy’s bureaucracy, including revolving doors between the EU and Italy, has been limited.

This specific aspect could change in the near future. The choice of an EU bureaucrat, Mario Nava, as the new head of the Italian Securities and Exchange Commission, could be a sign of things to come.

However, the stability of Italy’s bureaucracy is also linked to the security apparatus in a broad sense, therefore including all police and defence forces.

This sector of Italy’s bureaucracy is well-known and admired by most Italians. Silvio Berlusconi was widely mocked when he proposed a little-known general of the Carabinieri as the next centre-right prime minister.

However, he was simply making clear his intention to preside over this area. Furthermore, Berlusconi’s comeback also means the return of Gianni Letta, Italy’s most experienced ‘bureaucracy whisperer’.