Italy: autonomism, premiership and European elections

La primera ministra italiana, Giorgia Meloni, gesticula mientras habla durante una reunión con el primer ministro británico, Rishi Sunak, en el segundo día de la Cumbre de Seguridad sobre Inteligencia Artificial (IA) del Reino Unido en Bletchley Park, en el centro de Inglaterra, el 2 de noviembre de 2023 - PHOTO/POOL/AFP/JOE GIDDENS
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni gestures as she speaks during a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the second day of the UK's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Security Summit at Bletchley Park in central England on November 2, 2023 - PHOTO/POOL/AFP/JOE GIDDENS

The 19th Legislature of the history of republican Italy is getting closer and closer to its first year and a half of life and, beyond elections to the government of a specific region (Abruzzo, Basilicata or Sardinia), the European elections in June are on the horizon.  

  1. Good predictions for Giorgia Meloni 
  2. European elections as a sample of the political scenario 

These are elections in which not only the composition of the European Parliament must be chosen, but also, in the following months, the new president of the Commission (with its vice-presidents and 27 corresponding commissioners, one for each member state of the European Union); the new president of the European Council; and the person in charge of leading EU diplomacy. Outside of this is the presidency of the European Central Bank (ECB), in the hands of France's Christine Lagarde since October 2019 (and with a mandate until 2027) and also the presidency of the "Eurogroup" (made up of the countries that have adopted the single currency, of which there are now twenty), which has had a president for three years alone. 

These elections to renew the European Parliament are an important "test" to find out how the transalpine public views the Meloni government, in carica since 22 October 2022, and which is based on a centre-right coalition made up basically of three parties (Tajani's Forza Italia, the Brothers of Italy of the "premier" Meloni and Salvini's League). We are not forgetting former minister Maurizio Lupi's "Noi moderati", but it should be remembered that it did not enter the government formed in the penultimate week of October 2022, and still does not. 

Good predictions for Giorgia Meloni 

As of today, all polls show that Premier Meloni has increased her popularity rating from 26% in the September 2022 elections to 29-30% today. Matteo Salvini, in turn, remains at almost 9% of the vote, while Tajani is the one who is losing the most votes, since, after his party achieved 8.1% just over a year ago, most polls give him between 6 and 7%. 

Of course, in politics, six months is a world (in reality there are five months to go until the European elections), and it seems that Meloni will be losing support among voters during this period. She followed the "road map" imposed on her by the European Union to the letter, with a State Budget that immediately got the "green light" from the Commission, and the consequence was that the risk premium went from 210 basis points to just over 150 today. Moreover, the only rating agency that still kept it within the "A" range, Fitch, rated the sovereign debt of the eurozone's third largest economy as "stable with a positive outlook", so, at least for the time being, there will be no conflicts with investors and public debt holders. 

But that's just the macroeconomic picture, and we have just learned that the country grew by a paltry 0.7% in 2023, compared with 8.3% in 2021 and 3.3% in 2022. A 0.7% which, given the persistent rise in the price of raw materials in a country that still has a strong secondary sector, could mean that growth will not rise above 0.5% over the course of the current year, not to say that the country is closer to recession than it seems: all it takes is two quarters of negative growth to technically enter recession. 

If the macroeconomic reality is not what Mario Draghi left behind when he left the Presidency of the Council of Ministers almost a year and a half ago, the microeconomy is even worse. Because more than 3 million transalpine citizens are at risk of social exclusion; the more than 16 million pensioners have, in more than a few cases, major difficulties in paying for their basic needs (with a health system on the verge of collapse); and young people are earning ever lower salaries and finding it increasingly difficult to emancipate themselves from their parents. 

European elections as a sample of the political scenario 

The truth is that the European elections, even if they are taken as a minor issue, are often a warning of what is to come. One example is what happened with Matteo Salvini and the previous European elections, held in May 2019: the League leader won 34% of the vote, doubling what he himself achieved in the March 2018 general elections. This important achievement of the Lombard politician, who definitively relegated the two previous leaders of the League (Umberto Bossi and the late Roberto Maroni) to oblivion, was the result of Salvini's skilful negotiation with Five Stars, securing a portfolio of Interior from which he carried out a very aggressive policy of "closed ports" to irregular immigration that reached 70% support among the transalpine citizenry. Consequence of all this: victory after victory in each election for the government of a region (Abruzzo, Basilicata, Sardinia, etc.), until, in January 2020, through the action and mobilisation of an unexpected social movement (known as "The Sardines"), the left managed to stop Salvini when he was about to take over the main "rosso" bastion (Emilia-Romagna).  

Salvini would then make two mistakes that he would pay dearly for, which were none other than to bring down a government in August 2019 and then a second one in July 2022 (this was even worse considering the brilliance with which Mario Draghi was managing the economy and the management of European funds). Hence, when new general elections were held in September 2022, Salvini not only failed to repeat the 34% of May 2019, but also failed to repeat the 17.1% of 2018: he was left with a paltry 8.8%, serving on a "silver platter" to his colleague Meloni the huge electoral victory that she achieved, and which has made the Roman politician the president of the Council of Ministers from 22 October 2022 to the present. Salvini managed to enter the executive, but in addition to becoming deputy prime minister once again, President Mattarella made sure that he could not return to the Interior, sending him to a portfolio (Infrastructure) in which Salvini can hardly make a splash, since the budget for airports, ports and other means of communication is decreasing. 

Meloni, in turn, has been faced with the fact that either she complies with the deficit and debt targets imposed by the European Union, or the Fitch agency (because Moody's and Standard & Poor's already did so at the time) downgrades the national debt rating to "bono-basura", something very serious for the eurozone's third largest economy. As a result, Meloni has no money for some of the measures she wanted to implement, such as boosting the birth rate in a country in the midst of a "demographic winter". 

Both know that, whatever happens, the centre-right coalition will remain in power until, foreseeably, the end of the legislature (September 2027), after eleven years of "crossing the desert". But they also know that they will go to the electorate empty-handed. And the situation will be worse for Meloni than for Salvini, not only because, in the end, she is the one who presides over the Council of Ministers and is more exposed to public opinion, but also because a new wave of irregular immigrants will surely arrive, which, at least throughout 2023, the current "premier" was unable to contain. 

So both have devised measures to try to please their electorate, and both have in common the fact that they have no budgetary cost. In Meloni's case, reforming the Presidency of the Government, in the sense of ensuring a full legislature for whoever wins the next general election; in Salvini's case, recovering the issue of "autonomism", which comes from the times when Umberto Bossi led the League. Let's take it one step at a time. 

Meloni is not wrong when she says that it does not make sense that the presidents of the regions, as well as the mayors, are guaranteed a five-year mandate (a mandate that they secure with a clear majority or through a second round or "ballotaggio") and, in contrast, the president of the Council of Ministers changes every year or two years (in the same legislature, on the basis that it lasts five years, it is normal to have at least three different executives). Nor does it make sense that the prime minister cannot dismiss or appoint the members of the executive she heads, as this function falls to the president of the Republic, although it is true that, in general, the head of state only intervenes in three or four fundamental portfolios (Economy and Finance, Defence, Interior and Justice, and some others such as Foreign Affairs, depending on the circumstances) and in the rest of the ministries, with or without a portfolio, she gives freedom to whoever is going to preside over the Council of Ministers. 

But what Meloni does not want to see, or at least does not want to acknowledge publicly, is that moving from a temporary mandate to a mandate to legislate implies a full-fledged constitutional reform, weakening the power of the Quirinal, the seat of the Presidency of the Republic. With this reform, the head of state would find that he would no longer be able to appoint a specific person as head of government, appoint ministers or, finally, decide whether or not to bring forward elections. In other words, it would move from a proportional electoral system to a majority system, following the French model, which ensures the President of the Republic (currently Macron) five consecutive years at the head of the Elysée Palace, deciding, in turn, who heads the government (which is none other than his prime minister, currently Gabrielle Attal). 

The reform attempted by the Roman Meloni is, in this sense, simply unfeasible: Matteo Renzi already tried in December 2016 to eliminate one of the two legislative chambers (the Senate became the "Chamber of the Regions") and the citizens "sent him home" with 59% of votes against. All that remains is for the Democratic Party (PD) to wave the flag of "neo-fascism" (given how hard it has been for Meloni to get rid of this label) that the Roman leader is supposedly trying to impose, and to contrast the figure of the increasingly weakened leader with the very popular Sicilian Mattarella (who would be the one to suffer from the reform), so that, in an eventual "referendum", Meloni would end up like Renzi: straight "home" and without achieving his "star" reform. Of course, as happened with the current senator for Campania, it may have the effect of distracting the electorate for a while, but no more. Let us remember, in this regard, that a reform of this type has to be carried out with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, and, as the centre-right does not have one, it would go to a referendum that would be the end of Meloni's mandate: in a country where Alcide de Gasperi devised "perfect bicameralism" (two chambers with equal legislative capacity) as a response to Mussolini's fascism, any reform aimed at weakening the president of the Republic is very unlikely to go ahead. 

In turn, Salvini, having seen his ultra-nationalism ("Italy for the Italians") collapse, has returned to the path of autonomism. An autonomism that the founder of the League, Umberto Bossi, tried to impose in his time, given the fact that his secessionist yearnings for northern Italy were simply unfeasible. Thus, the now deputy prime minister has achieved a first parliamentary approval of the path towards autonomism, but it remains to be seen whether he will actually achieve a federal state in what the constitution affirms as a "unitary republic". 

Moreover, Salvini's reform is completely outdated compared to what Bossi intended at the time. Indeed, Bossi spoke of a "thieving Rome" that supposedly took money from the north of the country to subsidise the more southern, much less industrialised and poorer area as a whole. But the reality is that, at the moment, the population is concentrated in northern Italy, with a single region (Lombardy) housing 26-27% of the national total (16 million out of almost 60). And another region in the north (Veneto) and one in the centre-north (Emilia-Romagna) are also heavily populated.  

So, knowing that "autonomism" means "control of taxation", what is the point of this autonomism: to prevent the Ministry of Economy and Finance from stopping the collection of money that is mainly destined for the northernmost area? Because, let's bear in mind, Sardinia, Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia have long had most of their populations either working in the north of the country or even outside it (remember that in the UK alone there are more than 700,000 Italians registered). But Salvini has the same problem as his coalition partner Meloni: he has to come up with something for his voters in the run-up to the European elections, and unlike in the past, he cannot attack a government of which he is no less than deputy prime minister and head of infrastructure. 

In reality, Salvini had planned to carry out, like Meloni, his "star measure": the bridge over the Strait of Messina, connecting mainland and island Italy. But a project of such magnitude (which other transalpine leaders had already talked about at the time but were unable to carry out), given the current rise in the price of raw materials, is even more unfeasible than the birth rate policies that Meloni wanted to put in place. So now it is time to talk about autonomy and to give the impression to voters that something is being done, even if it is almost laughable at the moment. 

There are still five months to go before the European elections and there are hardly any rivals that could weaken the centre-right: Schlein's PD is still barely rising in voter intention, Five Star is not even known what it is and Matteo Renzi, leader of Italia Viva, is still very unpopular, although in all the polls his party has ceased to be "extra-parliamentary". But this does not mean that Meloni and Salvini will be significantly weakened in these elections, as they will probably not even come close to achieving half of the votes obtained in the previous elections for the European Parliament: however, they are guaranteed a significant increase in electoral support compared to the very poor figures obtained in September 2022. So the two will try to lead the debate on the two aforementioned issues ("premiership" and autonomism), but we will see whether it is of much or little use: time will tell. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Camilo José Cela University (UCJC) and author of the book "Italia, 2018-2023. De la esperanza a la desafección" (Madrid, Liber Factory, 2023).