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Poverty, the euro and migrants: populism changes the agenda of Italian politics

by Manuela Perrone

The populist threat in Italy has translated into a change in the political agenda. Now that elections in the short-term seem less likely (everything points to a vote not coming before February 2018), we are seeing glimpses of the issues that will be fought over to stem the rise of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the Marine Le Pen-styled right-wing politics of the Northern League.

Three of these issues stand out above all: anti-poverty measures, the position on Europe and the single currency, and immigration. These are the questions that will be contested for the helm of a disorientated country that has become tri-polar, with one significant unknown remaining: the electoral law and the variable geometry of the coalitions that will follow.

The rise of anti-system parties has already had a first effect: to throw out the issue that was the focus of the last electoral campaigns: reforms. The victory of “No” in the December 4 referendum on constitutional reform, with the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the end of his government, has tarnished the appeal the word “reform” had for years in Italy. Renzi pursued reforms tenaciously – school, work, public administration, the voluntary sector – even at the cost of breaking up his Democratic Party (PD) and betting on the survival of the executive. He lost on the constitutional changes. And he failed on justice, running aground in Parliament.

The urgent matter now is another: the need to win the consensus of the poorest in society, who are deaf to the slogans around lowering taxes and tweaks to pensions, and to start to undermine populist tactics by playing on the same ground. It is a risky road, but it has already been taken. From California, where he flew after his resignation as PD secretary and the opening of the party’s congress, Renzi said it explicitly: “In the US I am looking for ideas to beat populism and relaunch the Left.” In the symbolic hotbed of resistance to US President Donald Trump, the ex-premier outlined the new buzzwords: “a system of protection for those who feel cut out.” These are themes that are dear to comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement, which based its fortune on the web and the proposal of a universal measure against poverty.

Grillo and the late Gianroberto Casaleggio’s movement has spoken of the introduction of a “conditional” citizenship “income” for years. It foresees a system of financial coverage worth €17 billion: €780 net per month for unemployed people who are under the poverty line and who respect specific obligations (such as enrolling in a public employment center or starting a course of training or re-qualification).

The governing majority always retorted that the plan was impractical. But now Renzi has partially changed direction, proposing citizenship “work.” It is an old idea that is even shared by the Right, by Forza Italia leader and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is weighing up a proposal to legally guarantee a 3-month occupation to whoever asks for one, ensuring in return the right to spend the same amount of time with unemployment benefits. A signal has already arrived: Parliament has approved the delegated law against poverty which launches the “inclusion income” for about 400,000 families: up to €480 a month for the poorest family units.

What is much more difficult is following M5S and the Northern League’s war against the euro. After the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory, the rhetoric against the single currency, identified as the origin of all troubles, especially for small and medium-sized companies, risks winning over many Italians. When faced with the drastic solution of leaving the euro, Renzi instead proposes a “unified tax system in all of Europe” and the fight for a Europe of growth against a Europe of austerity and bureaucracy. Berlusconi has meanwhile launched a proposal for a double currency (the euro can be maintained for transactions abroad, banking operations and aspects related to the public debt, while the lira could be used for internal trade). This is tactical repositioning, useful also for trying to keep the Center Right united.

The final and crucial issue is that of immigration. The 5-Star Movement, in part, and the Northern League, with more conviction, converge on the hard-line approach, as shown by the repeated endorsements of Trump. The Left – both that of the PD and that of the new forces born out of dissent against Renzi’s leadership – are targeting a mix of integration and migrant reception, accompanied by measures to accelerate repatriations and cut the times of asylum requests. This is the direction that has just been set by Premier Paolo Gentiloni’s government. Who knows if it will be enough to impose on nationalist forces.