Does The Italexit Party Have A Future?

Yet one more anti-EU party has been added to the fold. In an increasingly eurosceptic country like Italy, it shouldn't be underestimated.

Yet one more anti-EU party has been added to the fold. In an increasingly eurosceptic country like Italy, it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Last month, Senator Gianluigi Paragone, a former journalist and TV presenter, founded a new party called Italexit. It will be clear from the name that it intends to follow in the footsteps of Nigel Farage, whose UK Independence Party (UKIP) led the charge during the run-up to the 2016 referendum in propelling the United Kingdom out of the European Union.

Paragone has indeed drawn a great deal of inspiration from the man who — regardless of his positions — is probably one of the most successful politicians of the last decade. The two sat down for a cozy chat two days before Paragone announced his new endeavour in the Italian Chamber of Deputies. When asked by a journalist if he sees himself as the Italian Farage, he confidently replied that one who follows a gold-medalist is bound to achieve something.

Paragone prides himself in being known as a Eurosceptic, and throughout his journalistic career he has made quite an effort to make that label stick. In 2005 he was the chief editor of La Padania, the official paper of the then Northern League (Lega Nord), a secessionist party that would later become the largest opposition member under Matteo Salvini’s leadership.

After two years he moved to the right-leaning Milanese journal Libero as assistant editor. In 2009, he began hosting a talk show for RAI, the Italian public broadcaster, and was eventually promoted to the position of deputy director for RAI 1 — a move that was much protested by the then-president Paolo Garimberti for deviating from the in-house selection tradition. Around this time, Paragone published his first book, whose title translates as Invasion: How foreigners are conquering us and we are surrendering. Vulgar, perhaps, but transparent in giving us a taste of the man’s politics.

After leading the talk shows La gabbia (2013–2017) and In onda (2015), he hitched his wagon to the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) in 2017 during the opposition campaign to the so-called Lorenzin Decree, which sought to make vaccinations mandatory for all Italian citizens.A year later he ran in the general elections for a seat in Parliament with the M5S and was elected to the Senate. His position there was quickly jeopardized by his decision to vote against the budget of the second Conte government, which was formed by the M5S abandoned its main plank and decided to form a coalition with its sworn enemy, the Democratic Party (PD). He said of the law that it “follows the logic of the balance-sheet cage imposed by Brussels.”

The official manifesto of the Italexit party embodies the left-wing brand of Euroscepticism that has gained much ground among the Latin countries. Like the Spanish left-wing populist party Podemos and the left-wing and radical left coalition Greek party Syriza, it portrays the European project as a neoliberal construct that imposes on societies the rule of globalized financial markets at the expense of national monetary sovereignty. The politics of austerity imposed by the European Commission are seen as the main enemy of economic recovery.

But the party also draws from the right-wing movements popular in the more productive Northern European nations. It expresses the sense that unregulated mass immigration into Europe has undermined social cohesion, increased levels of crime, and lowered standards of living for native workers. However, it differs from this view in asserting that unfettered global trade has taken away jobs and industry, weakened interior demand, and decreased the standards of goods produced within the country. In this, it is particularly at odds with Farage’s Thatcherism, which is peculiar to an economy that does not feel the pains of deindustrialization as much as one based on metallurgy, textile and automobile manufacture.

There are, however, a number of contradictions in its political statement. It seeks to chafe away at the bureaucratic apparatus that ensnares small and medium businesses in endless time-wasting and loss of productivity, but at the same time strives to enlarge the public sector to make up for those jobs which can not be supplied by the market — this in order to achieve “full employment.” It dreams of an industrial rebirth while subjecting industries to more rigid environmental regulations.

That Italy should leave the Union is not a new suggestion. Both the League (Lega) and the M5S made it a major part of their platforms during the 2018 race, but they were quickly shaken out of such a daring idea. During discussions on who to nominate appoint Minister of the Economy in a coalition government with the President of the Republic, the esteemed economist Paolo Savona was met with a cold veto because of his critical views of the Eurozone, and for having suggested that Italy’s exit is one of only two ways in which the country can surmount its colossal public debt. The other path, he thought, could only be full integration into a supranational state. The mere suggestion that a Eurosceptic economist could occupy such an important roffice sent shivers down a large slice of the pro-Brussells establishment.

Those two parties have, however, abandoned their plans to leave the European Union ever since they first set foot in the halls of power. This cost them a significant portion of their electorate, which sees the EU as a lost cause. Italexit, by being a single-issue party, may inspire more trust in this disillusioned base and capitalize on its resentment. Today, we can make a rough sketch of how popular Paragone’s party actually is, and whether Italians, in general, wish to leave the European club.

During his announcement in the Parliament, Paragone mentioned a poll taken by the Piepoli Institute which found that around 7 percent of Italians would vote to leave the bloc. This will no doubt be affected by the calamitous consequences of the coronavirus shutdown on the national economy, the perceived initial failure of the Union to support Italy, and the related blunders committed by the government in its furloughing schemes.

The political analyst and poll expert Renato Mannheimer, when asked about the prospect of Italy withdrawing from the EU, said in in anterview with Al Jazeera that Italian feelings had “swung widely over the past few months […] though we remain the country that trusts Brussels the least.” He went on to say that the initial failure of the EU to respond to the Covid-19 crisis adequately did not last very long in the face of the new 750 billion recovery package agreement. “Most Italians don’t want to leave the EU. Only about 30 percent — rising to 40 percent in some moments — say yes to leaving. I don’t believe Paragone’s party can build a large enough following for Italexit.”

But the support this party will be able to acquire will be less determined by gestures of financial solidarity than by material conditions. The European Central Bank’s (ECB) pandemic emergency purchase program is a necessary stimulus in times of crisis, but one should not expect it to bankroll highly-indebted countries indefinitely. The stimuli will end, and when they do, people may start to realize that Christine Lagarde meant it when she said that the ECB’s role is not to control spreads.

Economic analyst Wolfgang Münchau wrote in the Financial Times back in April that “the main function of a recovery fund will be to serve as an attention-seeking device for idle European institutions making no macroeconomic impact whatsoever in a €12 trillion economy.” Eventually, rating agencies and investors will start to question Italy’s solvency. The problem is not only the high levels of outstanding debt, but also the country’s stagnant growth rate.

This is the third recession in Italy since 2008, and each time the economy has emerged weaker and less able to service its debt. A scenario where rating agencies recognize this and attach sequential credit downgrades as a result may become likely. At this point, the full depth of the recession will become apparent, and Italexit might gain in its popularity during the next general election in 2021 or 2022. If that moment comes, it may be able to push for a referendum, but it will need the support of its sister anti-EU parties to force the bill through parliament. Whether the League or the Five Star Movement will then rediscover their true nature is impossible to predict.

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