The Italian Government

02.06.18 Publication:

No one knows how to label the new government. Calling it “populist” seems bizarre given that Italian politics has been dominated for two decades by the original populist, Silvio Berlusconi. Calling it anti-establishment also seems weird given that Lega is Italy’s oldest party and took part in all Berlusconi’s coalitions, that 8 of the 18 ministers are unelected figures with eminent, mainstream professional careers, and that several already have ministerial experience. We can’t label it the Conte government as he is just a figurehead. OK then: let’s just call it the Cinque Stelle-Lega government and get on with something more important. Let’s work out how to judge its performance.

You might say that the 55-page “contract” the two parties have signed gives us ample scope to assess how they are doing. But a lot of it is abstract waffle, full of contradictions. Instead, I am going to outline 10 measures by which I will judge whether this government has been a success or a failure, either in five years’ time or whenever the government ceases.

  1. Have they made a real effort to improve the justice system and attack corruption? Top of my list is not something which was discussed much during the election campaign and is not a classic measure: justice. But this is the key issue that defines why so many disparate people have voted repeatedly for Five Star. And it is a central factor in Italy’s economic weakness as well as in popular disenchantment with government. In five years’ time, will justice be faster, will conflicts of interest have been outlawed, will corruption be in decline, will the rule of law be stronger? If so, hope will have been restored for many Italians, and foreigners like me will have been impressed.
  2. In tightening up policy on immigration, have they been humane and serious, or just bigoted? This is Lega’s flagship policy, and Matteo Salvini’s direct responsibility as Minister for the Interior, so we can expect action. Already, under the previous government, the flow of arrivals across the Mediterranean has dropped dramatically. My test, as Salvini gets down to work, will be whether he targets real, sustainable outcomes, in a humane manner, or just looks for headlines and political gestures. His “go home” tweet last week with the video of an immigrant with a pigeon was not a good sign, but he wasn’t quite a minister then.
  3. Did they just dismantle other governments’ actions for political reasons, or really try to improve things? A terrible sin of President Donald Trump, and he has many, has been his vindictive attitude to any policy implemented by his predecessor. My Italian test will similarly be whether the new government works to develop the EU Defence and Security Strategy built and promoted by Federica Mogherini as EU High Representative, to help control migrant flows, or will it just shun it, since she comes from the PD. The same applies to the Fornero Law on pensions: will they repeal it, just because Elsa Fornero was in the Monti government, or will they improve it, accepting that early retirement and uncontrolled spending on pensions are what make Italy’s public finances so strained, stealing money away education, among others?
  4. Economic growthwill matter, of course, but wages and household incomes are the real indicator. The central battle with Brussels will be over the government’s desire to stimulate faster growth by expanding public spending and cutting taxes. However the real test of such policies – including Luigi di Maio’s cherished “Citizen’s Income” – must be whether they actually raise the living standards of typical Italians, for the first time in more than a decade.
  5. When the government tries innovative policies – such as the Citizen’s Income or the so-called “Flat Tax” – will it do so in a way that is serious, coherent and fair? After Italy’s long stagnation, innovation is needed. But not just for its own sake. During the election, it felt as if the parties’ main economic policies had been worked out on the back of envelopes or bar napkins, not after serious study. To be credible, they had better be more serious and professional from now on.
  6. Has Italy become a more open society, or a more closed one? Corruption, the lack of meritocracy, inequality, the weak rule of law all arise from a lack of openness and of competition, with power concentrated in too few hands. If the new government is serious about dealing with these ills, it will need to make the country more meritocratic and transparent, and not more closed.
  7. Has the government made a serious effort to improve public administration? Without a more efficient, better functioning state apparatus, no public policies can succeed, or not for long. No recent government has tried to do anything much about this very basic but vital issue.
  8. Is Italy more respected, in Europe and the world, at the end of the government’s term or less? As the new team starts work, most foreign governments seem nervous of what it might do. In five years’ time, a key goal should be to make sure they have a new respect for Italy’s seriousness and its future prospects.
  9. Perhaps the most crucial test of all: are the best new graduates still emigrating in search of opportunities or are they more inclined to stay in Italy? Are past products of the great brain drain starting to consider coming back, as they see real change in the opportunities, meritocracy and legality back home?
  10. Are the party leaders still talking to each other, or are they at each other’s throats? This is a stiff test for all coalitions, in every country. But the truth is that Italy needs a decade of consistent, painstaking reform. If the first government in seven years to have a proper parliamentary majority just collapses in acrimony, that will be a bad omen.

I’ll be watching you, labelless Cinque Stelle-Lega government.