EU Elections series: Italy, the troublemaking country

Summer 2019 will be remembered as a summer of great uncertainty for the European Union. From the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the EU bloc to the political mid-summer crisis triggered by the leader of the Italian far-right populist party The League, Matteo Salvini last week, the situation in Europe seems to be quite unstable.

But, for once, let’s leave Brexit aside and focus on the Boot: What is going on in Italy? Last Thursday, 8th August, the leader of the League Matteo Salvini pulled the plug on the Italian populist-led government stating, “Let’s immediately head back to parliament to ascertain this government no longer has a majority”.

Tensions between the League and the other ruling party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (5SM), have been building since Salvini’s League emerged as Italy’s biggest party in the European elections in May 2019. The crisis later intensified over issues including proposed tax cuts by the League and Five Star’s decision to back Ursula von der Leyen, the pro-EU German ally of Angel Merkel, to become president of the European Commission. The conflict finally exploded after the government broke up over a failed parliamentary effort on Wednesday 7th August to stop the controversial Turin-Lyon high-speed rail link, the blocking of which has always formed a central part of the 5SM’s political agenda.

Following the break-up, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was forced to recall the Italian parliament from its summer break for a vote of no confidence, a motion requested by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. On Monday afternoon, 12th August, leaders of the country’s parliamentary parties will meet to discuss the proposed motion. Despite the fact that it is expected it will pass, a snap election is not a done deal yet, as President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, will ultimately have the last word and decide whether to call a new vote as early as October or install a “technical” government based on an alternative majority in parliament.

To be able to contrast Salvini’s rising electoral support, which is currently polling at 38% (more than double than the result in last year’s general elections), a small fraction of the opposition, represented by the left-wing Democratic Party (PD), secretly floated the idea of forming an alliance with the 5SM as this “would be the only way to prevent Italy from getting Europe’s first right-wing government since World War II”. The plan, which was named “Ursula”, after the European Commission President-elect as it would bring together the Italian parties that supported her in the European Parliament, would represent a way to create an alternative majority for a caretaker government to secure Italy’s public finances and avoid crashing out of the eurozone under the Eurosceptic League. But this plan has even been strongly opposed by the current PD’s own leader, Nicola Zingaretti, who, on Sunday, fiercely ruled out the possibility of such an alliance.

With this troublemaking country being (once again) on the brick of a constitutional crisis, things look quite tough for Brussels and for Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen. A candidate for the Italian Commissioner and a portfolio has not been agreed yet within the Italian government, with Salvini pressing, back in July, for an economic portfolio, such as trade. However, it is highly unlikely that Italy will get a trade portfolio, considering the League’s position against free trade deals like CETA and TTIP. It remains to be seen whether the government will put forward a name in the coming weeks. But, in view of the scale of the current domestic political crisis, Italian politicians will certainly need to get a grip and sort out the future of the country.

The multilingual Whitehouse team are experts in politics and policy development across the European Union, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients. More information about our European experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our European Director, Viviana Spaghetti, at