“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a well-used counsel to observe the local tradition or to defer to those with practical experience. This week, it has taken on a slightly different meaning. It is a counsel against heavy-handed foreign intervention in the political affairs of the Italians.
Guenther Oettinger, the EU’s Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, found himself in the centre of a slightly contrived controversy when he made some remarks in a Deutsche Welle interview to the effect that he hoped that Italian voters would learn to avoid handing power to populists of right or left when the economic and market consequences of doing so became clear to them.
Those sentiments were abbreviated, distorted and decried in short order – leading to a semi-apology from Oettinger, a thinly-veiled reprimand from Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, and a distancing statement from Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President.
Even though his sentiments were seized upon unfairly, Oettinger had lapsed into a common condition in the corridors of Brussels, the willingness to make insensitive and condescending remarks about the outcome of elections held in member states of the EU.
Either we accept that the people in each member state are masters in their own houses as regards the way in which they vote or we do not. Finger-wagging at the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Poles, and the Italians because of how they choose to be governed is simply not the job of un-elected EU Commissioners. They are, after all, the servants of a union of sovereign member states whose policies are decided on by their respective electorates.
Emmanuel Macron, right on cue, waded in too.
He supported Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, in his bid to appoint an un-elected technocrat and former IMF official, Carlo Cottarelli, as prime minister in place of Giuseppe Conte, the nominee of the 5-Star/Liga coalition which holds a majority in the Italian parliament.
Macron was not only meddling in an arrogant way; he misunderstood the situation completely.
Mattarella was believed by the great majority of Italians to be abusing his office. He was seen as thwarting democracy. His caretaker nominee, Cottarelli, hadn’t a chance.
The likely result of refusing power to the Conte government would have been another election and an even greater parliamentary majority for the would-be coalition. Such an outcome would have severely weakened the EU and put an end for ever to Macron’s integrationist plans for a sovereign, federal Europe.
Italians were outraged by the actions of their President. The hapless Cottarelli came under a blizzard of rejection and condemnation. He handed back his invitation to form an un-elected government. President Mattarelli was left utterly isolated and widely reviled.
Mattarella was handed a fig-leaf to cover his inevitable climb-down; the 5-Star/Liga coalition partners agreed to shift their proposed finance minister, Paolo Savona, to be the Italian’s Minister for European Affairs, and to give the finance portfolio to Giovanni Tria, an economist who has in the past called for a re-think of the Euro rather than a rejection of it.
And so the Conte government will take office. The coalition is one which is regarded with a good degree of scepticism and not a little horror in Brussels and Paris.
Undoubtedly, the EU establishment is secretly hoping that Conte’s government will collapse in mutual recriminations under the weight of un-fulfilled election promises and hopes, on the one hand, and the cold and un-cooperative disapproval of the EU institutions on the other hand.
One of the new government’s priorities is the issue of immigration. Italy has decided collectively to reject the utterly ineffectual EU approach to immigration and migration. Angela Merkel’s policies, as operated through Brussels, have simply alienated vast swathes of public opinion throughout the EU.
The voters in member states simply do not trust the EU on the migration issue. The very idea that Germany opens its doors to 1 million migrants and invites them to filter through the territories of other member states was absurd. Likewise, the demand that the consequential increase in migration should be shared out compulsorily among the member states was bound to produce the reaction that we witnessed across Europe – not least the rise of the AfD in Merkel’s own backyard.
The Italians bore the brunt of the EU’s failure to address the migration issue firmly and competently. And the nasty rise in racist politics that we have seen in Italy was as predictable as it was unwelcome.
It may well be that Conte’s 5-Star/Liga coalition will go the way of so many Italian governments. We only have to remember the antics of Matteo Renzi’s administration to appreciate how accident-prone Italian politicians can be. It seems such a short time since I was predicting in this column that Renzi was on course to implode.
He tried to distract the poor Italian voters with promises that he was about to bring about a United States of Europe! He arranged a childish photo-call with Merkel and Hollande on an aircraft carrier off the island of Ventotene to re-dedicate the EU to the federalist ambitions embodied in the so-called Ventotene Declaration. A much reduced Merkel is the only remnant of that political triptych.
While Italian nerves may be temporarily soothed, and while Macron will now devote his hyper-active attention to dealing with the protectionist trade tariff war being waged by his “ best buddy of last year”, Donald Trump, we would all be well advised to take a deep breath and consider the state of the EU.
It is a tragedy that the UK is leaving the EU. The Brexit process may yet surprise us all. There may well emerge a new arrangement for the North, Some form of EU/UK customs partnership may still come to pass. A lengthy transition period for Brexit may yet become semi-permanent.
Events in Madrid demonstrate the fluidity of European politics. Who would you prefer to be now – Rajoy or Puidemont?
Macron may well see himself as the answer to the many and disparate problems of Europe – but that is a minority point of view. The EU is not some giant blank canvas on which to paint some French impressionist imagination of neo-napoleonic ambitions. It is a successful partnership of distinctive democracies and that is what it can and should remain.
The Brussels establishment would be well advised to tone down the rhetoric and to concentrate on improving what works in the EU rather than plotting for things that don’t work and won’t work.