When Italy’s voters handed a majority to two populist, anti-euro parties almost 3 months ago, the political establishment as aghast as America’s establishment was on November 9, 2016. An outsider unbound by – even contemptuous – of the norms that kept national policies within the bounds favored by the elites was about to take office. In each country, but in different ways, the respective establishments attempted to frustrate the will of the voters and prevent the outsiders from taking office.
Donald Trump took office on the constitutionally-prescribed date, thought he attempt to unseat him continues. In Italy the attempt took the form of the mostly-symbolic president of the Republic of Italy declining to certify the prime minister and cabinet proposed by the coalition government of the two populist parties, the Five Star and the League. Christopher Caldwell described the situation in The Weekly Standard:
By May, the parties were ready to roll, with a broad coalition agreement and a full team of cabinet members. But at that point Italy’s mostly ceremonial president, Sergio Mattarella, stepped in. He blocked the appointment of economics minister Paolo Savona, on the grounds that Savona had long been skeptical about the common European currency, the euro.
The vast majority of Italians are skeptical about the euro, too, of course. Their skepticism is part of what brought M5S and the League to power in the first place. But confronted with an assertion of official authority, politicians and the public have tended to roll over. Yes, the establishment did run up too much debt in the past—about $2.7 trillion, as it happens. But that means one false move could spell catastrophe! There was a lot of warning about “lo spread,” as the obsessively charted difference between German and Italian bond rates is called. President Mattarella asked Carlo Cottarelli, a longtime employee of the despised International Monetary Fund, to lead a technocratic government, hopefully until 2019.
Big mistake! Italian voters, like the Trump base, do not like being told by elites that their concerns and their votes are of not weight. The populists did not meekly submit:
But this time was different. The two new anti-establishment leaders did not fall into line. They called the Cottarelli appointment a scam. Matteo Salvini of the League called for fresh elections in the fall. Luigi Di Maio of M5S called for nationwide demonstrations on June 2 and the impeachment of Mattarella. Strange that Savona’s opposition to the euro was a disqualification to serve in government, Di Maio said, since, to judge from governments past, being a liar or a thief was not. So much of the country rallied behind Di Maio and Salvini that not even the pro-euro Democratic party (PD), chased out of office over the winter, dared to back Cottarelli.
On Monday, May 28, there was the beginning of a run on Italy’s bonds. The market was more nervous about the “responsible” Cottarelli than it had been about the “irresponsible” Salvini and Di Maio.
The elites had gone too far in their contempt for the voters. Yesterday, the new populist government was sworn in. It is a rebuke of elites, and of the European Union-centric worldview of the transnational bloc, even more stinging than President Trump’s withdrawal from globalist multilateral arrangements like the Transpacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord.
So powerful is this impulse toward both nationalism and populism that even columnist Roger Cohen of the New York Times has hailed the new government in Italy while expressing his disgust with it.
…let me make it clear that the victorious parties entering government in Italy — the xenophobic League and the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement — bring together bigotry and incompetence to an unusual degree. They are a miserable bunch borne aloft on the global anti-liberal tide.
Still, they won. The results of democratic elections have to be respected. I have immense respect for the wisdom, however hard to discern, of voters, even if I may profoundly disagree with their choices. That is why, when it seemed earlier in the week that Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, had blocked the formation of this government over concerns that the proposed finance minister favored Italy’s withdrawal from the euro, I despaired.
Later on in his column, Cohen darkly hints of the EU being able to frustrate the will of Italian voters – after playing the Hitler card:
With democracies, you get to throw the bums out when they mess up, not block them from assuming the power they won at the ballot.
I know, Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933 after a democratic election. Vigilance is imperative, particularly in these troubling times when independent judiciaries and a free press are under consistent attack. But a core beauty of the European Union is that its interlocking institutions are designed precisely to ensure that no country can go off on what the Germans call a Sonderweg — the sort of wayward path of nationalism and mysticism and racism that led Germany, and all of Europe, to ruin.
Yes, European nationalism has a dark side, but transnationalism’s fondness for disregarding the will of ordinary people is the current danger. An undemocratic European Union bureaucracy regulates the smallest details of life, and the EU tries to impose mass migration of populations hostile to local values and unwilling to assimilate on the countries of Europe. It is not xenophobia to resist the imposition of sharia zones.
Financial markets may not like instability caused by threats to the euro. But they will like even less the results of top-down social, demographic and economic transformations that harm majorities in the EU’s member states.