While the Germans have a government at last, Italy’s right turn will add to the EU’s problems
Jon Henley European affairs correspondent
It took barely 12 hours for a collective sigh of relief to turn into a collective intake of breath; less than a day for smiles of European satisfaction to be transformed into frowns of European concern.
At 10.30am on Sunday in Berlin, Germany’s centre-left SPD announced that on a turnout of 72%, more than two in three of its members had voted to approve a fresh GroKo, or grand coalition, with the centre-right CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party. Their decision ended five months of political uncertainty in Berlin, clearing the way for chancellor Angela Merkel to form her fourth government and move forward on a range of fronts – including ambitious plans for EU and eurozone reform pushed by France’s pro-European president, Emmanuel Macron.
Macron immediately hailed the development as “good news for Europe”. France and Germany, he said, “will work together on new initiatives … to bring the European project forward”.
But shortly after 10pm in Rome, early exit polls from Italy’s general election suggested that just as one big EU member state and major eurozone economy was emerging from political stalemate, another was about to enter it.
In delivering a horrendously hung parliament, Italy’s voters had also turned their back on their mainstream ruling parties, with a majority backing populist, anti-establishment, hard-right and broadly EU-critical candidates.
Parties in the Italian election
The poor showing by Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia and Matteo Renzi’s Democratic party may be no surprise given Italy’s two decades of stagnation (its economy remains 6% smaller than in 2008, with unemployment stuck at 11%) and the migration crisis: more than 600,000 irregular migrants have arrived since 2014.
But the fact that the insurgent Five Star Movement finished as the country’s biggest party by far, and the anti-immigration La Lega as the strongest force on the right, raises questions not just about Italy’s capacity to pursue domestic reforms, but also its inclination to play any part in planned closer EU and eurozone integration.
Italy’s angry, fed-up voters rejected the path of economic modernisation and broad eurozone compliance followed by successive Italian governments since the financial and economic crisis, opting instead for parties whose generous campaign promises – a flat tax rate, a universal income, early retirement – would set them on a collision course with Europe’s budget constraints.
That could well pose a problem for Macron, who is eager to exploit the window of opportunity for reform offered by Merkel’s re-election to explore his ideas – not all equally welcome in Berlin – for some degree of integration and mutual support among eurozone members in exchange for stricter economic management.
Germany and France may choose to push ahead without Italy’s support, or they may decide the new environment makes that untenable. “An unstable, Eurosceptic Italy could well put the brakes on Franco-German plans,” said Charles Grant, co-founder of thinktank the Centre for European Reform.
But Sunday’s two votes are also a reminder, after a year of electoral scares in the Netherlands, France and Austria, that the challenge to the EU’s centre-right and centre-left establishment parties from populists on both the far right and the far left is far from over.
Following its worst electoral performance since 1949, Germany’s SPD – which has lost more than half its voters in the past 15 years – agonised over whether to support another GroKo. Many members felt it risked strengthening the far right AfD, which now becomes the country’s largest opposition party.
In the end, the fear of an even worse defeat in the event of a snap election produced a strong majority for a new coalition. But many members of Merkel’s far-from-flourishing CDU have reservations too, worried the concessions she has had to make weaken her authority and alienate centre-right voters.
As the centre retreats and politics fragment across the EU, the birth pains of Germany’s new coalition and Italy’s messy election show that unless mainstream parties can regain voters’ trust by responding to their real concerns – immigration, identity, economic inequality, unemployment, out-of-touch elites – the joint European project they built faces an increasingly rough ride.