A new era in Rome

The diverse new Italian government has high ambitions

Summer 2019 will be remembered as one of the most complicated and difficult periods for Italian politics in recent times. After 14 months, the League-Five Star Movement coalition government has been replaced by a Democratic Party-Five Star Movement one, which retains Giuseppe Conte as prime minister and has the support of the centre-left Liberi e Uguali party.

The formation of the new government, the sixth in the last ten years, has been complex, to say the least. Its team of ministers comprises ten from the Five Star Movement, nine from the Democratic Party, one from Liberi e Uguali, and one career civil servant – a migration specialist who will replace League leader Matteo Salvini as interior minister.

The members of the new coalition government have defined it as “courageous and ambitious”, claiming that this will be a “turning point” government whose key objective will be to change Italy. Of course, it is far too early to tell whether the government will fulfil its ambitions, but it has unquestionably turned Italian politics upside down – again.

The most significant change comes in the form of the League’s ejection from power, with Salvini sitting in the Senate only as the League’s leader. The large gains the party made in the May 2019 European Parliament election now seem to belong to a different era, particularly given that it has been excluded from major EU decisions and has only one stable European ally, France’s Marine Le Pen. The European Parliament’s president, David Sassoli, is a member of the Democratic Party – which helped Fabio Massimo Castaldo, a member of the Five Star Movement, retain his role as one of the parliament’s deputy presidents. In contrast, the League’s MEPs have failed to gain any important parliamentary roles. The Five Star Movement supported Ursula von der Leyen’s successful bid to become president of the European Commission – which allowed it to play a role despite its poor performance in the European Parliament election – while the next Italian commissioner is widely expected to be former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, another member of the Democratic Party.

Next week, the Italian Parliament will hold a confidence vote on Conte, in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. He will present the government’s plans, which will be based on a programme of 29 substantial reforms in areas such as employment; industry and productivity; fiscal policy; young people; social equality; territorial and infrastructural security; a reduction in the number of MPs; the judiciary; education; and digitalisation.

 Of course, it is far too early to tell whether the government will fulfil its ambitions, but it has unquestionably turned Italian politics upside down – again.

The new government seems to have heeded the signals on climate change that came from the rest of Europe during the European Parliament election. It plans to create a Green New Deal that will radically change Italy’s cultural mind-set on the issue, partly by including the protection of environment and of biodiversity among the country’s constitutional principles. When it was founded, the Five Star Movement had a clear focus on the environment – something that it lost in its coalition with the League. The Five Star Movement’s shift back towards these issues may form part of a strategy to recapture green votes.

Another key aspect of the new government’s programme is its aim to work for a strong European response to migration and asylum challenges (not least reform of the Dublin Regulation), abandoning the previous government’s emergency strategy on these issues. As my ECFR colleagues José Ignacio Torreblanca and Shoshana Fine recently wrote, it is time to be pro-active on migration issues and to deal with them as a structural phenomenon that requires a long-term strategy.

Many of the government’s foreign policy priorities remain unclear at this stage. However, given the lessons of the last 14 months, it is likely to centre its European and global strategy on re-positioning Italy in Europe after a period of isolation; reworking the country’s approach to the Middle East and North Africa, to help resolve crises in Libya, Syria, and the Maghreb; and reassuring Washington about Italy’s commitment to strong transatlantic relations.

There are several major foreign policy issues that the government will have to deal with – many of which its predecessor complicated with an unclear, polarised approach. These include Italy’s position on Chinese economic strategy in Europe; sanctions on Iran; relations with Russia (especially given the recent scandal around links between Moscow and the League); multilateralism; and the crisis in Venezuela.

The next few months will be crucial for the new government, perhaps defining Italy’s approach to international relations for years to come. Much will depend on how the government engages in dialogue and constructive cooperation with its foreign counterparts, as it attempts to re-establish Italy’s credibility as a responsible interlocutor and partner.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Head, Rome office
Policy Fellow

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