Italian domestic politics has become more intense and tortuous than usual in the last few months. The European Parliament election in May brought about a dramatic shift in the balance of Italy’s ruling coalition: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League won 33 percent of the vote, while Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement won just 17 percent – and is now struggling to maintain even that level of support. In contrast, Italians politics in Brussels is relatively vibrant, albeit still dominated by domestic rivalries. The Five Star Movement supported David Maria Sassoli, a member of Italy’s Democratic Party, in his successful bid to become president of the European Parliament. Re-elected Five Star Movement MEP Massimo Castaldo is one of 14 vice-presidents who will assist Sassoli in his work. The Democratic Party’s Roberto Gualtieri and Forza Italia’s Antonio Tajani have retained their chairmanships of the parliament’s economic committee and constitutional affairs committee respectively. None of the League’s MEPs was elected to a key position in parliament, despite the party’s considerable share of the vote – a fact that may disrupt Salvini’s plans to change Europe. And the Five Star Movement supported Ursula von der Leyen in becoming president of the European Commission while the League decided not to do so. The League probably took this position because it did not trust von der Leyen to appoint an Italian commissioner who would serve its interests.
Thus, the League is strong in Italy but will remain weak and isolated in Europe – even if it allies with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Although the Five Star Movement has the largest share of seats of any party in the Italian parliament, it relatively weak domestically but visible and active in Europe – despite not joining any pan-European political grouping. And, although it suffers from deep internal divisions, the Democratic Party has proven effective at working behind the scenes to attain positions of power, especially in Brussels.
Yet Italian domestic politics also seems increasingly distant from power struggles within the European Union’ institutions due to a scandal that threatens to destabilise the League-Five Star coalition: Russiagate. The scandal broke following Buzzfeed’s publication on 10 July of a recording of a private meeting last year between three Italians and three Russians at the Metropol Hotel Moscow. The recording appears to show the Russians offering a representative of the League $65 million in oil money to form a “big alliance” with Russia, with the eventual aim of creating a nationalist Europe and a pro-Russia Italian government.
The League’s old guard are annoyed with Salvini due to his inability to explain Russiagate
The League’s domestic rivals see this as a unique opportunity to make their voices heard and to attack Salvini. Although he did not attend the Moscow meeting, Salvini declared around the time it took place that “sanctions on Russia are economically and socially crazy”. The Italian judiciary is investigating the matter and will likely report its findings before the end of the summer. Russiagate has not undermined public support for the League, which is now polling at 38 percent of the vote, but it has had marked domestic and international effects.
For one thing, the scandal has further complicated the internal dynamics of the party. The League’s old guard are annoyed with Salvini due to his seeming inability to explain Russiagate – particularly given that members of the party were recently found guilty of embezzling €49 million in public funds. This has added to their unhappiness with Salvini’s decision to focus the League’s agenda exclusively on migration rather than the issues they care about most: territorial and regional autonomy from the government in Rome, and tax cuts for the entrepreneurs who form the party’s base.
Within the government, both the Five Star Movement and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have worked to distance themselves from the League on Russiagate. Di Maio’s party has publicly confirmed that the government has never asked for Russian money, while Conte has accused Salvini of lacking the courage to face a parliamentary hearing on the subject.
Russiagate has also complicated Italy’s relationship with the United States. A few weeks before the scandal broke, Salvini used a tour of the US to reassert Rome’s commitment to Washington as its favoured partner. Russiagate created the impression that, due to its alleged links with Moscow, the Italian government had confused foreign policy priorities and unclear loyalties.
Against this background, von der Leyen will meet with Conte – who would like to put economic development in, and economic support for, southern Italy at the top of the agenda – on 2 August. If she wants to discuss the appointment of the next Italian commissioner, von der Leyen will probably be disappointed: members of Italian government have not yet reached an agreement on who to nominate for the role.
In any event, the League will continue its relentless political campaign, with a view to a major vote on Italy’s budget in September. If Russiagate partially destabilised the governing coalition, the effects of the vote could be far more severe: both the Five Star Movement and the League are keen to avoid blame for any budget cuts Italy might have to endure to comply with EU rules.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.