Last week, the European Parliament approved the Juncker Commission’s list of 32 gas infrastructure projects due to receive EU funding, by a margin of 394 votes to 241. The vote generated a great deal of debate over its environmental implications between MEPs, European Parliament groups, and domestic political parties. Italy’s ruling parties voted differently from each other in the European Parliament, with the Five Star Movement gaining a significant amount of support from MEPs in its unsuccessful attempt to block the proposal.
The Von der Leyen European Commission may have been in office for less than three months, but this vote seems like a missed opportunity for EU institutions to prove that they have understood the mandate voters gave them in the May 2019 European Parliament election. As shown by the survey the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted last year, 13 of the 14 member states it polled called for the introduction of greater environmental protections – even if they came at the expense of economic growth. Italians’ views of this are especially interesting given that, for many years, the environment has been absent from the political agenda and the Green Party has had little influence on mainstream politics: 34 percent saw climate change as a key issue, only surpassed by the economy (47 percent) and migration (44 percent).
Italians’ newfound sensitivity to green issues could be explained by several factors, including a growing awareness of them among young people created by activist Greta Thunberg’s high profile in Italy. The formation of a new governing coalition in August 2019 – which came at the expense of the right-wing League – has also helped put the environment back on the agenda.
Both ruling parties now place green issues at the centre of their policies. But they did so even before they decided to form a governing coalition, albeit from different perspectives and with distinct priorities.
The environment is one of the pillars on which the Five Star Movement built its campaign for the 2013 national elections. And green voters formed a major part of the movement’s support base when it was launched by Beppe Grillo in the 2000s. However, as its leading representatives now admit, the party has failed to speak for voters disappointed by previous Italian governments’ total lack of a green strategy. The Democratic Party has always devoted energy to environmental issues – especially between the 1990s and early the 2000s, and at the local level – but this trend had diminished in more recent times due to the party’s internal disputes and political evolution.
The current government has – at least on paper – decided to be at the forefront of attempts to promote environmental sustainability.
Nonetheless, the current government has – at least on paper – decided to be at the forefront of attempts to promote environmental sustainability and thereby reduce social inequality and reform Italy’s economic development model. It hopes to bring about this transition by implementing a Green New Deal based on public investment in renewables, biodiversity protection, the preservation of areas of natural beauty, and infrastructure.
The government sees the deal as not only the solution to an important challenge but, above all, an opportunity for Europe to become a key geopolitical actor by achieving carbon neutrality. The government wants Italy to be an important protagonist of the environmental movement at the international level, working within the framework of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the European Green Deal – and as a mediator in attempts to resolve Europe’s east-west divide on environmental issues, especially carbon emissions.
Yet, while the government’s plan is ambitious on paper, it has much to do to achieve its goals. This is especially true given the economic disparity between southern and northern Europe, as well as the marked political differences between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement.
Nonetheless, paradoxically, the coalition’s plan to go green could provide it with a unique political opportunity to consolidate and stabilise its rule. This is partly because the League and the Brothers of Italy – which currently poll at the 32.2 percent and 10.8 percent of the vote respectively – are totally absent from the discussion (with the exception of their sporadic warnings about the huge social and economic consequences of implementing the Green New Deal through increases in tax, bureaucracy, and domestic political disputes). As the government works with its European partners on green issues, the opposition will likely still stick to its traditional strategy of sovereigntist, populist opposition to Brussels and EU institutions.
If the coalition proves effective at dealing with these issues, it could gain further support at the European level – just as it did in the vote to approve Ursula Von der Leyen as the European Commission President. In that instance, the Five Star Movement backed its coalition ally to reposition itself in Europe and thereby strengthen its domestic support.
In all, Italy needs to complete three main tasks today if it is to fulfil the Green New Deal. Firstly, it should dramatically rebuild its economy around a system focused on sustainability. Secondly, it should ensure that the Green New Deal is part of public discourse in the long term, thereby contributing to the creation of a shared cultural vision. Thirdly, as a medium-sized European power, Italy should work to transform Europe into a global power that can meet the challenges posed by climate change. This will involve dealing with the United States after its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement; managing relations with Africa at a time when climate change increasingly drives migration; establishing energy independence from key partners such as Russia; dealing with instability in states in the Middle East and north Africa, which are important to global energy markets; and pushing China to become a responsible environmental actor.
On the first two tasks, the members of the coalition have a great deal of work to do domestically in taking political ownership of green issues. On the third, much will depend on other European countries’ willingness and ability to act.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.