While events in America matter to Ireland, at least at the periphery, they’re objectively less important than events in Europe, which impact us directly. Which is why it’s odd that so much attention is being given to the riots in American Cities while no media outlet, except the one you are presently reading, bothered to note the anti-EU protests in Milan and Rome and 68 other Italian cities over the weekend.
To be fair, the Italian protestors are much less like RTE’s kind of people: Instead of impoverished black people and left leaning progressives taking to the streets, Italy’s demonstrations are led by nationalist types like Matteo Salvini, and featured more than a few mad conspiracy theorists who believe things like Covid-19 being a global plot against the nation state, and that sort of thing.
But behind the “Covid Scam” banners and the wackier theories, the protests in Italy tell us something very important about the general trajectory of Italian politics, and the likely impact of that trajectory on European politics – and Ireland – at large.
Far from being a flash in the pan, as some believed, Salvini’s movement, the Northern League, is now firmly embedded as a major player in Italian politics. It is fiercely opposed to illegal immigration, sceptical of EU membership in general, and would prefer to crash out of the euro than to accept any EU-imposed fiscal austerity. The most recent opinion poll has Lega as comfortably the largest party, on 27% of the vote. They have held the lead in the polls since October 2018, and 27% actually represents a relatively poor showing by their recent standards. With the crisis yet to be fully felt, in economic terms, in Italy, and the next election due within the next three years, it seems very likely that Salvini, as leader of the opposition, will be in a very strong position to dominate the next Italian Government.
A Salvini led Government would be in immediate conflict with Brussels on everything from fiscal policy, to freedom of movement, to agricultural subsidies, and, unlike most European Governments, it would be eager and willing to publicly agitate against Brussels and membership of the EU if necessary.
Ireland shares a currency with Italy, and an Italian exit from the Eurozone could have disastrous economic consequences for us, coming so soon after Brexit and the Coronavirus.
Of course, it would also have disastrous consequences for Italy. The single currency is a trap, as much as it is anything else. Once you’re in, leaving it would mean replacing it with a much weaker currency while still owing vast quantities of debts denominated in Euros. Think about how you’d feel if your bank told you tomorrow that your mortgage was now denominated in Sterling, but the headline amount was the same: You’d end up having to pay back far more, just because the currency changed. That’s the risk for Italy, if it was to leave the Eurozone.
Europe is entirely unprepared for this kind of political conflict with a major member state. It’s likely that Salvini, if and when he’s elected, will essentially attempt to hold the threat of economic ruin over everybody else in order to extract concessions from Brussels. The knock on effects of this on Ireland are not hard to see: To fund the kind of EU aid to Italy that may be necessary, immense pressure will come on Ireland over matters like Corporate Tax and our contributions to the EU budget.
This is one reason why the Irish Government, to its credit, is reluctant to seek EU aid in the present crisis: We could end up paying back much more in structural economic concessions than we ever got in EU funds. It’s also why Fine Gael, to their credit (and we do credit them here at Gript when they’re right) is insisting on balancing the budget at some point in the next five years, during the Government negotiations. We don’t want to be in a bad economic position at the same time as when the Italians start rocking the boat, or jumping overboard.
Of course, to many of you, Salvini is entirely correct to pursue a nationalist policy, and it’s a shame Ireland isn’t doing the same. That may be right or it may be wrong, but the fact is that we’re not pursuing his policy, and his policy is about strengthening Italy, not Ireland, and much of what he wants to do may come at our expense.
All of this is news, and it’s important, and we should be talking about it. Maybe we’ll get around to it after the next Prime Time report on events in Bog City, Kansas, or whatever.