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Italian Elections and Immigration

Italy’s Election

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb.22, 2018

 

Italian elections are always complex affairs, but the upcoming Mar. 4 vote is one of the most bewildering in several decades: the right is resurgent, the left embattled, and the issue drawing the greatest fire and fury has little to do with the economic malaise that has gripped the country since the great economic crash of 2008.

 

These days predicting election outcomes in Europe is a fool’s game because the electorate is so volatile, a state one hardly can blame it for given the beating it has taken from the almost decade-long policies of the European Union (EU). The organization’s rigid economic strictures for dealing with the debts incurred from the 2008 crisis—social service cutbacks, tax hikes, massive layoffs, and privatization—have sharply increased economic inequality throughout the continent and created a “lost generation” of young people: poorly educated, unemployed, and locked into low paying part-time jobs (if they manage to find one).

 

There has been a surge of right-wing parties throughout the EU, but the analysis that voters are turning right is too simplistic. Voters in Germany did put the Nazi Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag, but mostly because they were fed up with the “stay-the-course” mainstream parties that offered them little more than austerity and more austerity. Dutch voters demolished their social democratic Labor Party, not because it was left, but because it was timidly centrist. Much the same was true for the French Socialist Party.

 

When center-left and left parties challenge austerity, voters reward them, as they did in Britain and Portugal. It is not so much that the compass is swinging right, but rather that it is spinning.

 

The Italian elections are a case in point. Italy has one of the highest debt ratio in the EU, distressing unemployment figures—11.4 percent nationally, and up to 36 percent among the young—a troubled banking sector, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Garbage—quite literally—is overwhelming Rome. But instead of seeking solutions, most parties are talking about African and Middle East immigrants, a focus that is revealing an ugly side of the peninsula.

 

Hate crimes have risen 10-fold since 2012, and 20 percent of Italians admit to being anti-Semitic. The anti-fascist organization Infoasntifa Ecn has recorded more than 140 neo-fascist attacks since 2014.

 

Italy currently plays host to some 620,000 immigrants, and since France, Austria and Switzerland tightened their borders, Italy is stuck with them. The EU has been little help. While Brussels was willing to shell out over $6 billion to Turkey to deal with the flood of immigrants generated by the wars in Syria and Yemen, Italy has been left to deal with the problem by itself.

 

Immigrants not only have virtually nothing to do with the crisis in banking, the slow growth of the economy, or the persistently high numbers of unemployed, they are a solution to a looming “apocalypse”: Italy’s extremely low birth rate, the lowest in the world after Japan.

 

Italian women give birth to 1.39 children on average, but the replacement ratio for the developed world is 2.1. “If we carry on as we are and fail to reverse the trend, there will be fewer than 350,000 births in 10 year’s time, 30 percent less than in 2010—an apocalypse,” says Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year]”Lorenzin told La Republica, or a city the size of Siena. “If we link this to the increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

 

A major obstacle to increased birth rate is that Italy has the second lowest percentage of women in the workforce in the EU, only 37 percent. The EU average is between 67 percent and 70 percent. An 80-euro a month baby bonus has flopped because many schools let out at noon and childcare is expensive.

 

The problem is EU-wide, where the average replacement ratio is only 1.58. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimated that Germany would need at least 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at their current levels.

 

But Lorenzin’s warning is a cry in the wilderness.

 

Immigrants are a “social bomb that is ready to explode,” says former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose rightwing Forza Italia Party is in coalition with the xenophobic Northern League and the fascist Brothers of Italy. The coalition is currently running in first place, with about 36 percent of the vote. “All these migrants live off of trickery and crime,” he told Canale 5, a station he owns.

 

Not to be outdone by Berlusconi, Giogia Meloni of the Brothers calls for a “naval blockade” and “trenches.” Meloni launched her campaign for prime minister in Benito Mussolini’s city of Latina, and the late dictator’s granddaughter is a party candidate.

 

Matteo Salvini, the Northern League’s candidate for prime minister, kicks it up a notch: immigrants, he says, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence,” and pose a threat to “the white race.”

 

Nationwide, crime rates are falling in Italy.

 

The Five Star Movement—polling at 28 percent—is less bombastic, but it has taken to immigrant bashing as well. Its candidate for prime minister, Luigi Di Mario, also calls immigrants a “social bomb,” and the party was conspicuously silent when a neo-fascist recently gunned down six African migrants in the town of Macerata.

 

The Democratic Party was initially open armed to immigrants, but it has since pulled up the welcome mat and started returning refugees to Libya.
Italy is very much a country of regions, a prosperous north, a generally well-to-do center, and an impoverished south.

 

Five Star is doing well in the south, but so is Berlusconi’s coalition. Five Star’s call for a minimum wage is popular in Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily—the so-called Mezzogiorno, but Berlusconi won last spring’s elections in Sicily, just edging out Five Star.

 

The Northern League—which is polling at around 15 percent—has dropped “Northern” in an effort to appeal to voters in central and south Italy, but the latter are not likely to cast ballots for Salvini. Up until recently Salvini routinely referred to southerners as “terroni,” a derogatory. Southern Italians have long memories.

 

It is the left and center-left that is in trouble. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s wing of the PD moved to the center, and is now paying the price for that maneuver. While critical of the EU’s austerity policies, the PD nevertheless implemented them, bailed out banks, and did little about joblessness. The PD’s Minister of Labor, Giuliano Poletti, encouraged unemployed young Italians to immigrate “rather than get under our feet,” not a comment likely to endear the Party to the young.

 

The PD is not xenophobic like Five Star and Berlusconi’s coalition, but neither is it willing to directly challenge the myths around immigration. The PD is allied with Free and Equal, representing the left of the PD, but the party is brand new and it is not clear how well it will poll.

 

There is, as well, a center to center-left coalition of eight parties built around Popular Civic and its candidate, Health Minister Lorenzin. But Popular Civic is also a new party, and how it will do Mar. 4 is uncertain.

 

There is also a new electoral law that combines proportional representation with first-past-the-post results, and it is not clear how that will translate into seats in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies and 315-seat Senate. A party needs 3 percent to be represented in the parliament.

 

It is doubtful that anyone will “win” outright. Five Star may get the most votes, but it will have to ally itself with another party to form a government. In the past it has rejected doing so but recently has moderated its opposition to joining with another party, possibly the Northern League.

 

Berlusconi’s coalition might take the largest number of votes, but enough to win a majority? If the South goes Forza Italia rather than Five Star, maybe. There is a caveat here: rightwing parties tend to do better at the ballot box than they poll.

 

Forza Italia has positioned itself as the defender of the EU against the “populists” of Five Star, but most of the anti-EU parties—Five Star included—have trimmed back their threats to withdraw from the Union or abandon the euro currency.

 

In the end it might be a hung government, and “fractious” would be an understatement. Whoever comes out on top will still have to tackle the underlying crisis, on which immigration has no bearing. The central problem is the economic policies of the EU, whose austerity-driven solutions are losing the organization support. Only 36 percent of Italians have a favorable opinion of the EU, and that viewpoint is not restricted to Italy. Faith in the EU has fallen from 38 percent to 32 percent in France.

 

As for the immigrants: not only are they not the problem, they are a long-term solution to Italy’s –and the EU’s—looming demographic crisis

 

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The EU: A House Divided

European Union: A House Divided

Dispatches From The Edge

May 16, 2016

 

“Larger now than the Roman Empire of two thousand years ago, more opaque than the Byzantine, the European Union continues to baffle observers and participants alike.”

Perry Anderson

British historian

 

The European Union is one of the premier trade organizations on the planet, with a collective GDP that matches the world’s largest economies. But it is far more than a trade group. It is also a banker, a judicial system, a watchdog, a military alliance, and, increasingly, an enforcer of economic rules among its 28 members.

 

On the one hand it functions like a super state, on the other, a collection of squabbling competitors, with deep divisions between north and south. On June 23, the two-decade-old organization will be put to the test when Great Britain—its second largest economy—votes to stay in the EU or bail out.

 

The awkwardly named “Brexit” has stirred up a witches’ brew of xenophobia, racism and nationalism, but it has also served to sharpen a long standing debate among the European left over the nature of the organization, and whether it serves to unite a continent shattered by two world wars or functions as little more than a vehicle to spread a particular species of capitalism that has impoverished more people than it has lifted up.

 

The EU was originally sold as an effective way to compete with U.S. and Japanese commercial power (and later China) by integrating the economies of Western Europe into a common market. The 1957 Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC), but that organization was plagued by currency instability.

 

Currency manipulation is a standard economic strategy, one the U.S. Treasury follows to this day. The idea is to boost exports by deflating one’s currency, thus making one’s products cheaper. In an organization like the EEC, however, where currencies were traded back and forth, that strategy caused chaos, particularly after the Americans decoupled the dollar from gold in 1971. The U.S. immediately began aggressively devaluing its currency and undercutting Germany.

 

To make a long history brief, Germany and France began pushing for a common currency, though for different reasons.

 

For Germany, fluctuating currency rates cut into that country’s export engine. For France, a common currency would give Paris some say over the EEC’s economic policies through the creation of a European Central Bank, policies that at the time were largely determined by Germany’s powerful economy.

 

Although Britain opted out of adopting the Euro, London rapidly became the financial center of the continent. In the end, 19 countries would adopt the Euro, creating the Eurozone. Eight others, including Denmark, Sweden and Poland kept their own currencies.

 

The common currency—established by the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and launched in 1999—effectively put the German Bundesbank in charge. Bonn agreed to the common currency, but only on the condition that everyone kept their budget deficits to 3 percent of national income and held their government debt level at 60 percent of GDP. Those figures matched Germany’s economy, but very few of the other states in the EU.

 

The Maastricht Treaty also transformed the EEC into the EU in 1993.

 

Deflating one’s currency as a tactic to increase exports and stimulate growth during a downturn was no longer an option, and the debt ratio was set so low that few economies could keep to its strictures. When the bottom fell out during the 2008 economic meltdown, EU states found out just what they had signed on for: draconian austerity measures, the widespread privatization of state owned enterprises—from water and electrical systems, to airports and harbors—and emigration. Millions of mainly young Portuguese, Irish, Greeks and Spaniards fled abroad.

 

The European Central Bank—with its cohorts, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, the so-called Troika—straitjacketed economies throughout the continent, turning countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland into basket cases, forcing them to borrow money to keep their banks afloat while instituting austerity regimes that led to massive unemployment, huge service cutbacks, and rising poverty rates.

 

The Troika had a neat trick: it shifted the debts incurred by private speculators on to the public, while the Germans spun up a fairy tale to explain the counter-example: the frugal frau.

 

“The Swabian housewife,” lectured German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “would have told us her worldly wisdom: In the long run you cannot live beyond your means.”

 

Except that the debts were not due to the Greeks, Irish, Spaniards, and Portuguese “living beyond their means.” They were just picking up the tab run up by the speculators. The vast majority of “bailouts” that followed the crash went directly into the vaults of French, British, German, and Austrian banks. On the day the Greek “bailout” was announced, French bank shares rose 24 percent.

 

In many ways, the EU resembles a military alliance on the march. Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at Oxford, calls the EU a “postmodern empire,” filling the vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, using “checkbooks rather than swords as leverage.” During the Clinton administration, the EU—along with NATO—pushed eastward, creating what Zbigniew Brzezinski called “the Eurasian bridgehead for American power and the potential springboard for the democratic system’s expansion into Eurasia.”

 

The Obama administration strongly supports the UK remaining in the EU.

 

But the EU has very little to do with “democracy,” as the recent Greek crisis demonstrated. In a confrontation between the then newly elected Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, the latter refused to negotiate over the austerity program that had cratered Greece’s economy. “I’m not discussing the program,” said Schauble, “This was accepted by the previous [Greek] government and we can’t possibly let an election change anything.”

 

In short, the Troika—an unelected body—makes all economic decisions and is unwilling to consider any other approach but that of the mythical Swabian housewife. It isn’t democracy moving east, but the Bundesbank, and a species of capitalism that is unmoved by unemployment, poverty and widespread misery

 

So is the Brexit a challenge to the growing might of capital and an implicit critique of the EU’s dearth of democracy? Nothing’s that simple.

 

First, the loudest critics of the EU are people one needs a very long spoon to sup with: Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front, Britain’s xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, Hungary’s thuggish Jobbik, Greece’s openly Nazi Golden Dawn, and Italy’s odious Northern League. Hatred of immigrants and Islamophobia are the glue that binds these parties, which are active and growing throughout the EU.

 

Indeed, some on the British left have suggested voting against a Brexit precisely because the most vocal opposition to the EU comes from the most reactionary elements in the UK. The British Conservative Party is deeply split on the issue, with its most rightwing and anti-immigrant members favoring getting out.

 

The left is also filled with crosscurrents. While some argue for getting out because they see the EU as an undemocratic vehicle for the expansion of international capital, others are critical, but advocate staying in. British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—hardly a friend to international capital— opposes the Brexit.

 

While Corbyn is deeply critical of the EU’s lack of “democratic accountability, “ and its push to “privatize public services,” he argues that there is a “strong socialist case” for staying in. Corbyn says the EU plays a positive role on climate change, and that exiting the EU would initiate a race to the bottom on issues like equal pay, work hours, vacations and maternity leave. The Scottish National Party, which is to the left of the Labour Party, also opposes a Brexit, and threatens to call for another independence referendum if it passes.

 

Left parties in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are critical of the EU, but most do not advocate withdrawing. What they are demanding is a say over their economic decisions and relief from the rigid rules that favor economies like Germany, and bar many others from ever becoming debt free.

 

It is ironic that Germany—the country that refuses to even consider retiring some of the overwhelming debts that enchain countries like Greece—owes its current wealth to the 1951 London Conference that cut post-war Germany’s debt in half, lowered interest rates, and stretched out debt payments. The result was the “Wirtschaftwunder” [economic miracle] and the creation of an industrial juggernaut. Greece’s Syriza Party has long called for such a conference to deal with the EU countries mired in debt.

 

There is no secret why Germany, France and the European Banks oppose debt reduction, or “haircuts”: Between the three of them they hold almost $84 billion of Greece’s debt

 

The polls show the British electorate could go either way on a Brexit. What happens if they do leave is hardly clear, because it would be a first. The predictions range from doom and gloom to sunny days, and everything in between, although it is doubtful the EU would severely punish Europe’s second largest economy.

 

One model the left needs to look at in this battle is Portugal, where three left parties, who have long fought with each other, found common ground around reversing the austerity policies that have racked the country’s economy for four years. Portugal just recently received a barely favorable bond rating that gives the coalition government some breathing room. The economy is growing and unemployment down, but at 129 percent of GDP, Portugal’s debt burden is still the third highest in Europe.

 

Alone, Portugal is no match for power of the Troika, but Lisbon has allies in Spain, Greece, Ireland and increasingly, Italy. Support for the EU in Italy has gone from 73 percent in 2010 to 40 percent today. “Europe has taken the wrong road,” says Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. “Austerity alone is not enough.”

 

Given the absence of a strong, continent-wide left, however, reversing the current economic rules of the EU may be a country-by-country battle.

 

It is already underway, and for all of the economic power of the EU, the organization is vulnerable to charges that Brussels has sidelined democracy.

 

If Brussels—read Germany—can be persuaded or forced to agree to debt reductions, to loosen the spending restrictions and start pump priming, Europe can do something about its horrendous unemployment rate and underperforming economies. If not, whether the British leave or not may be irrelevant: a house divided cannot stand for long.

 

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