Last week was quite the week in Europe.
U.S. readers may only be picking up the roller coaster in Italian politics via the fluctuations in their pension fund share portfolio values, but it is probably no exaggeration to say European democracy has been tested this week … and the process is far from over.
Italians kicked the process off with March parliamentary elections that ushered in months of wrangling between the two biggest winning parties, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (or M5S) and the far-right League, formerly known as the Northern League. Both are considered to be the most extremely populist parties Europeans have voted for in decades. When they finally formed a working coalition with an aim to form a government, markets got nervous that many of their campaign promises may actually be put into practice.
Well, those fears crystallized when Five Star Movement head Luigi Di Maio announced the appointment of Euroskeptic economist Paolo Savona for finance minister, before the Italian president overruled them (at the behest of Brussels, many believe).
Even if President Sergio Mattarella acted in isolation, his willingness to go against the politically elected representative with the avowed aim of protecting the Euro and the European ideal, is a remarkable case of prioritizing European stability over national democracy. His actions were no doubt attended by sighs of relief in Brussels, Paris and Berlin, where the rise of populist parties in Europe and elsewhere have been met with disdain and derision.
Savona is well known for his anti-Euro views and his proposed appointment spooked markets, which promptly took fright. Investors dumped Italian debt and spreads between Italian and benchmark German rates spiked.
Meanwhile, bank shares across Europe were dumped as investors feared Italy could crash out the Euro and banks would be left nursing massive liabilities, despite the fact most debt is held by the European Central Bank (ECB) after months of bond buying under quantitative easing (QE).
The bank share price collapse is what led downfalls in share prices across the world. Yet, after a few days of uncertainty, markets are recovering after M5S indicated it may be willing to reconsider the appointment of Savona. The League is not sounding quite so conciliatory, but the two parties are back in discussion to try to find a solution.
The irony is if Italy is forced back to the polls, the two parties will probably increase their share of the vote. There has been widespread support across Italy for their actions since the March election, but if they increase their share of the vote it will provide an even clearer mandate for an anti-austerity, reflationary, debt-fueled agenda.
Early comments from European politicians — such as Günther Oettinger, Germany’s E.U. commissioner — that upheaval in the markets would exert healthy, pro-European discipline on Italian voters were met with derision across the country, as it was seen as Brussels telling the Italians how to vote. Oettinger’s comments on German television — “My concern and expectation is that the coming weeks will show that developments in Italy’s markets, bonds and economy will become so far-reaching that it might become a signal to voters after all to not vote for populists on the right and left” — were promptly slapped down by more media-sensitive officials, like European Council President Donald Tusk, forcing Oettinger to issue an apology.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella tried to appoint Carlo Cottarelli, a former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official, to form an interim government, but that simply encouraged M5S and the League to get back to the negotiating table to find a solution of their own.
This story has a long way to run.
Italy has lagged behind the rest of Europe’s major economies for the last decade with minimal growth. Voters blame the E.U. — and, in particular Germany — for the trend. Germany is running a persistent current account surplus of 6%, well above E.U. rules, yet is not being held to account.
Italy feels if Germany can break the rules to the detriment of fellow E.U. states, then why cant they? Why should the economy be hobbled by debt limits and austerity when fellow E.U. members flout the rules?
You can see their point.
In such an atmosphere, the rise of populist parties is understandable, even if their solutions make little economic sense.