Year XXXIX, 1997, Number 3, Page 121
New Problems, Old Alignments
It is important to reflect upon the events which led the Italian government to the brink of a political crisis in October this year, and upon the way in which this crisis was averted, as the implications of these occurrences reach far beyond a strictly Italian context The recent events were born of contradictions which, threatening to escalate to proportions in Italy, are in fact present in all the countries of the Union as direct consequences of the logic of the process of European unification.
It is important to note, first of all, that the extremely dangerous nature of the recent political turmoil in Italy was clearly by governments and media. The collapse of an Italian government, at this particular stage, would have seriously jeopardised the chances of entering Europe’s single currency in the first-wave on January 1999. This, in turn, would have cast a shadow of doubt over the very future of economic and monetary union. Indeed, Italy’s presence is essential in order to guarantee the single currency an economic basis wide enough to ensure that monetary union does not emerge as a sort of institutionalised new version of the DM area, with a French appendage. Had such a development started to look likely due to the probable withdrawal of Italy, the position of the anti-single currency camp in France, currently reduced to silence, would quickly have gained momentum, presented by the turn of events with the opportunity, through convincing arguments, to render its position acceptable to French public opinion. The fact that this crisis was averted, albeit on the basis of a compromise which has been the object of legitimate criticism should nevertheless be recognised as an important victory.
A second important observation is that this was the first time since the start of the process of integration, that the government of a member country of the Community (or of the Union) had been threatened a crisis on explicitly European grounds. This is an important symptom of the fact that Europe is nearing the moment of truth. It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of European citizens is being staked on the unification of the continent and, first of all, on monetary union coming into force on schedule. It is therefore inevitable that the parasitical interests which, differently in the different countries, have prospered and continue to prosper in the shadow of an order based on division, are now coming to light, and the political forces which feed on such interests and use them as a means of working on sectors of public opinion which are fearful and ill-informed, are naturally fighting back. At the same time, however, the real nature of what is at stake is becoming increasingly apparent, heightening awareness of the benefits of European union and strengthening support for the political forces in favour of it. In view of this, the latter, with growing courage and conviction, are prompted to face up to their responsibilities and to accept the element of risk inherent in the assumption of them.
It is worth noting that the instability and the tensions which lie at the root of the events in Italy are also present in Germany and France. While it is certainly true that the institutions and the economies of these two countries are more solid than those in Italy, it is also true that certain gaps in Europe are closing: while, on the one hand, certain attitudes, irresponsible and governed by sectoral and short-term interests, continue to thrive in certain areas of the political spectrum in Italy, the country is nevertheless witnessing the development of a genuine culture of stability and the emergence of a new, modern and competent political class. Other countries, such as France and Germany on the other hand, are certainly not free from demagoguery and populism. Just think of the electoral success of the National Front and the nationalistic and anti-European attitudes which pervade the Communist party and certain sections of the democratic right and the non communist left in France, and of the populist tendency of part of the SPD and of the Bavarian CSU in Germany, as well as the prejudiced and hostile attitude towards Europe demonstrated in the new Länder by the successors of the former East Germany’s SED. Wherever they exist, and they exist everywhere, these tensions represent a threat to the successful completion of the process of unification.
Third, and finally, it should be remarked that, in all the main European countries, the power of anti-European interests is vastly amplified by the nature of the political alignments. The fact that, even with the acknowledgement by the great majority of the forces in parliament of the need for a strict budgetary policy, Italy should reach the verge of a political crisis is symptomatic of this, as is the fact that the finance bill which provoked the unrest would in substance have been readily passed had it been possible to leave aside the logic of political alignments. The situation escalated to near crisis level because, over the question of the vote on the finance bill, the executive considered itself bound not by the opinion of parliament as a whole, but by the opinion of the majority it represents. The prime minister Mr Prodi openly refused the support of the opposition, preferring, as a pledge of his own personal sincerity and consistency, to tender his resignation.
It is important to remember that Italy has in recent times lived through a long period of compromises and dubious political bargaining which has damaged the country’s reputation at international level and alienated the country’s citizens from politics. In view of this, the Italian government should be applauded for its stand. And yet, the indisputable fact remains that the political system is afflicted by a serious and paradoxical dysfunction, highlighted by the recent events: Italy is on the brink of a major change, a change supported by the great majority of the political forces present in parliament, and yet the country still ran the risk of missing the EMU boat because of the opposing vote of a small wing of the majority.
In Italy, as in all the major European countries, the alignment of the political forces still reflects the contraposition of left and right which is the result of social struggles and the organisation of interests of an era long gone, one in which the division of society into classes represented the watershed in relation to which, prior to any other, political forces were required to take up their positions. Nowadays, there is a new divide: Europe now represents the decisive question on which positions should be adopted and over which divisions should emerge, and the contraposition of the pro-European majority and the minority which wants to perpetuate the national political framework cuts across the contraposition of left and right, causing divisions between and even within most parties. It follows that the position of any government intent on carrying out an effective European policy (and effective, at the present time, inevitably means unpopular) is weakened considerably by the fact that it must reckon both with the opposition, whose natural political function is to oppose, and with the anti-European faction within the majority. Germany is a particularly good example of this situation.
There exists, in all mature democracies, a general awareness that problems of a constitutional nature can only be resolved through the consensus of both the majority and the opposition (or, in any case, of a large part of each). A large section of the political class in Europe shares the view that questions such as monetary union and, in more general terms, European unification, should be seen as issues of a constitutional nature. Political and monetary unification of Europe will, however, only come about if this initial awareness is developed and strengthened. European unification is a constitutional issue sui generis, as the march towards it affects, through budgetary laws and structural reforms, all the most important policies that the governments and parliaments are, day by day, elaborating and implementing, and this will continue to be the case for what is in political terms a long period of time. If a government asks its opponents to support government policies while still remaining in the opposition, it is, in this context, asking too much; on the other hand renouncing the support of the opposition means continually exposing the government to blackmail by the anti-European wing of the majority.
The difficulties faced by Europe are typical of all major historical changes, which often come about without really being understood by their protagonists and have to be dealt with using political instruments which, handed down from the past, are not adequate to deal with the problems of the present. However, the objective logic of the process should, in the mid-term, prevail over the logic of political alignments, even though the ways in which this occurs will vary from country to country. It is certainly possible, although improbable, that in some countries, the presence of charismatic political figures or adequate electoral systems may allow political alliances which are sufficiently solid to remain in power and, for a time, to carry on the process alone. However, this could not happen everywhere, and where it should occur, it is unlikely to prove a long-lasting phenomenon. The introduction of the single European currency will represent an important step towards unification, but the process will not end there. There will still be tensions and difficulties. The problem of stabilising monetary union through the creation of political union will arise, and widespread and strong consensus will be required for this task to be accomplished successfully. A considerable level of active popular support will be needed, and the political forces will have to show that they are able to modify both their alliances and their contrapositions, adapting them to the nature of the epochal challenge on which the future of Europeans depends.