IN THE KEY OF THREE: A POPULISM UPDATE FROM ITALY

Speaking of populism, here are three recent stories from Italy, a country at the center of various European controversies. One centers on domestic policy, the second on squabbles with the populists next door, and the third on a coming showdown with the European Union.


Story 1: Three migrants from Senegal and Nigeria have been arrested following the alleged rape and murder of an Italian girl inside a drug den in Rome. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy’s lead anti-immigrant populist and a figure of growing notoriety across Europe, appeared twice at the crime scene in a single day to maximize attention on the event. He was greeted there by both supporters and hecklers.

These three migrants may be guilty of this heinous crime. Or they may be innocent. Or they may have participated in the crime alongside Italians. From a political standpoint, it won’t matter. Salvini’s supporters will accept his accusations against the migrants at face value. His critics will search for alternative explanations.

This is the current political climate in Italy—and in other countries, as well.

Story 2: The region of South Tyrol, part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire until the close of World War I, still includes many people who speak German. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has floated a plan to give these people, and those who speak a local language known as Ladin, Austrian citizenship.

Trouble is… South Tyrol has been part of Italy for 99 years, and many Italians, including Salvini, say Austria has no right to grant Italians dual citizenship. Complicating matters further, the Austrian offer only applies to residents of South Tyrol who speak German (60 percent) or Ladin (4 percent). Italian speakers need not apply.

The irony is that nationalists in Italy and Austria will shake fists at one another over this controversy, but both groups benefit from it with supporters at home. It’s a win-win political fight—unless and until it’s resolved, and someone must publicly accept defeat.

Story 3: Finally, there is the story that will impact the largest number of people. The European Commission took the unprecedented step this week of rejecting a proposed member-state budget, this one from Italy. The two parties currently in power in Italy were delighted with the news.

The Five-Star Movement, the largest vote-getter at the last election, wants to offer struggling Italian families, particularly in Italy’s poorer south, with universal basic income. Its junior coalition partner, Lega, wants tax cuts for the more prosperous northern provinces. Together, they submitted a budget which the Commission says will blow up Italy’s already high debt and threaten Europe’s economic stability.

Why are Five-Star and Lega so happy? EU rejection of this budget allows them to blame European bureaucrats for economic hardship in Europe and to present themselves to Italian voters and taxpayers as fearless protectors of Italian independence against the bullies from Brussels.

The informal response from Five-Star and Lega officials has been a closed fist waving the Italian flag. Their formal response will come in the next two weeks. The bad news for Italy: Financial markets may decide in the meantime that Italy is no longer a good bet, dramatically raising borrowing costs for the government and political trouble for all concerned.

Brazil's governors take on Bolsonaro: We've previously written about the tensions between local and national governments over coronavirus response, but few places have had it as bad as Brazil. As COVID-19 infections surged in Brazil, the country's governors quickly mobilized – often with scarce resources – to enforce citywide lockdowns. Brazil's gangs have even risen to the occasion, enforcing strict curfews to limit the virus' spread in Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mocked the seriousness of the disease and urged states to loosen quarantines in order to get the economy up and running again. "Put the people to work," he said this week, "Preserve the elderly; preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that." In response, governors around the country – including some of his allies – issued a joint letter to the president, begging him to listen to health experts and help states contain the virus. The governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, has even threatened to sue the federal government if Bolsonaro continues to undermine his efforts to combat the virus' spread.

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Governments of the developed world are finally responding with due sense of urgency, individually in 3 different ways.

1st, stand health care systems up so they won't get overwhelmed (late responses). The private & public sector together, building additional ICU beds, supply capacity and production of medical equipment and surge medical personnel in the US, Canada, across Europe & the UK. Unclear if we avoid a Northern Italy scenario. A couple days ago, Dr. Fauci from the NIH said he was hopeful. Epidemiologists and critical care doctors don't feel comfortable. Not in New York, Chicago, LA, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans. In Europe, particularly London, Madrid, Catalonia, Barcelona, might be significantly short.

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The major outbreaks of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States have garnered the most Western media attention in recent weeks. Yesterday, we went behind the headlines to see how Mexico and Russia are faring. Today, we'll look at three other potential hotspots where authorities and citizens are now contending with the worst global pandemic in a century.

Start with India. For weeks, coronavirus questions hovered above that other country with a billion-plus people, a famously chaotic democracy where the central government can't simply order a Chinese-scale public lockdown with confidence that it will be respected. It's a country where 90 percent of people work off the books— without a minimum wage, a pension, a strong national healthcare system, or a way to work from home.

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In the end, it took the coronavirus to break the year-long deadlock in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will still face corruption charges, but he has yet another new lease on political life, as he and political rival Benny Gantz cut a deal yesterday: Bibi will continue as prime minister, with Gantz serving as Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. After 18 months, Gantz will take over as prime minister, but many doubt that will ever happen.

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