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.

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