Europe is shocked by the Italian election results, because of Silvio Berlusconi’s return and Beppe Grillo’s incredible success. The European establishment is not really trying to comprehend the Italian situation, rather to exorcise it. Italy’s and Greece’s current political situations signal a flaw in the way Europeans relate to each other. In fixing macroeconomic unbalances, the IMF style is not suitable for Europe. The failure to improve communication and political relations within Europe will eventually lead to the disintegration of the political and economic union.
The result of the last Italian elections surprised most of the Italian public opinion and shocked the rest of the world. From outside the comeback of Silvio Berlusconi and the success of Beppe Grillo’s “Five Stars Movement” seems, indeed, absurd. The German SPD leader Peer Steinbrück showed his exasperation by saying that “two clowns” won the Italian elections. Eager to have a controversial new front cover, the British magazine “The Economist” took Steinbrück’s comment and titled “Send in the clowns”, adding a ludicrous quick description of Mr Grillo and Mr Berlusconi. They are “clowns” because Beppe Grillo has been a successful Italian comedian before turning into a blogger and political leader and Mr Berlusconi is internationally well known for his gaffes and excessive remarks.
However it sounds, again, as an attempt of the political and cultural establishment in other European countries to exorcise the Italian situation. This “exorcisms” has the flavour of condemnation, far from the desire of understanding. This would be a reasonable reaction, if European countries were not a unique political and economic union. In human relations, yelling and taunting do not help in dealing with a problematic person and communication and understanding are necessary. European countries now belong to the same family and they have to finally understand and support each other, beyond money. The failure to do so will relentlessly bring to the collapse of the European Union because of the diffusion of nationalistic political movements and the internal propagation of political instability through financial markets. To avoid this scenario, the current Italian situation (together with Greece and other countries) has to be fully understood by the rest of the Union and Europe must definitively change the way different European countries relate to each other.
The Berlusconi phenomenon has never been fully understood outside Italy, as it showed the ill-advised move to assign Mr Monti as a Prime Minister last winter, partly under pressure of the European establishment. Last September, the European Central Bank sent a letter to the Italian government (published on the Corriere della Sera, the most important Italian newspaper) asking Italy to take << all the appropriate actions >> to deeply reform the Italian economy. The letter has been perceived by the Italian public opinion as a de facto compulsory administration of the country by the ECB, confirmed by the pressures that brought to the resignation of Mr Berlusconi few weeks later. The cold touch of such procedure actually helped Mr Berlusconi to restore its public image later on. In general, besides financial support (more precisely, guarantees) Italy has received derision from the other European partners together with a long series of condemnations and orders to follow. Guess what stick better in people’s mind: public money or lack of respect?
The IMF Style and Italians’ Growing Suspicion against Euro Partners
Mr Grillo and Mr Berlusconi are radically different but they have something in common: Euro-scepticism and a populist attitude. The Five Stars Movement wants a referendum on Italy’s participation to the Euro and Mr Grillo states that Europe was a noble dream but it is not working. Mr Berlusconi claims the he fell victim of a plot organized by Germany and “international financial powers” to be replaced by a more complaisant government led by Mario Monti and he remarked several times not to do Germany’s interest but Italy’s. During the last days of the electoral campaign, Mr Monti claimed that Angela Merkel would not be happy to see a next Italian centre-left government, which appeared as a last attempt to help Mr Bersani not to lose consensus after his visit to Berlin in the middle of the electoral campaign (Berlusconi was in fact Monti’s main opponent).
Unfortunately, these arguments may be well received by a large part of Italians, which distrusts Germany and other leading European countries even if still believing on the European project (Italians have in fact one of the highest rates of trust in European institutions). Such positions range from seeing an organised conspiracy to weaken and exploit Italy (popular among Berlusconi’s and Grillo’s voters) to a simple suspicion towards the requests of Germany, because it is only pursuing its own interest and does not care at all about Italian people. The same is probably true in Greece and Spain and it is not surprising.
The European establishment handled the last debt-crisis with the “IMF style”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is famous to help troublesome countries by providing financial support, imposing policy conditions and sending some suited-up inspectors. The recent history of Latin America shows that this approach fostered anti-American feelings and set the conditions for the increasing popularity of radical political parties (namely anti-globalisation and socialist movements). The standard IMF procedure is to stay mostly in contact with high ranked officials, while local politicians have the role of explaining the importance of the austerity measures to the public opinion. Anyway, people perceive these measures as conditions imposed by external players that are not making their interest. Greek people came up with the name “troika” to express their disrespect and anger for the representatives of international creditors (the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF) that were actively interfering with Greek politics in order to guide and monitor the country’s economic policy during the period of massive restructuring in government expenditures. Greek people had a strong negative judgement about the way the debt crisis was handled up to that moment, as it came out from the result of the two consecutive Greek elections. Anti-Euro parties got an important share of the votes and elections had to be repeated because of that, similarly to what happened later in Italy.
The “IMF style” management of local economic crisis is not suitable for the European Union. Every time a Euro country is forced to adopt some painful measures to fix an imbalance with other European partners (the so called austerity measures), European leaders should directly and personally be side-by-side with local politicians to address the problems and solutions to the country’s population. European partners must directly enter the national debate and not being perceived as strangers from local people. Language barriers should be removed by using dubbing or subtitles in video messages and the communication should not just rely on local media and politicians. This approach reduces manipulation by national journalists and politicians, which may have the interest to misrepresent the intervention of EU partners in order to shift responsibilities abroad. Again, the language barriers must be removed and EU politicians (or major political players as Angela Merkel) should put more effort in talking directly to the Greek, Spanish and, as well, Italian population. So far no one – nor EU commissioners or Mrs Merkel – ever made a public speech directed to the Italian public opinion. Instead, Mr Monti tried to promote his policies abroad and he gave a long interview on the German magazine Der Spiegel. Mario Draghi did the same, with both Der Spiegel and the newspapers Bild and Süddeutsche Zeitung. This should become standard custom in Europe and not only be a privilege of people in powerful countries.
To conclude, there are two important remarks to make. First, Europe has to rethink how to handle internal relations from the point of view of plain human relations. Northern Europeans – the Ants – are legitimate not to tolerate any additional request from troubled countries – the Grasshoppers – and to use the strong arm. However, as long as people from different countries will see each other as complete strangers, this reaction will definitely foster anti-European feelings and eventually, to lead to the blow up of the European monetary and political union. Second, we need to gradually remove any language barrier. Germans and British people make fun of Mr Berlusconi and they are quite immune to his charm: he does not speak German nor English and he does not own TV broadcasts there. But what if he did?