Italy: 100 days of a populist experiment | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.09.2018

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Italy: 100 days of a populist experiment

Populists and far-right radicals have ruled the Eurozone's third-largest country since June. The promised revolution is yet to fully materialize — except when it comes to migration. Bernd Riegert gives his assessment.

100 days of Italy’s government

"Election promises remain just that:" The report card on the first 100 days of Italy's populist government issued by La Republica was modest at best.

The leaders of the two coalition partners hold key Cabinet positions and jointly serve as deputy prime minister. Luigi di Maio, of the anti-establishment Five-star Movement (M5S), is economic development and labor minister. The head of the junior, far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, is Italy's interior minister.

It is Salvini who has made the biggest splash outside Italy for his coarse approach to migration policy. He closed the country's ports to private rescue ships that had fished shipwrecked refugees out of the Mediterranean. He even prevented the Italian "Diciotti" coast guard boat, which had just rescued 144 African migrants stranded at sea, from docking in Sicily.

Following criticism at home and abroad, Salvini eventually allowed the ship to enter the harbor, but he refused to let the migrants disembark. Only after the European Union, Albania and the Catholic Church were forced to agree to take care of the migrants themselves, did Salvini relent.

Europe under pressure

His ultimate goal was to "not let any migrants into Italy at all," Salvini told DW last Sunday. The populists' political posturing has not gone down well in Brussels: Blackmail is not a political tool used in the EU, a European Commission spokesperson said.

Not that Salvini cares. He is busy cultivating a hands-on image and forging new alliances with fellow populists in Hungary and Austria.

And he even found some fond words for the German government. In the interview with DW, Salvini said he supported Berlin's efforts to redistribute migrants from Italy around the rest of the European bloc.

At summit in Innsbruck, Austria, in mid-July, Salvini and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer agreed to establish a new "pact" tasked with defending Europe's external borders from illegal migrants. However, German hopes of a bilateral agreement, which would see Italy take back migrants turned away at Germany's southern border with Austria, has yet to be agreed.

Read more: Will Italy's refugee stance bring down the EU?

Matteo Salvini: a polarizing figure

A bundle of welfare reforms

Back in Italy, Luigi di Maio has tried to score points with his social welfare agenda. He announced plans to repeal reforms the previous Social Democratic government had pushed through. Italian workers, he says, will once again enjoy greater protection from dismissal. The number of fixed-term employment contracts will also be reduced.

M5S' flagship policies — basic income for the poor, a uniform tax rate, pension reforms and a steady VAT rate — are all expected to be included in next year's budget. The "yellow-green" coalition, named after M5S and League's respective party colors, is slated to present its fiscal blueprint by the end of this month.

According to Bloomberg, di Maio's promises will cost the government some €100 billion ($116 billion). Salvini told DW that the budget will set out how the government intends to finance them. Italy, he declared, was independent from the financial markets.

However, such remarks are hardly in tune with reality. Italy is reliant on private investors and banks to finance its huge national debt, estimated to be around 130 percent of gross domestic product. And when di Maio said meeting the EU's deficit criteria was not a priority, markets reacted by upping the price of Italian debt.

That served as a dampener on the ambitious plans. Even Salvini admitted his government did not have to do everything at once. The markets calmed down.

Read more: Italy populists score legislative win with labor reform

And where's the prime minister?

La Republica reported on a "flood of announcements" in the first 100 days that now have to be processed. Add to that its reactions to last month's bridge collapse in Genoa, which killed 43 people.

The tragedy and the failure in state supervision that preceded it sparked intense debate back in Rome over whether privatized motorways should be renationalized and, if so, how much it would cost.

The government is also reluctant to sell off the ailing state-run steel company Ilva to the Indian-European conglomerate Arcelor Mittal. It is still unclear whether or not a state bailout is on the table.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who is not affiliated to any party, sees himself as "advocate for all Italians" and has kept a relatively low profile behind his two deputies. But he assured the Huffington Post in an interview marking the coalition's first 100 days that they were working well as a team and didn't "belong to the old system."

Conte drew Brussels' attention with his demand to end migration to Italy. During a leaders' summit in June, the former university professor convinced other leaders to back the creation of processing centers in Mediterranean countries and northern Africa.

Although there has so far been little concrete progress on that front, the EU has, at Italy's behest, halted all migrant rescue missions off Libya's coast and handed that responsibility back over to the Libyan government (which only controls around half of the country).

Several aid organizations and the United Nations Refugee Agency have condemned the move.

Read more: Angela Merkel warns against erosion of democracy


Political expert Maurizio Ferrara of the University of Milan offers a damning verdict as Rome's populists reach their 100-day milestone.

"They had no idea how to govern and went to work completely unprepared," Ferrara told DW. "So far they have spent most of their time continuing their election campaign."

Both the League and M5S campaigned as parties for change and promised revolutions if they came to power. How far that holds true will be clearer when the 2019 budget is presented at the end of September.

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