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How the EU destroyed Italian democracy - article for UnHerd 05.01.22

Rome's president has been turned into an emperor by Thomas Fazi and Paolo Cornetti

On January 24, when Sergio Mattarella’s seven-year term comes to an end, the Italian parliament and its regional representatives will hold a secret ballot to elect the country’s new president and official head of state. Even though the appointment hasn’t garnered much attention outside of Italy, its choice will have wide-ranging implications — not just for Italy but for the entire continent.

It is generally believed that the Italian president performs a purely ceremonial and symbolic role, and throughout most of Italy’s life as a republic this has been largely the case. Italy, after all, is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, with the government dependent on the confidence of the elected legislature.

And yet, in his official capacity as the “guarantor” or “guardian” of the constitution, the president holds considerable power: governments are required to obtain the “approval” of the president, who also nominates (“approves”) the prime minister and his cabinet ministers. Moreover, all laws passed by parliament have to be approved by the president, and he or she is also charged with signing off the dissolution of parliament, for example following a government crisis and loss of parliamentary majority. This means the president effectively decides whether elections should be held or not.

Nor does the president’s power stop there: the incumbent also ratifies all international treaties, and serves as commander-in-chief of the army and as the head of the governing body of the judiciary. The president also wields influence through the technocratic structures of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, particularly the all-powerful Accounting Office (Ragioneria Generale dello Stato) and the Bank of Italy.

It’s not, therefore, an inconsiderable source of power — especially in times of crisis, when the political system is incapable of delivering viable solutions and the president’s role tends to “expand”. Given the quasi-permanent state of political and economic turbulence that Italy has been mired in for at least a decade, it’s no surprise that the president today has evolved into a full-blooded political actor, with the power (and willingness) to intervene in the country’s decision-making process.

But this transformation has been long in the making, and can be traced back to Italy’s gradual integration into the European Union and the euro, beginning in the early Nineties. For any country, membership of the euro means that the role of government — and therefore of parliament — increasingly becomes that of rubberstamping often unpopular economic decisions taken at the European level.

This has inevitably entailed a process of state reconfiguration involving the strengthening of executive and technocratic powers at all levels, including that of the president, and the consequent marginalisation of parliament. Typically, this is presented as a necessary precondition for the swift and efficient implementation of the kind of economic policies enforced by the EU: fiscal austerity, wage moderation, and pro-market liberalisations and privatisations.

Once the choice was made by Italy’s elites to join the euro, it also became necessary to defend their decision from any possible popular-democratic challenges. And so the president’s role was transformed in another way: from guarantor of the constitution to guarantor of the country’s “international obligations”, in particular those to EU treaties and rules. Finally, the transfer of economic prerogatives to the EU meant that political parties, even if they managed to secure a majority in parliament, increasingly found themselves lacking the economic tools necessary to maintain societal consensus.

A system of quasi-permanent social and political instability was born, with the president adopting an increasingly “activist” role in the name of “stability” and “governability”. In short, Italy’s euro membership effectively set in motion a unique case of institutional transition from one form of democracy to another: from a parliamentary regime to a de facto presidential regime in which the legislature performs a marginal role.

This became particularly evident under the double term of Giorgio Napolitano (2006-2015), which coincided with the turbulent era of the post-financial crisis fallout. During that period, Napolitano became the “quiet powerbroker” of Italian politics, with critics referring to him as “Re Giorgio”, or King George.

It is generally accepted, for example, that Napolitano played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the “international coup” — involving, among others, the Bank of Italy, then-president of the ECB Mario Draghi, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy — that led to the downfall of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his replacement by technocrat Mario Monti, personally chosen by Napolitano himself. Monti’s government was widely referred to as “a government of the president”.

Napolitano’s successor, outgoing president Sergio Mattarella, followed in his footsteps. In 2018, following an alliance between the Five Star Movement and the League, the two parties, as required by the Italian constitution, submitted their choice of government ministers to the president for approval. Yet their proposed economic minister, Paolo Savona, was vetoed by Mattarella due to his euro-critical stance, forcing the two parties to opt for the more status quo-friendly Giovanni Tria.

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Berlusconi is the only person actively campaigning (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

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