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La Stampa - February 28, 2013
Foreigners, especially journalists and politicians, love jokes and simplifications, which is why so many have reached for the word “clowns” to describe Italy’s stunning election result, ranging from Germany’s Peer Steinbrueck to the English magazine that used to employ me until 2006, The Economist. But it is a big mistake to make fun of this result, or of Beppe Grillo personally. Europe, like Italy, needs to take it very seriously indeed.
Although the result was remarkable in the way it confounded earlier opinion polls and in the tangled Parliamentary mess that it has produced, it was not really surprising. Many voters were in pain, financial pain; many voters, sometimes the same as those in pain, sometimes different, were desperate for change, for hope that something might at last change in Italian politics or Italian government.
That situation is particularly clear in Italy, with the pain and the desire for change particularly acute. But other countries share this too. So when an election rewards one candidate who listened to the pain and focused single-mindedly on a way to ease it, and another candidate who stands virtually alone in campaigning for change, other European countries need to pay attention. The fact that the first was Silvio Berlusconi and the second Beppe Grillo is unfortunate for Italy’s international image, but so be it. That image will pass.
The serious message for Europe does not lie in the detail of the policy programmes of either Grillo or Berlusconi, nor in any immediate danger to the euro. The serious message lies in the sense that demanding fiscal austerity, year after year, in every country in the euro-zone, cannot work for long in political terms unless it can be connected to a positive message of hope, of new opportunities, of a brighter future for your children and grandchildren.
It was that message that President Mario Monti failed to convey. Nor did Pier-Luigi Bersani, especially as his PD symbolized the old ways of doing politics. But it is also the problem with the unrelenting message that comes from Berlin and Chancellor Angela Merkel: fiscal discipline in order to achieve competitiveness is not a message that inspires or makes people feel positive. It can work for a year or two. But the euro crisis is now approaching three years old.
Whether or not it learns that lesson, the world will now be watching Italy, and especially Berlusconi and Grillo, in a state of nervous fascination. Those who know Italian politics can make a reasonable attempt to predict how Berlusconi will behave: he will exploit his political position for maximum gain, and will already be trying to work out which deputies and senators in other parties, especially the 5SM, could be persuaded to change sides and join the PDL.
No one, certainly outside Italy but probably also inside, knows how to predict Grillo’s behavior, however. Nor perhaps can he, since this is a new situation for him too, and he must be wondering how on earth he is going to keep command of his 162 Parliamentarians, about most of whom he knows almost nothing. Certainly, he needs to lead, by focusing on some key areas of reform that he can demand from the PD and the PDL. But which and with what threats? Those are the trickier questions.
Of course it is a dangerously volatile moment, and of course the financial markets are right to be worried about Italy. Yet, given the discrediting of the political class in recent years, given the strong sense of unreality or denial that has so often dominated the political and economic debate, the moment also feels quite exciting.
Perhaps that is easier for a non-Italian than an Italian to say. We don’t have to live with the consequences. But if Italy is ever to truly wake up, then the alarm call probably has to sound rather like this one, so strong has been the resistance of the political parties, of big business federations and of trade unions to the need for change. Such alarm calls have been ignored, or shouted down, before, and that could happen again. If that were to happen, however, the effects really could be serious. There would be no comfort to be had from clowns.