Episode 89: Giovanni Capoccia on the Italian General Election

In this episode, Giovanni Capoccia shares his thoughts with Dominic about the recent elections and the victory of the Meloni coalition in Italy. They discuss the rise of euroscepticism, political disenfranchisement and politics of immigration.

Giovanni Capoccia is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Oxford, as well as a researcher. In particular, he focuses on democratization, political extremism, theories of institutional development, and European politics. He is also the author of two monographs: “Defending Democracy: Response to Extremism in Interwar Europe” and “The Historical Turn in Democratization Studies. He also wrote the article “The Italian elections and the threat to European Integration”.

Visit his website here, and twitter page.

You can read more interesting articles about the recent elections in Italy from Giovanni Capoccia:

-Interview with El Pais, article by Andrea Rizzi and Kiko Llarenas, 2/10/2022, at https://elpais.com/internacional/2022-10-01/el-auge-de-la-ultraderecha-llega-a-su-maximo-en-europa-uno-de-cada-seis-votos.html?rel=buscador_noticias

-Brief for Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies “The Italian elections of 2022: What do they mean for the EU?”, at https://www.sieps.se/en/publications/2022/the-italian-elections-of-2022–what-do-they-mean-for-the-eu/

-European Consortium of Political Research Blog “The Loop” 30/09/2022 “Italian General Elections: The far right sweeps to power under Giorgia Meloni”, at https://theloop.ecpr.eu/italian-general-election-the-far-right-sweeps-to-power-under-giorgia-meloni/

-BBC News interview (“The Context”) 26/09/2022 at https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001cmc9/the-context-with-christian-fraser-26092022

-Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview (“Day 6”), 24 September 2022, at https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-14-day-6/clip/15938521-italy-seems-poised-elect-far-right-prime-minister

-Webinar for Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, “Italy goes to the polls: What will it mean for the EU?”, 22/09/2022, at https://vimeo.com/752759361

-European Consortium of Political Research Blog “The Loop” 14/09/2022 “Italy’s odd turn to the right”, at https://theloop.ecpr.eu/italys-odd-turn-to-the-right/ -European Consortium of Political Research Blog “The Loop” 24/08/2022 “The Italian elections and the threat to European integration”, at https://theloop.ecpr.eu/the-italian-elections-and-the-threat-to-european-integration/

The International Risk Podcast Episode Transcript

Dominic Bowen 01:32

Good morning. I’m Dominic Bowen, and I’m the host of the International risk Podcast. Today we’re joined by Giovanni Capoccia who’s the professor of comparative politics at the University of Oxford and the author of the article, the Italian elections and the threat to European integration. Welcome to the podcast today, Giovanni.

Giovanni Capoccia 01:49

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Dominic Bowen 01:53

It’s great to have you on the podcast today. Giovanni. Many of our listeners will no doubt be aware of the current electoral and the election results in Italy. But for those that are not apparently with Neo fascist roots and brothers of Italy looks like they’ve secured the most votes in Italy’s national election looking to deliver Italy’s first far right led government since World War Two and to make its leader Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female Premier, are you surprised by this result?

Giovanni Capoccia 02:21

No, I don’t think anybody is surprised by these results, given how the polls have been going in the last year or so. Georgia Maloney’s party in brothers of Italy was slowest for poor point 4% in 2018. But it has been rising steadily in the polls. Since then, one look at the historical series of the polls that have been served feel that in this time, this five years, one sees a steady rise, landing exactly in the mid 20s, where the party is today.

Dominic Bowen 02:55

In 2018, it would be difficult for anyone then to predict it in 2022. That’d be the leading party. How is that occurred? And what’s the reason behind that?

Giovanni Capoccia 03:05

Well, one thing to say certainly is that the party brothers of Italy, has been the only party only party of some significance, let’s say to constantly be in the opposition. Over the last five years. last five years, I’ve seen three different governments in Italy, the first one a pretty unusual coalition between the northern league that at the time, or I should say the league, because that’s the new name of the party at the time, faring much better than now around 18%. Joining forces with quite politically undefinable in terms of left right Five Star movement that in 2018, polled as the largest party in Italy with more than 30% more than 32% To be precise. So the two parties together, five star and Five Star Movement and northern league formed a quite unexpected coalition. That was the only possibility after it was pretty clear that none of the three poles that existed at the time in the Italian film centre right or centre left and the Five Star Movement on itself would have a majority. So the five cent movement formula government with the league with the League for the last for about a year and a half. This was replaced by an also quite unexpected alliance between the Five Star Movement and the left and the centre left that also acid and other roughly a year and a half. And that one was replaced by a government of national unity, headed by Mario Draghi. They lasted until now also roughly 18 months. Throughout these three governments, brothers of Italy was in opposition and therefore they could capitalise on anything that was, let’s say, cause of dissatisfaction for whatever electoral constituency in the case of the draggy government, the last government that is still formally in charge, they could also probably capitalise on the fact that draggy was a technocrat and so they could also push on the rhetoric of restoring democracy and a democratically elected government. The other factor is that the what have been until five years ago, the key member of this coalition that was going is foresight earlier, has been on a slow, long and steady decline. At the European elections of 2019. The party of Slovenia scored 34%. And since then has been, however, declining because unlike Maloney, Liga did take part in two of the three governments that I mentioned before.

Dominic Bowen 05:23 I think turnout for the recent election in Italy was a historic low of about 64%. Is it and this is this is concerning, you know, when somebody looks at data, somebody looks at risks and trends, you know, I see this as a potential of a potential concern. It is possible, of course, that voters sat at home in impact to protest, and also because they were disenfranchised by the backroom deals that have created three governments since the last election. But what can be done to reduce the risks of continued political disenfranchisement?

Giovanni Capoccia 05:52

Yes, turnout in Italy used to be very high, in past decades in the beginning of the Italian Republic was in the 90s. And he stayed relatively higher than many other European countries, I should say the decline of turnout is a common phenomenon across western democracies, it’s not just typical of Italy. So if anything easily goes higher than many others, but this doesn’t change the fact that over the last nine years, that is to say, since the 2013, elections, turnout has declined by almost 15%. And that is quite striking. Now, what can be done to increase to read, to bring people back to vote. So now what can be done to be bring people back to believing in politics and democratic politics and therefore to turn out to vote? Well, one thing that changed in the last two decades in Italy is the collapse of the party organisations. That is to say, people were in general mobilised and socialised. Even in the early years of their in the early decades of the Republic, by large parties that have very deep roots in society. These parties have been swept away guess by corruption scandals, in the early 90s. But there were deeper reasons for that. But they haven’t been replaced by other parties that have a similar territorial consolidation. The only exception to this was the Lega. The northern League at some point was the oldest Italian part. Once the old Italian parties have been swept away the relatively new Lega was the most the oldest and most rooted in society in the north, especially Italian part. Now also the Lega seems to have been in crisis. This excessive electoral politics that I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, shows that vote is not really guided by parties, local action and local contact with citizens, but he’s driven by media or perhaps the will of people to vote for whoever is different from the previous people that were there before and obviously why some while some people might do that, other people might simply believe that is no longer worth to turn out.

Dominic Bowen 08:20

I mean, as European household energy bills have surged on the Austin set of both a quite a hot summer in Europe, we saw massive fires in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and in many other countries, Italy’s Prime Minister at the time Mario Draghi framed the sacrifices he was asking Italians to make on behalf of Ukraine as a stark choice. He asked Italians, do you want peace? Who you want air conditioning? And I think that was a great question. You know, perhaps it’s a bit simplistic, and it’s definitely simplistic. But you know, he’s question I think, was a reasonable question. And I think it was reasonable at the time. But that was in April, we’re now in September, October, we’re coming into winter, the European Union’s been paying 10 times the price for energy on the spot market. And if we look at the forward curves of energy prices, it’s not going to get better, both economically energy wise, or really in many other regards. And there are concerns that the comparatively inexperienced brothers of Italy, which is we’re expecting to leave the next government lacks the technical competence to navigate the lead through the current economic challenges. We’ve seen massive problems just in the UK in the last couple of days when it comes to the value of the currency and interest rates. And recently, we saw Italy’s former ambassador to NATO ask, you know, the question about will nations hold the line politically, and economically, especially with the becoming winter? So I wonder, Giovanni, what are your thoughts on the potential economic outcomes and the economic impact of the recent elections in Italy?

Giovanni Capoccia 09:45

Well, the economic objective situation will be very difficult. That seems everybody’s prediction. And I don’t think anybody does that. And the other thing is that it will be quite unpredictable, depending as it as it does on the development of the war in Ukraine, at least to an extent, European Union is taking steps for example, with the cap on the energy prices and other measures that might mitigate that, but the situation remains quite uncertain. About the relative inexperience and untested quality of brothers of Italy’s leading class or leadership, or government personnel, shall we say? That is true. And my impression is that Maloney will, again in her effort to reassure markets and allies and do everybody else, basically, that her government is in basic continuity with what are the things that governments have done on the foreign policy field – I think she will appoint non-party people at key ministries. Or at least that’s a possibility, and I’m thinking specifically about the finance minister and the foreign minister. But certainly everybody will be watching from outside Italy, very, very closely, these two choices. I should say that Melania, and brothers of Italy, have made an effort to attract, let’s say, outside personalities, non party personalities that had a different that have a different political history, then the typical leader or sub leader, or character of brothers of Italy. One of them, for example, is the old foreign minister of the Monti government about 10 years ago, who is a career diplomat and now probably a retired diplomat. So people like that might be our choice for the foreign minister. Similarly, other figures on Similarly, other figures have been contacted and, you know, made candidates in the elections, and some of them have been elected to the Parliament, that would be again, if appointed to keep posts in her government would offer reassuring fees to outside observers.  

Dominic Bowen 12:00

Okay, well, that sounds like a positive a positive steps are works. We’ll watch that. Watch that space closely. And Giovanni, you’re a professor of politics, you your work at the University of Oxford, you split your time when you travel globally. When you look internationally, it’s a question we often ask our guests as, as we’re, as we’re wrapping up at the end of the conversation, what are the risks that concern you globally? One of the biggest things that keep you awake at night or that pop up at dinner parties when you’re discussing risks and challenges internationally?

Giovanni Capoccia 12:30

Well, there are several elements of volatility in the international situation. So this will be probably for another conversation. So I’ll just pick one and that is the potential crisis of the European Union. This will be a pretty destabilising development, not just in Europe, but globally. Now, the European Union has slowly imposed itself as an international actor in its own right. Of course, it doesn’t have a fully fledged foreign policy. We all know that, but at least in the regulatory sense, being an incredibly rich and vibrant market. It has been able to export some of these regulations to other markets, or to other states. So it also has been able to provide security in financial terms to countries like Italy, for example. If Italy was outside the euro, and the EU, probably its financial, and budget situation would be even more precarious than it is now. So after Brexit, and after Trump takeover of the Republican Party in the US, the enemies of the EU have increased exponentially. I should also mention after the shootings turn to from initial West friendly, Western friendly attitude before 2010 is on turn as an enemy of the West has also added to the potential geopolitical concerns of the European Union. Brexit, Trump putting the hardening of Erdogan, autocratic system in Turkey, but these are all countries that would benefit from a weakening of the EU. Or at least I should say, these are all governments that should benefits of from a weakening of the EU. Now Trump is not in government, by the knees, but the GOP could come back to government in 2024, perhaps even with Trump himself. If it’s not true up, there is no indication that it would be anybody more moderate than Trump. So if anything would be a Trumpian candidate. So this is a risk. And, of course, this is compounded by the internal rise of people like Maloney or LePen. Or the radical right parties that even though as I said before, do not want to break up the block, or break from the block, they want to hollow it out. They want to take away as much as possible the supranational aspects of it, which is what makes the EU especially international subject, it’s not just a loose alliance of states, where everything is decided into governmentally, but it’s much more than that is stable set of institutions that try to with imperfection and problems and a lot of effort, try to articulate a common interest between its components states. So it will certainly the EU is certainly going towards a period of stagnation in integration and perhaps crisis. Now, should that turn into a severe weakening of it? I think that would be that is a risk that would destabilise the international system even more.

Dominic Bowen 15:37

How do you think the Euroskeptic view of the brothers of Italy was received by Italian voters during the campaign?

Giovanni Capoccia 15:45

Well, I, this wasn’t the main theme of the campaign. If one looks at the latest data, at least the latest data that I looked at, on support for the EU, they are relatively old now because it’s 2019. And so given the volatility that I refer to before, this should be taken with a pinch of salt but other time, at least the support EU in Italian politics were interested in the Italian electorate. So let me say that again. At that time, at least the support of Italian electors for the EU was above 60%. So, Euro scepticism is probably not a factor in the rise of Maloney, even though obviously, there have been and there are still today Euroskeptic electors in Italy. The reason for that is that Euro scepticism is a topic that has changed its skin in the last few years, especially after the negative consequences of Brexit for British the British economy. British politics became evident to everybody and in particular to other Euroskeptic parties across Europe. So since roughly 2017, no radical right party, whose programme was marred by a Euro scepticism before really talks about Exiting the EU and exiting the euro. Meloni is no exception to that she started in those positions, and then veered on what is today the normal position of Euroskeptic parties, which is reforming EU. But reforming the EU is quite a muddle position for at least for the standards of an electoral campaign. What does it mean everybody wants to reform the EU? In what direction? And when you get into the merits of these questions, things get quite technical quite quickly, and therefore not apt to the language of an electoral campaign. Well, one example is, for example, that in the common programme of the three parties of the right issued their own programme and then they also issue the coalition programme, there was sort of a synthesis of the three problems. Now the first point of this programme, is about Italy’s international position and includes how Italy governed by them, obviously, would position itself is a V NATO vis à vis the West and vis à vis, especially the Ukrainian war and so on, but also vis à vis the EU in on the EU part in the EU part this part of the programme says that the right wing coalition is in favour of European integration and in favour of having more Europe and that’s where they leave it for now. What does it mean to be in favour of European integration today? It means to, for example, support the European Commission on Ma’s fight on the rule of law, with, especially the polish and the euro Hungarian government. As we know, the issue of the supremacy of EU law over national law in matters of competence of the EU, for which there is no opt out, or other special arrangements is crucial to the functioning of the single market. And therefore, it’s crucial for European integration.

The way that worked in Hungary, and then in Poland, is that Euroskeptic parties went to government Euroskeptic governments then took away or reduced the independence of the magistracy and started basically punishing courts or influencing courts that were applying the EU law in areas in which the governments didn’t want to follow it. So there are two issues. And this one is the issue of liberal democracy. And these two countries Poland and Hungary have been backsliding on liberal democracy turning themselves into illiberal democracies in which the government aggrandize is and takes away the bite of checks and balances on its action. And there is the other issue of which law is superior to the other two, between national law and European Union law in matters of competence of the EU. Now what is the position on Maloney on this? First of all, in 2018, the party in Bologna presented a file, I should say, a constitutional reform bill, that aimed at taking away from the Italian Constitution, the parts, in which the Constitution says that Italy accepts limitation of sovereignty, in conditions of reciprocity with other countries to pursue through international treaties, what they call us peace and justice. Obviously, there’s a constitution so that the language is general. But this was seen broadly to be the basis for the Italian acceptance of the supremacy of the EU law in matters of EU competence. By planning to take away to cut out this parts of the Italian Constitution is pretty clear that Milania wants to change that balance. By changing that balance, even though she does not do it by attacking the magistracy. Or by punishing courts that would apply EU law over Italian law, it clearly first signals a very Euroskeptic position, because without the supremacy of EU law, apart from cases that are pretty clearly qualified, there is no predictability of law within the EU single market. And therefore, this is a way to disrupt European integration not to foster European integration.

Dominic Bowen 21:25

I mean, you mentioned the threat to liberal democracies in Hungary and Poland and the superiority of European Union and national law with regards to European Union competence, as well as Maloney’s desire to attack this balance. Last week, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that they are prepared to intervene to restore democracy when required. do you envisage that the European Commission’s comments about democracy has relevance for Italy in light of the recent election results?

Giovanni Capoccia 21:50

Given the open and enthusiastic endorsement or ban on the part of Melania, every possible opportunity, one could think legitimately that she might fall on that route. Personally, I don’t believe she would do that. For a series of external constraints that certainly have force in the short term. But attacking, for example, reducing the independence of the magistracy would unleash a fight within Italy within the Italian constitutional system, not only with him, just as He but also with the opposition. And in the middle of economic slash energy crisis, there seems quite violent, in which we haven’t seen anywhere near that was that was face yet any in the middle of an international crisis, the last thing I think that a minimum, the pragmatic government will want to do is to start that internal fight. And this was clear from the declarations that the leaders of the two main opposition parties gave during the electoral campaign and or just after the election, the opposition seems to have learned from or bonds and Hungary’s experience, for example, the head of the Five Star Movement, which is one of the winners of these elections, said very, very clearly Well, we will be a constructive opposition, but we will never allow the government to start eroding fundamental freedoms. Maloney herself perhaps, understanding and pre predicting this development, said during the campaign quite clearly that any reforms of the Constitution, Maloney’s party has expressed a preference for several reforms that we can talk about, but any of these reforms would have to be discussed with the opposition in a special committee of the two chambers of Parliament or some other forum that involves the opposition.

Dominic Bowen 23:50

And earlier you mentioned the coalition programme, and the first point being about Italy’s international position with regards to the west, the European Union and even Ukraine, where the right wing coalition is in favour of European Union integration and being more part of Europe. Georgia Maloney has repeatedly told the public during the election campaign, that the Italian identity is in danger, accusing Europe of ethnic substitution. Now someone listening to this might quickly draw some assumptions about the possible themes that Maloney is alluding to. What risks do you see with likely policy options that we pursued by this new government?

Giovanni Capoccia 24:30

In terms of immigration, these government is likely to harden the rules of immigration for immigration into Italy, and in particular, to reintroduce the decrease there Salvini. himself when he was Minister for Interior Affairs in the past Parliament introduced, these were rules that made it more difficult for orangey ships to disembark migrants on Italian shores that closed down some structure for welcoming migrants and so on so forth. These rules were then rolled back by the successive government, Five Star movement left and this government is likely to reintroduce them. So there will certainly be a hardening on the front of immigration. There will also be a lack of progress in the city or lack of change on the front of acquiring citizenship for immigrants, because there were several reforms that were being discussed, for example, introducing the use solely or what is called the use of scaly using laughing expression like in use solely referring simply to the fact that children of immigrants born in Italy, after completing a certain cycle of study could then become Italian citizens. So they’re so these rules, or these discussions, I should say, will probably be shelved, and rule or set of rules of citizenship will remain as they are now.

Dominic Bowen 25:55

Italy’ evolution, or move to the far right is highlighted in Europe’s geopolitical reality. And we saw that in the French elections recently, where it was over 31 million voters voted for the far right candidate. So this isn’t, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon within Europe, but Italy still is the third largest economy and a founding member of the European Union. I mean, they’re not a small actor. They are very significant. And we’ve already seen right wing leaders across Europe, hail Maloney’s victory and her party’s rise and said that it sends a historic message to Brussels. How do you think Brussels will respond and what options does the European Union have and what do you think? If you’re advising and then perhaps you are advising different actors in Brussels? What would your advice to them be?

Giovanni Capoccia 26:36

But then, apart from the, let’s say, somewhat imprudent words, choice of words by font, the lion in the US a few days ago, I think international actors such as the EU, but also us have been quite cautious on this new government, it’s not excessive credit that they’re giving into it. But because of course, they know the history, they know the language, they know their campaigns. And they know that prior expressions of the parties can pro composite his government visa vie, the European integration. But they, I think, are waiting to see what the actual attitude of the government will be in practice. Because one thing, of course, electoral campaigns, another thing to interact in practice with the European Union, and Italy has a few constraints there. First of all, is their next generation EU funds that are which Italy is the largest beneficiary, so almost 200 billion euros in between grants and loans that Italy has received as a consequence of the disruption caused by COVID. And are these only about 47 billion euros have been paid. So the 200 euros, they run a billion euros are meant to be over a number of years 21 billion have been paid today. So there’s still about 150 billion to go there. And these are earmarked for a structural reforms and or investments in the Italian economy or the type of infrastructure or the bureaucracy, the state. What the brothers of Italy party has said during the campaign is that they aim to renegotiate the next generation EU funding. Now, this is only possible in very limited cases and the European Union has already the European Commission more proceeded precisely has already said that they’re not open to full fledged renegotiation with Italy of these funding. What does this mean in practice? It’s unclear. So the European Union is waiting to the European Commission is waiting to see what they mean by renegotiation. And it is still unclear whether the renegotiation would be limited to some marginal adjustments, because there are some conditions have changed. And therefore, you need to tweak the funding or the destination on the funding at the margin, or whether they mean something much more profound by that much more structural by that, in the latter case, I think the EU will not be open to renegotiation. And the outcome of that is still very unclear.

Dominic Bowen 29:20

Yeah, certainly some very significant risks. And looking at looking at some big risks the Meloni lead government is largely expected with some exceptions, as we’ve already touched on to follow a large amount of Italy’s existing foreign policy, including the pro NATO stance, strong support for supplying Ukraine weapons to defend against Russian invasion, but some of her coalition allies take a slightly different tone. Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Salvini has warned that sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry. And he’s been saying that already everyday. This week he’s been making comments about, you know, sanctions against Moscow should be welcomed back and Berlusconi has even defended Russia’s invasion portraying Putin as a victim of pressure by pro Moscow separatists, and they’ve done this. What change did you expect to see with regards to at least position and foreign policy in Ukraine and Russia?

Giovanni Capoccia 30:00

Well, this is another matter on which things are very unclear, because you’re at there is a clear difference between brothers of Italy on the one hand and Slovenian, Berlusconi on the other hand for different reasons, between them but both are a much, let’s say more lenient and much more pro putting then then Maloney is on the matter of the Ukrainian invasion. So, as I said before, on many issues, as it often happens with radical right party campaigns. Let me say that again, as I said before, on many on many issues, Maloney has been quite vague or quite elusive. This is not uncommon for radical right, parties a campaign style. But on this issue of the support for Ukraine against puddings invasion, she has been very, very clear. Now, we should note that this is also a slight change, because in the past, she had also shown some signs of, let’s say, in a least abstract endorsement of Putin, but on this matter, and in the recent couple of years, she’s been much more distant from him, than Berlusconi, and Salvini. And I think this position is credible, because among the other places where she expressed it, she’s also expressed it in the CPAC conference of us conservatives, where she was invited a few weeks ago, she actually opened her speech with that point. She also added at the end, probably, to sweeten the pill that this was somehow connected with the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan ordered by Biden, then, of course has nothing to do with that. But she did say to American conservatives, the American CPAC conservatives, that something else than the real conservatives, that she would support Ukraine. As you mentioned, this is not the position of civilian Berlusconi. Berlusconi has a this long standing personal friendship with Putin and came up with that statement about Putin’s intention, which is simply ludicrous. And I think his team had done what they could to kind of circumscribe it and qualify it and take it back. But obviously, the damage was done. Whether these positions will matter in terms of keeping the coalition together, should for example, the situation of the war works, and all of a sudden, or when we reach a decision point about the renewing the sanctions and so on. It’s another open question. So it’s not clear. My impression is that at the end of the day, Salvini and Berlusconi will come around. But this is a complete speculation. It’s very early to say,

Dominic Bowen 32:43

No, I appreciate that analysis, that’s very relevant. Certainly a topic we can explore in another conversation. But thank you very much for coming on the podcast today and providing some great insight onto the current political situation in Italy.

Giovanni Capoccia 32:55

Thank you very much for having me.

Dominic Bowen 32:57

Well, that was a great conversation with Dr. Giovanni kabocha a professor of comparative politics at the University of Oxford. I really appreciated hearing Dr. Giovanni’s thoughts on the current political machinations in Italy, the risks really and internationally, please go to wherever you download your podcasts and give this podcast a five star review your positive reviews on this podcast. And subscribing to future downloads is critical for success. I’m Dominic Bowen, thank you for listening. And we’ll speak again next week

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