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/

Giovanni Capoccia The International Risk Podcast discussing Italy

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 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 it looks like Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, has secured the most votes and is 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 Meloni’s party Brothers of Italy polled at about 4% in , but it has been rising steadily in the polls. Since then, if one looks at the historical series of the polls in the last 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 has 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 of some significance to constantly be in the opposition. The last five years have seen three different governments in Italy. The first one was a pretty unusual coalition between the Northern League, or I should say the League, because that’s the new name of the party, at the time faring much better than now at around 18%, joining forces with the 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 Movement and 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 –the Italian centre right or centre left and the Five Star Movement itself– would have a majority. So the Five Star Movement formed a government with the League that lasted for about a year and a half. This was replaced by an also quite unexpected alliance between the Five Star Movement and the centre left that also lasted roughly a year and a half. And that one was replaced by a government of national unity, headed by Mario Draghi that 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, a cause of dissatisfaction for whatever electoral constituency. In the case of the Draghi government –the last government that is still formally in charge– they could also probably capitalise on the fact that Draghi is a technocrat and so they could also push on the rhetoric of restoring democracy and a democratically elected government. The other factor is that what have been until five years ago, the key member of this coalition, Forza Italia, has been on a slow, long and steady decline. At the European elections of 2019, the party of Salvini scored 34%. Since then it has been, however, declining because unlike Meloni, Lega 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%. 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 it was in the 90s, and it stayed relatively higher than in 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 it is still higher than many other countries, 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 turnout, to bring people back to vote? What can be done to be bring people back to believing in politics, 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 party organisations. That is to say, people were in general mobilised and socialised, in the early years, in the early decades of the Republic, by large parties that had very deep roots in society. These parties have been swept away by corruption scandals, in the early 90s, although 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 party. Once the old Italian parties had been swept away the relatively new Lega was the oldest and most rooted in society in the north especially, Italian party. Now also the Lega seems to be in crisis. The 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 it’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 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 doubts that. And the other thing is that it will be quite unpredictable, depending as it does on the development of the war in Ukraine, at least to an extent. The 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 leadership –government personnel, shall we say– that is true. And my impression is that Meloni will, again in her effort to reassure markets and allies and show everybody else, basically, that her government is in basic continuity with the things that governments have done in 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. Certainly everybody will be watching from outside Italy, very, very closely, these two choices. I should say that Meloni, and Brothers of Italy, have made an effort to attract, let’s say, outside personalities, non party personalities that have a different political history than the typical leader or sub leader of Brothers of Italy. One of them, for example, is the old foreign minister of the Monti government of about 10 years ago, who is a career diplomat and now a retired diplomat. So, people like that might be her choice for the Foreign Ministry. Similarly, other similar figures have been contacted and made candidates in the elections, and some of them have been elected to the Parliament, who would again, if appointed to keep posts in her government offer reassurances to outside observers.

Dominic Bowen 12:00

Okay, well, that sounds like positive steps are at work. We’ll watch that. Watch that space closely. And Giovanni, you’re a professor of politics, you 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. I’ll just pick one, and that is the potential crisis of the European Union. This would 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, to other states. It has also 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. After Brexit, and after the Trump takeover of the Republican Party in the US, the enemies of the EU have increased exponentially. I should also mention Putin’s turn to from initial West friendly, Western friendly attitudes before 2010, as an enemy of the West has also added to the potential geopolitical concerns of the European Union. Brexit, Trump, Putin, the hardening of Erdogan’s autocratic system in Turkey –these are all countries that would benefit from a weakening of the EU. Or at least I should say, these are all governments that would benefit from a weakening of the EU. Now Trump is not in government, but the GOP could come back to government in 2024, perhaps even with Trump himself. If it’s not Trump, 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 Meloni or Le Pen, 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 a  special international subject; it’s not just a loose alliance of states, where everything is decided intergovernmentally, but it’s much more than that. It’s a stable set of institutions that try –with imperfection and problems and a lot of effort– try to articulate a common interest between its component states. So, 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 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, 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 they are from 2019 so given the volatility that I refer to before this should be taken with a pinch of salt, but at the time at least the support of Italian electors for the EU was above 60%. So, Euroscepticism is probably not a factor in the rise of Meloni, even though obviously there have been and there are still today Euroskeptic electors in Italy. The reason for that is that Euroscepticism is a topic that has changed its skin in the last few years, especially after the negative consequences of Brexit for Britain, the British economy and 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 characterized by Euroscepticism before, really talks about exiting the EU and exiting the euro. Meloni is no exception to that. She started on those positions, and then veered on what is today the normal position of Euroskeptic parties, which is “reforming the EU”. But reforming the EU is quite a complex issue 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. One example is, for example, that in the common programme of the three parties of the right –they issued their own programmes and then they also issue the coalition programme that was sort of a synthesis of the three programmes. Now the first point of this programme is about Italy’s international position and includes how Italy governed by them, obviously would position itself vis-à-vis 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 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”.  That’s where they leave it for now. What does it mean to be “in favour” of European integration today? It means, for example, to support the European Commission on its fight on the rule of law, with especially the Polish and the Hungarian governments. 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 it 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. 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 itself and takes away the bite of checks and balances on its actions. And then there is the other issue of which law is superior between national law and European Union law in matters of competence of the EU. Now what is the position of Meloni on this? First of all, in 2018, the party presented, or filed 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 the Constitution calls “peace and justice”. Obviously, it’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, these parts of the Italian Constitution, it’s pretty clear that Meloni 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 signals a very Euroskeptic position, because without the supremacy of EU law, apart from cases that are 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 Meloni’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 of Orban on the part of Meloni at every possible opportunity, one could think legitimately that she might follow him 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 for example, reducing the independence of the magistracy would unleash a fight within Italy and within the Italian constitutional system, not only with the magistracy but also with the opposition. And in the middle of an economic/energy crisis that seems quite violent, in which we haven’t seen anywhere near what we will face yet, and in the middle of an international crisis, the last thing I think that at a minimum, a 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 Orban’s 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.” Meloni herself perhaps, understanding and predicting this development, said during the campaign quite clearly that any reforms of the Constitution (Meloni’s party has expressed a preference for several reforms that we can talk about) would have to be discussed with the opposition in a special committee of the two chambers of Parliament, or in 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 Meloni 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, this government is likely to harden the rules for immigration into Italy, and in particular to reintroduce the “decrees Salvini” that he introduced when he was Minister for Interior Affairs in the past Parliament. These were rules that made it more difficult for NGO ships to disembark migrants on Italian shores, that closed down some structure for welcoming migrants, and so on and so forth. These rules were then rolled back by the successive government Five Star Movement/left and the coming government is likely to reintroduce them. So, there will certainly be a hardening of rules on the front of immigration. There will also be a lack of progress, 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 “jus soli” or what is called the “jus scholae”, which refers simply to the fact that children of immigrants born in Italy, after completing a certain cycle of study, could then become Italian citizens. These rules, or these discussions I should say, will probably be shelved, and the rules for acquiring 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 Von der Leyen in the US a few days ago, I think international actors such as the EU, but also the US have been quite cautious on this new government, it’s not excessive credit what they’re giving it because of course, they know the history, they know the language, they know their campaigns. And they know that prior expressions of the parties that will compose this government vis-a-vis 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, is the electoral campaign, another thing is to interact in practice with the European Union, and Italy has a few constraints there. First of all is the next generation EU funds of 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 of these only about 47 billion euros have been paid. The 200 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. And these are earmarked for structural reforms and/or investments in the Italian economy, to improve 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 precisely has already said that they’re not open to full-fledged renegotiation with Italy of this funding. What does this mean in practice? It’s unclear. So, the European Union, 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 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. 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 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 right, there is a clear difference between Brothers of Italy, on the one hand, and Salvini, Berlusconi on the other hand, for different reasons but both are much, let’s say, more lenient and much more pro Putin than Meloni is, on the matter of the Ukrainian invasion. As I said before, on many issues, as it often happens with radical right party campaigns, Meloni has been quite vague, quite elusive. This is not uncommon for radical right parties’ campaign style. But on this issue of the support for Ukraine against Putin’s 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, at least an 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, that of course has nothing to do with it. But she did say to American conservatives, the American CPAC conservatives, therefore something else than the real conservatives, that she would support Ukraine. As you mentioned, this is not the position of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi has this long-standing personal friendship with Putin and came up with that statement about Putin’s intentions, which is simply ludicrous. And I think his team has 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 worsen all of a sudden, or when we reach a decision point about renewing the sanctions, is 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

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 International Risk 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 Capoccia 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 to The International Risk Podcast, and we’ll speak again next week.

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