Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (L) reviews the honour guards with his Libyan counterpart Fayez al-Sarraj at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (L) reviews the honour guards with his Libyan counterpart Fayez al-Sarraj at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy, July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

In Europe, as France and Germany redesign the future, Italy is caught navel-gazing…

READ MORE: Italy news this week - 18 September 2017

Libya: Italy open to discussions even with Haftar

In the last days of August, the Italian Minister for the Interior, Marco Minniti, held private meetings in Benghazi, where he met with general Khalifa Hafter, the proud opponent of the Presidential Council in Tripoli, who is nevertheless backed by the international community and particularly by France. The meeting – the first between a member of the Italian government and the Benghazi strong-man – was revealed by the Libyan daily Al Wasat, which is close to Haftar, and published a photo of the two of them together. It then transpired that Minniti asked the general to lower his bellicose tones against Italy, ensuring, for his part, that Italy has no intention of coming up with a political solution to the conflict currently raging in the country, that does not involve a role for Haftar himself. The incident was significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it proves how Minniti is at this point providing "support" for the Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, on all matters related to Libya, and not just the migratory issue. Secondly, it is now very clear that the government in Rome is set on interfering with the diplomatic actions undertaken by French President Emmanuel Macron who on 25 July hosted a meeting between Haftar and the leader of the Presidential Council of Tripoli Fayez al-Sarraj. Minniti's decision has strengthened Sarraj's hand, who can now rely on a reasonably efficient Coast Guard, a limited Italian military presence in Tripoli and the backing of at least 14 municipalities: all those along the coast of Tripolitania, plus Qatrun and Kufra, two centres of the southern Fezzan region strategically placed along the caravan routes the caravans linking Niger, Chad and Egypt. Having reinforced its ally in this way, Italy can now have direct discussions with the leader of the Benghazi militias, while awaiting the political elections to be held next spring. 

Renzi alone against all-comers in Sicily

The political debate in this last part of the summer is dominated by a) issues connected to migration, b) the Sicilian regional elections and c) the drafting of the next budget. The Chamber of Deputies has now got back to work on its reform of the electoral law in its Constitutional Affairs commission. The crucial appointment, which all political leaders have jotted down in their diaries, is the vote in Sicily, which could lead to radical upheavals, particularly within the Democratic Party camp. The result of the vote is of no particular concern to Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whose political future will if anything depend on the electoral reform and therefore on the results of the next political elections. The 5 Star Movement is relying very much on a victory in the Sicilian elections, in the hope that it may blow wind into its sails with political elections on the horizon. A defeat would certainly put the dampers on Grillo's faction's progress, but it would not completely scupper its chances of success nor would it jeopardize its political survival. By the same token, the centre-right now stands united once again, and is hoping to win out in Sicily, but once again, even if defeated, it would not completely forfeit the opportunity of forming a future national government after the political elections. There's only one player who has everything to lose from the Sicilian vote and that is Matteo Renzi. The secretary of the Democratic Party has so far only managed to reach an agreement with Angelino Alfano, the Foreign Affairs Minister and leader of Alternativa Popolare, and with the outgoing regional president Rosario Crocetta. These are the only "allies" the DP can rely on as ballots are about to be cast in Sicily. To the left, only Giuliano Pisapia backs Renzi's candidate to preside the Sicilian regional assembly, the dean of Palermo University Fabrizio Micari, but the former Milan mayor has no following on the island. The fierce infighting between the various left-wing factions could in actual fact convince him to step down from active political involvement. The Democratic and Progressive Movement, Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) and the other far-left factions have decided to back Claudio Fava, thus cutting into the voter pool of a Democratic Party that is already in disarray. 

Electoral reform after the Sicilian elections? 

The situation of the Democratic Party in Sicily is so precarious that according to sources within the DP, Renzi is even considering the option of not including the party's symbol on the electoral ballot sheet. According to a recent poll carried out by Euromedia, if the vote was held today, the DP would only secure 12.4% of the vote, while Forza Italia would hold on to 22.9% and the 5 Star Movement as much as 33.7%. It's certainly a little early to make any predictions, but a heavy electoral defeat in Sicily could lead many within the PD to start questioning Renzi's party leadership. The balance of power ratified at the most recent party conference has after all changed quite considerably since, both within the assembly and party management. What is important here however, is that within the parliamentary groups the Culture Minister Dario Franceschini can still rely on a considerable following. A victory by the centre-right in Sicily, and even more so a victory by the 5 Star Movement, would immediately open the debate within the Democratic Party regarding alliances and therefore, the electoral law. Renzi would end up under attack and the likelihood of an alliance with Alfano and Pisapia would be heavily disputed. A possible shift in allegiances by Franceschini's men could  prove decisive in approving an electoral law that grants a majority premium to the winning coalition and which may then lead to the reformation of the traditional centre-left. A sort of "new Ulivo" which would encompass all the left wing factions with a few reliable centrist allies. A formation that Renzi, owing to his political approach and conduct, would hardly be suited to lead. 

Immigration continues to dominate the political debate

In spite of the considerable drop in illegal immigrant landings, achieved thanks to the actions of the Minister of the Interior, the immigration issue still holds sway in the media, particularly as a result of a few serious incidents, such as the brutal rape of a young Polish girl in Rimini. On Thursday September 7, the Médecins sans Frontières organisation published a report on illegal immigrant camps in Libya that provides details of rape and torture being perpetrated on the migrants. The organisation's management is accusing the European government, and the Italian one in particular, of having brought about this situation by shutting down the Mediterranean route. In an Italian political context, these accusations have been mainly echoed by Emma Bonino, who has proceeded to level very direct attacks on the Minister for the Interior Marco Minniti. It is unfortunately true that the level of intolerance towards immigrants has peaked as never before in Italy, proof being the brouhaha  raised by the death of a child infected by malaria in a hospital in Trento.  

Gentiloni conquers all

It is in this climate that Matteo Renzi once again calls for the introduction of the "ius soli" (citizenship by birth), suggesting that the government may call for a vote of no confidence in order to approve the reform of citizenship rights. The DP secretary's proposal is so politically damaging that it would seem to be dictated by mere frustration. The former prime minister, according to sources within the DP, is becoming increasingly irritated by the appreciation shown by both Italian and foreign leaders and business men towards the current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. The latter, while adopting the very understated approach that is his trademark, is proving to be increasingly free of the tutelage of the party secretary and in the speech given on Saturday 2 September at the Cernobbio conference he stated: "I am not a prime minister who works miracles". Looking at the growth in employment, claimed by Renzi as a result of his labour reform, Gentiloni instead believes that the "rise in employment is still grossly unsatisfactory". Even the Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan has been distancing himself from the former prime minister by refusing to go along with  all the proposed expenditure Renzi wishes to be included in the next budget. Though fully aware of the need for measures promoting growth, Padoan also believes that the "budget should not be damaging". The Italian government seems to have earned itself the unlikely support of Germany and its allies. The German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has publically approved the salvage of the banks in the Veneto region. The Vice-president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans has applauded Rome's actions in Libya, fully justifying the restrictions imposed on NGO's ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and current president of the Eurogroup, has launched into somewhat unusual praise of Italy's past and present efforts in addressing the banking crisis and its public debt. Finally, the European Court of Justice has rejected the appeal presented by Hungary and Slovakia against the obligation to welcome a quota of refugees, opening the way to a review of the Dublin accord: a crucial outcome for Italy.  

Northern League: Cernobbio spawns a Salvini fit for government

On Sunday 3 September the leaders of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, and the 5 Star Movement, Luigi di Maio, took to the floor on separate occasions at the economic forum held in Cernobbio. The invitation sent out to the two politicians pointed to the interest, and perhaps fear, shared by Italy's industrial and financial elite towards the two political forces that are perceived as being "anti-establishment". This is at least the picture drawn by the majority of the national press when announcing the two leader's presence at the forum, despite their unquestionable differences. Salvini was very much at ease when meeting the audience of businessmen and investors and claimed that many issues on his political agenda match theirs such as the reduction of taxation and a limitation to migration. After all, his party was in government for many years and is still rather successfully managing the Lombardy and Veneto regions with their 15 million inhabitants and over 500 bn worth of GDP: almost a third of Italy's entire domestic product. In recent weeks Salvini has restrained his controversial attitudes, reached an agreement with Silvio Berlusconi on the rebuilding of the centre-right for both the Sicilian, but also the national vote and has transformed his party into a national league, thus overcoming his northern regionalism. In this same vein at Cernobbio he announced the launch of a program designed to introduce bold infrastructural innovations to the south of Italy: a fast speed train link between Salerno and Palermo and the upgrading of the ports in Taranto and Augusta. A program that would require 22 bn in investment over the course of 6-8 years, with the aim of increasing the transhipment capacity of the ports from 6 to between 25 and 30 TEU to and from the "key continent for the future of Italian logistics: Africa".  

5 Star Movement: the ambitions of Di Maio and the Gabanelli trump card

During his stay in Cernobbio, Luigi Di maio was mainly concerned with earning himself a reputation as a reliable leader, though he ended up confirming all his limitations. He has effectively disavowed his earlier positions against the European single currency and now claims to be a truly committed European, but the only real proposal he came up with was his plan to turn Italy into a "smart nation", a country in the forefront of new computer technology, without actually providing any details on how this is supposed to be achieved. The Movement will hold its national conference from 22 to 24 of September in Rimini, where it will present the party's program, and on this occasion they are also supposed to announce their candidate for prime minister. Di Maio is unanimously considered the likely winner of this internal contest, followed by the Roman member of parliament Alessandro Di Battista. However, they both appear totally unsuitable to leading a nation with a mature economy and sixty million inhabitants. By the same token, neither of them seems capable of carrying the 5SM beyond the 40% vote threshold they would require based on the current electoral law to guarantee themselves a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. That's why an incident that would seem totally unrelated to the 5SM leadership issue has received so much coverage. On Thursday 7 September the television presenter Milena Gabanelli refused the offer of the post as deputy director of Rai News 24 made by the public broadcaster's board. The journalist stated that she didn't want to work for a product that didn't bear her own name and asked the company's director general, Mario Orfeo, to be put her on un-paid leave. Her decision is in all likelihood dictated by her frustration at not being asked to run the new information channel, which had previously been offered to her by the former managing director Antonio Campo Dall'Orto. Gabanelli however has entertained a very close relationship with the 5 Star Movement's management, which had included her name in their short list for Republican President. Highly popular among Grillo's followers, the presenter has a reputation as an incorruptible champion of legality and the movement could invite her to become their candidate for the premiership. 

Economy and politics – the Fincantieri saga rolls on…

In Cernobbio , during the economic forum, the presence of major figures of the French business and political communities was quite overwhelming. Those invited to address the assembly included the Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire, the former president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, the managing director of Generali, Philippe Donnet and that of UniCredit, Jean-Pierre Mustier. The forum was instead not attended by Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the chairman of Vivendi and deputy managing director of Tim, who was also expected. The Economics Minister announced that he will be in Rome tomorrow, 11 September, to present the Italian government and Fincantieri's management with a new proposal concerning the STX France shipyards. Le Maire's project, as far as we can make out, is to  set up a new joint company between Fincantieri and Naval Group – the French company whose strong suit is military naval construction, which would encompass STX France. The idea seems to sit well with many who had previously condemned the Paris government's decision to block the acquisition of STX France by Fincantieri.

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