The impossible alliance

The coalition parties, the League and 5SM, are preparing to wage electoral battle, albeit meekly and without putting their government at risk

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini shakes hands with Polish Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski during a visit to Warsaw. From the podium in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, Salvini launched his campaign asking for a mandate to negotiate with Europe. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS/Contrast
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini shakes hands with Polish Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski during a visit to Warsaw. From the podium in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, Salvini launched his campaign asking for a mandate to negotiate with Europe. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS/Contrast

The picture we get after the first months of the League-5SM government suggests that this that never gave the impression of being normal and was never passed off as such, as proven by the use of a term more often associated to the private sector when referring to the coalition agreement as a "contract". Based as it is on a contractual understanding, this startling anomaly was initially fuelled by the illusion that it could last for the entire legislation, in spite of the obvious clash of interests between the two electorates. 

Even without a rebus sic stantibus  clause – meaning that the deal holds until previously unforeseen events entail changes – the League's rise in the polls at the expense of its ally has started to punch holes in the contract and put the government at risk.

Hence the need, as in a hand of poker, to see the rival's hand, count each other's votes and the actual leverage of the government stakeholders and then act accordingly. This is the political paradox surrounding the European elections in May for the League and the 5SM: having to campaign against each other without doing too much damage, or running the risk of toppling their government in the process.

To avoid widening the current rift within the ruling majority, the two parties are focusing on different yet non-divisive issues set in a broader temporal framework in order not to address internal matters. A marked difference compared to the previous two European campaigns when both Matteo Renzi and the fourth Berlusconi government saw the election as a way of reinforcing their mandate.

Thus Matteo Salvini's trip to Warsaw for meetings with the Polish right wing, and Luigi Di Maio's attempts to build unlikely pre-electoral coalitions are campaign moves. When campaigning for Europe blows are landed, but they are all above the belt and nowhere near as vicious as those that the 5SM and the League exchanged before March 4 2018.

From the stage in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, Salvini launched his campaign by asking for a mandate to negotiate with Europe. Even though these words were pronounced in the thick of the negotiations with Brussels on the budget, they referred to a general mandate for change to the European institutional framework, in line with those, like Orban, who claim they are not against Europe but against 'this' Europe.

Ranked as the top European 'shaper' for 2019 by the influential Brussels media outlet Politico, Salvini claims he means to protect the European dream. This is a rehash of the League's earlier approach, influenced by a hoard of stalwart anti-euro campaigners such as Claudio Borghi and Alberto Bagnai (both now preside over highly strategic parliamentary commissions), who Salvini had taken on board in an attempt to broaden his base and 'nationalise' the Northern League party.

While Salvini has rediscovered a "pro-European" inclination, the 5SM's campaign is a throwback to its earlier days, seeing as at least in Europe it can side with the opposition. The campaign was formally launched with an improvised trip to Strasbourg by Di Maio and Di Battista on board a minivan driven by the deputy prime minister to call for the abolition of the two houses of the European Parliament.

The 5SM's Strasbourg operation was a monument to political disintermediation, an adventurous attempt to 'storm the palace', all documented via social media while sidelining traditional press sources (and thus any level of unbiased discussion).

The idea for the European elections is to the export the logic behind the government contract on a broader scale, pressing home a manifesto that will stand as the basis for the future parliamentary group led by the 5 Stars. Anyone intent on promoting direct democracy and fighting waste can tag along, regardless of where they line up in the political spectrum.

The minivan assault on Strasbourg was also the first, albeit indirect, blow landed by the 5SM on its government ally. Standing in front of the European parliament, Di Maio accused the League of joining a group of political forces that are against redistributing the migrants throughout Europe and back austerity measures.

If one can't attack one's ally directly, then the ally's allies become the target, which makes the issue of alliances crucial for these elections. At the moment Grillo's men have burned their bridges in Europe, especially in their relations with the League. The European Green party has recently stated that they were in touch with the 5SM troops, but all contact ended once they joined forces with Salvini. Even the liberals of Alde, close to an agreement with Casaleggio halfway through the current legislation, have now said that an agreement with the 5SM is no longer on the cards.

Having sounded out the traditional political families to no avail and abandoned the marriage of convenience with Nigel Farage’s UKIP due to Brexit, they are now in search of true soul mates, which may not exist. And the strategy of trying to form their own parliamentary group before the elections, besides being unusual, may prove unfruitful if not detrimental.

At the moment they have approached marginal parties such as the Polish Kukiz'15, the Croatian populists of Zivi Zid and the Finnish Liike Nyt. The latter only have one seat in the Finnish parliament and almost no chance of winning any of the 14 awarded to the northern state in Strasbourg. The few and scarcely significant shows of interest risk frustrating the whole operation and have somewhat curtailed the group's ambitions.

The League, however, has a mission impossible on its hands: creating a new European right wing faction by uniting Marine Le Pen's international sovereigntists and the conservatives of ECR, currently dominated by the Polish PiS party headed by Kaczynski, whom Salvini met in January in Warsaw.  If it is unable to gain traction with these two very separate families on issues such as the role of Russia in Europe, Salvini could aim to replace the British Tories within the European conservative group.

Beyond the divisions, an issue that unites these two very different allies is the exploitation of a widespread anti-French sentiment for political purposes. Rather than highlighting conflicting economic interests (such as the Vivendi and Fincantieri-Stx disputes) or political ones (the main one regarding Libya), the League and the 5SM representatives seem intent on harping on the more folkloristic aspects of the rivalry rooted in the collective consciousness.

While Salvini's gibes are only levelled at French President Emmanuel Macron, the anti-French approach adopted by the 5SM is somewhat more sophisticated: it involves backing the yellow vests, fingering French colonialism in Africa and turning its back on Europe on the migrant issue. The French response, ranging from "we're not going to have a stupidity contest with Italy" by EU minister Loiseau, to Macron's claim that the Italian people deserve a leader in keeping with its history, do nothing but raise the temperature of the political campaign.

But it hasn’t always been so. Though they currently seem very distant, En Marche and the 5SM have sniffed each other out in the past. Last March there was talk of a meeting, later denied, while in April a 5 Star delegation to the European parliament had appreciated the words spoken by Macron at the plenary session and stated their readiness to collaborate with him. The League once again put a damper on any progress: "We won't be speaking to anyone who governs with friends of Le Pen's", was the response from across the Alps once the 5SM had been sworn into power.

@gerardofortuna

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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