ROME—Sometimes a week feels like a year, sometimes it feels like it never happened at all. The latter is exactly how it feels in Rome right now. One week ago, a fiercely populist government led by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Northern League presented an unknown professor of dubious credentials to guide their shaky coalition forward. Italian president Sergio Mattarella vetoed their list of ministers, citing their choice to name 80-year-old eurosceptic Paolo Savona as Economics Minister as a dangerous path for the country. The Five Star called for his impeachment. The League called for immediate elections.
One week later, the same cast of characters climbed the subtle slope of the Quirinale Palace in central Rome on a gloriously sunlit late Friday afternoon. This time they came to be sworn in as Italy’s 66th government since it became a republic on June 2, 1946.
The eurosceptic Savona was no longer on the list as Economics Minister. He had been downgraded to Minister of European Affairs. The new Minister for Family Services opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. The new health minister is an anti-vaxxer. The list of anti-everything leaders goes on.
It seems especially poignant that the new populist government was sworn in on the eve of the national holiday that celebrates the country’s unity. Rarely has Italy been so divided, or so distant from Europe.
On Saturday morning Republic Day will be celebrated in Rome with a military parade decked out with fancy horses, men in uniforms and a spectacular fighter jet flyover trailed by plumes of smoke in Italy’s national colors. Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, has traditionally shunned the June 2 celebrations, insisting Italy has nothing to be proud of, as it’s “invaded by foreign illegals” and a “slave to Brussels.” Now, he will be in the VIP box alongside Mattarella.
On his other side will be Luigi Di Maio, the telegenic face of the Five Star Movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, whose mantra “Fuck Off” introduced Europe to this particular brand of Italian populism. His party has also shunned past Republic Day celebrations on anti-establishment principal. Making matters even more awkward, Di Maio led the call for Mattarella’s impeachment on enough social media channels to make it clear he meant it after Mattarella scuppered the first attempt at a government. One might imagine the uncomfortable small talk while they wait for the parade to begin.
Internal inside baseball politics aside, the far greater problem with Italy’s new populist government is just what it means for Europe. In an attempt to outline their unlikely alliance, the far-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement signed a 56-page contract that forms the platform for their legislative program. It includes mass deportations of migrants, an end to Russian sanctions and a renegotiation of Italy’s debt terms with Brussels, which now account for 130 percent of the country’s GDP. Each party won votes on different ways to tackle these very anti-Euro promises that will be hard to agree on, and even harder to keep.
In Spain, meanwhile, Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez cobbled together a coalition to oust conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the first time ever a government has been changed in modern Spain because of a no confidence vote. Siding with Sánchez were a handful of deputies from the Catalan independence movement. But there is no strong anti-European Union movement in Spain, and the vote could not take place without a government waiting to take over. The transition was immediate, and a marked contrast to Italy.
Here, in elections last March, the League won big in the wealthy north and the Five Star Movement picked up its support in the economically challenged south. It would take a skilled politician to play referee to these two differing parties. Instead, they have an unknown professor who lied on his resume.
If the whole fiasco seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, that’s because it is. But Italians have brilliantly handled the whole fiasco with the hashtag #scusepernonfareilgoverno or “excuses for not forming a government” under which they list tragicomedy excuses why Italy spent nearly three months after elections to get to this point. The top trending response is simply put. “Because we are Italians. Because we have learned to expect less, not more.”
In 1957, the founding fathers of the European Union met in Rome to sign their first treaty from which this difficult union of nations was born. It seems fitting perhaps that Rome would be the seat of the first serious populist government that might lead to its demise.