Italy is facing regime change. The future will be repressive
Is Italy Europe’s new political laboratory – the country in which liberal democracy changes its hue and sinks below the horizon into populism? The question is legitimate, not only because historians have long established how, in his rise to power, Hitler took Mussolini as a model. And not only because Donald Trump was preceded on to the world stage by Silvio Berlusconi – another unscrupulous tycoon devoid of political experience, unfit for government, and with whom Trump shares more than a few personal traits. Above all the question is legitimate because, in Italy, not one but two populisms have won. Together they command more than half the votes in parliament and were until a few days ago on the verge of forming a government.
That talks have now collapsed hardly dissipates the danger. On the contrary, the very fact that these populisms have struck hard at the constitutional powers of the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, shows how determined they are to upend the country’s institutional setup. With new elections, probably in the autumn, the populists are likely to emerge even stronger. But for now Italy is set to be led by a transition government – with no majority.
Both populisms raked up support with Europhobic slogans and concepts of a revolt of “the people” against the “elites” – all in the name of an imaginary “direct democracy”. One is the Five Star movement, founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo alongside a prophet of web-based democracy, Roberto Casaleggio. The other is Matteo Salvini’s League – no longer a secessionist party of the north but a far-right party that expresses sympathy for the regimes in Russia and North Korea.
They predict an apocalyptic future for a public already frightened of globalisation and impoverished by European austerity policies. These are powerful, aggressive forces that have appeared throughout Europe – but are now, for the first time, ready to call the shots in a country that was a founding member of the European Union and has always been firmly anchored in multilateral and transatlantic alliances.
This Italian “double populism” will not renounce its programme, which aims to control the government through a sort of politburo known as the “conciliation committee”, placed wholly under the control of Five Star and the League. It aims to neutralise parliament by making it impossible for lawmakers to switch parties – whereas the freedom of MPs to do so is written into the constitution. Unpopular laws would be submitted to a sort of screening by referendum; the same would apply to international treaties, and therefore to all the steps that Italy has taken to be part of the EU and the eurozone – even though backtracking on treaties is forbidden by article 75 of the constitution.
It all brings to mind what the author Robert Musil called (in his 1943 book,Man Without Qualities) “parallel action”: a world where pseudo reality prevails and governance is useless. But what the populist platform contains is not just reform – it carries, ominously, elements of regime change. The already uncertain liberal profile of Italy’s democracy is set to be disfigured. We will move from a society that is traditionally open and welcoming, with a certain propensity for the good life, to the closed horizons of a country that resembles a corporate, statist and repressive autarchy.
The coalition “contract” that these populists want to implement includes not only massive public spending, which would break the budget and push Italy out of EU rules, but also the creation of specific crimes for immigrants and forced mass repatriations, as well as the closure of asylum centres and all Roma camps. The limits of legitimate self-defence are to be extended to include confronting burglars with weapons in hand.
This dark shadow stretching over Italy has been given substance because of the collapse of traditional parties in the March general election. The centre-left Democratic party – for long the pivot of the political system – lost half its electoral base, about 5m votes, a million and a half of which shifted to Five Star. Immediately after that defeat the Democratic party leader, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, announced that it should go straight into opposition, even though it had come second in the election (behind Five Star and ahead of the League).
On the other side of the political fence, Berlusconi is trying to get back on track as a statesman with European credentials, strutting around meetings of the mainstream right European People’s party. Yet he’s the one who gave his on-off ally Salvini the go-ahead to enter a coalition with the Five Star movement.
The contortions of both parties paved the way for populism. The Democratic party proved unable to move on from Renzi’s leadership, despite a long series of defeats – not least a crushing one in the 2016 referendum on wide-ranging constitutional reform. Forza Italia and the moderate centre-right are tied to the ailing but still hegemonic figure of Berlusconi. On top of that, both mainstream parties did nothing during the campaign but imitate the themes, proposals and styles of the populists, instead of pushing back against them.
The crisis threatens Italy with international isolation, and will almost certainly prevent it being part of the lead group in a future two-speed Europe. But the EU will find itself with fewer friends in confronting the selfishness and closed horizons of other xenophobic nationalisms, from central Europe to Austria.
The darkness that is falling on Rome will be a test of real democracy. Just as with the obscurantism and fortress mentality of Trump’s America, it will be up to civil society and citizens to oppose the vision and policies of populists and nationalists. And to do so with the ambition of sending a warning – rather than an example – to the rest of the west.
Asian shares and euro fall sharply as Italy fears spread to global markets
The single currency hits a 10-month low as concern about US tariffs on China adds fuel to selloff in stock markets
Shares in Asia fell sharply and the euro sank to a 10-month low against the US dollar as concern about the political turmoil in Italy spread through international financial markets on Wednesday.
Renewed fears of a trade war between the United States and China also contributed to the negative mood after Donald Trump announced $50bn worth of tariffs on Chinese goods just days after his treasury secretary said the trade war was “on hold”.
The failure of Italy’s populist parties to form a government in recent days is likely to mean fresh elections, possibly as early as July. Investors fear they could become a referendum on Italy’s future in the single currency.
As a result, Asian share markets all plunged into the red on Wednesday. Tokyo was down 1.5%, Hong Kong lost 1.4% and Shanghai was 1.7% lower. Sydney gave up 0.5 % and the Kospi in Seoul was down 1.6%.
The single currency also remained under pressure in the Asian trading session on Wednesday, sinking to a 10-month low of $1.153 to the US dollar. It also slipped against the pound.
“As the third biggest economy in the EU, as a heavily indebted one, and with Eurosceptics seemingly in the ascendancy markets have worried that the EU again faces an existential crisis,” Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at AxiTrader, said.
However, he added; “I’ll go out on a limb and suggest there are a bunch of experienced political operatives in Europe and some neophytes in Italy who might just have got the shock of their lives on how quickly this situation developed and we’ll see some backpedalling.”
The turmoil has also sent Italy’s 10-year bond yields more than 300 basis points above Germany’s – the so-called yield spread and a key indicator of investor concerns.
On Tuesday, US treasury yields fell as money poured into assets considered safe – yields go down the more the bonds are in demand – while the yen, a go-to unit in times of turmoil, also rallied. Falling US bond yields pushed bank shares lower, causing the Dow Jones average to fall nearly 400 points, or 1.58%, on Tuesday.
Italy was plunged into crisis when the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, at the weekend vetoed the nomination of a fierce eurosceptic as economy minister, leading the prime minister-designate to step down and upending a bid by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League to form a government.
Lolly Adefope: ‘In Edinburgh I kissed a boy in the afternoon – by 4am we both had new partners’
Despite having lived in London for most of my life – and being a huge fan of dancing and drinking in the street – I’ve never been to Notting Hill carnival. Instead, for the past seven years, I’ve spent August in Edinburgh, either performing or working at the fringe. Admittedly, last year was my first “fallow” year – a time for the farm (my body) to recover – but I still visited for 10 days at the end, unable to accept the fear of missing out of unjust reviews and posters of comedians scratching their heads.
The first year I visited, I lived in a flat with 20 other students. At some point during the month, a couple of people moved out, so I got a cupboard all to myself. It was heavenly. I had always wanted to do comedy, but didn’t know where to start – all I knew was that Edinburgh was where it happened. So I applied for a job giving out flyers for an improv group, and after an hour of not giving out any, I politely resigned.
One evening, I read David Nicholls’ book One Day, because our flat was a few streets down from Rankeillor Street, where the first chapter is set. The next day, I kissed a boy in the middle of the afternoon, and we walked around blissfully for hours hand in hand. By the time the evening came, I realised that he was terrible, so I told him I wasn’t feeling well, gave him my number and left. I got about 20 missed calls from him that night, asking if I was feeling better and whether I was coming out. Luckily, I didn’t need to call him back because I bumped into him in the street at 4am, both of us with new partners, him in disbelief, and me oddly angry that he had moved on so quickly.
Another night, all 21 of us hurled ourselves down Nicholson Street with our water bottles of pre-mixed rum and coke. We went to Spank!, the famously raucous midnight comedy show, and heckled the headline act. I’m not proud of it, but we’re friends now, so I’m sure it’s fine.
I was desperate for comedy to seep into me somehow, convinced that being surrounded by it would give me the confidence to go onstage myself. I saw very few people who looked like me, and even fewer of them were doing what I wanted to do, but I was determined to embed myself in what felt like the centre of the universe.
This August, I’ll be performing my third solo show at Edinburgh. And although I find it quite cringey to be overly sentimental, I can’t deny my excitement. I think of the festival as a summer camp, a second home – one where as each year goes by, I start to recognise myself in both my audiences and the other performers – and that endeavour to feel as if I belong becomes a little less difficult.
Fit in my 40s: ‘You can’t drift off in reformer pilates’
And while you might feel like an acrobat, no self-respecting circus would employ you
Zoe Williams: ‘It’s all extremely hard on the muscles.’ Photograph: Kellie French for the Guardian
Pilates became huge in the 90s, lauded for powers that seemed quasi-mystical: it made you calm down, but it also made you longer and tauter. It was never clear exactly how it could make you lose weight, but “longer” and “tauter” sounded a lot like “thinner”. Dancers did it because it was one of the only things you could do with a ton of historic injuries; those of us who had never done enough exercise to amass any injuries did it because dancers did.
Reformer pilates is a little more recent, as a craze, a lot more involved, in terms of hardware, and a lot more expensive. (The class I went to, in Clapham, south London, was £21 for an hour, which would make me think twice. Or maybe I’m just tight.)
The hardware is a sprung bench (no giant beach ball here). You lie on it, there are straps you can put your legs in, straps you can put your arms in, and five springs of varying strength, which determine the difficulty of each exercise. Its peculiar design enables you to do things you wouldn’t – without leg straps, a movable bench and some spring – be able to do, like a shoulder stand. There’s one piece of equipment with a frame over the top, in which you can get practically upside down and feel like an acrobat. It’s important to remember that your human strength hasn’t changed, and no self-respecting circus would employ you.
I went with two friends, though luckily they were behind me, so I didn’t have to measure my failings against their success. You start off like a ballerina in stirrups, pointing your toes and flexing your legs towards different parts of the room. The instructor had a very evolved sense of direction, in which – so far as I could make out – she was alone. “Legs towards the high street! Shoulders up, legs towards the south wall.” Horizontal, and trying to move multiple limbs at once, I can just about remember which way is up. The concept of north is a world away. We were basically just watching each other and copying whoever seemed the most certain. It is all very hard on the muscles: controlled, sustained anything, if you keep at it for six minutes, will kill your hamstrings or anything else involved.
About halfway through, the standing-on-the-bench commences, which seems as if it will be easier, because it looks it. One foot on the static part of the bench, one on the moving part, you slide your working foot in and out like a character in an 80s computer game of warrior bearing but limited skills. It turns out who knew? – that this is hard, too.
The “reformer” element adds complexity and unexpectedness, which makes the time go faster but doesn’t make it feel any easier. I had the vague expectation of a mindfulness component, mainly because the kind of people who like pilates also like yoga. But this is not an activity in which you can drift off and connect with the true you. It requires the same level of concentration as driving on a motorway at the same time as having an argument; which is in itself is quite mentally cleansing. I’d go regularly if I had a pilates buddy; without, it’s a bit ponderous.
Complaints about high-cost credit climb to record level
Complaints about high-cost credit have soared to a record level, raising concerns about how lenders treat vulnerable consumers.
In 2017-18, the number of complaints about consumer credit rose by 40% to just over 36,300, according to the financial ombudsman service (FOS). More than half related to payday loans, with customers informing the ombudsman about irresponsible lending and unaffordable loans.
New complaints about payday loans soared by 64%, from 10,529 to 17,200. The FOS upheld six in 10 of the complaints.
Caroline Wayman, the FOS chief ombudsman, said: “People buy a whole range of things on credit, from everyday household appliances to a car, and in many cases it’s manageable and affordable.
“But for some people, borrowing may be a necessity rather than a choice. There can be a very fine line between getting by and going under. Even people who seem to be on top of their finances can quickly become vulnerable.”
Excluding payment protection insurance products, which make up 55% of the complaints, credit worries represent almost a quarter of those received by the watchdog.
Consumers were most concerned about hire purchase, point-of-sale and catalogue shopping loans. The FOS received almost 340,000 new complaints in 2017-18, compared with 321,000 the year before.
Regulators have been clamping down on payday lenders in recent years, with companies forced to limit interest charges and the number of times they can roll over loans.
The Financial Conduct Authority will publish its review of high-cost credit this week. The watchdog said in January it was particularly concerned by overdraft charges, rent-to-own services, doorstep lending and catalogue credit.
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