After living on the verge of electoral breakdown in 2017, Europe should have less to worry about this year — were it not for Italy, reported Politico (Germany). Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition keeps on rising in the polls ahead of the March 4 vote but could fall short of the 40 percent considered as the benchmark to form a coalition. The two other major political groupings — former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center left and the anti-establishment 5Star Movement — are also not expected to get enough votes to form a government. Observers expect the election to be followed by prolonged negotiations, or even another round of polling later this year. Italians are accustomed to political uncertainly, but here are four reasons why you should be losing sleep over Italy. 1. Public debt Italy’s economy is the third-largest in the eurozone. It’s also one of the slowest growing — and most indebted — in the currency union. With public debt at roughly 130 percent of GDP, Italy is second only to Greece, at 180 percent. What makes the Italian situation worrying is sheer scale. As of October, according to the Bank of Italy, the government owed some €2.3 trillion. That’s roughly €35,000 for each Italian, newborns included. By comparison, the total Greek government debt is €320 billion, about €29,000 per citizen. Italy’s public debt “is a source of common concern for the euro area,” the European Commission wrote in its most recent assessment, in November. Brussels may be worried, but Rome has taken a decisively cavalier approach. Not only has no party put forward a proposal to cut the debt, the election has become a competition over who can boost it the most. Various factions have proposed increased spending of up to €200 billion, nearly 12 percent of GDP. 2. Migration The number of migrants landing in Italy dropped by about 35 percent last year: from 181,000 in 2016 to 120,000 in 2017. That’s thanks at least in part to the controversial efforts of Interior Minister Marco Minniti, whose strategy of striking deals with official and unofficial authorities in Libya has come under fierce criticism from human rights advocates. EU officials have welcomed the drop in new arrivals, but worry that the strategy might not hold up in the long term, given the chaotic situation in the North African country. The 2015 migration crisis rocked German and Austrian politics, pushing voters toward the far-right in last year’s election. Officials in Brussels fret that a new peak in arrivals this year could have a similar effect in the 2019 European Parliament election. Italy’s “strategy has to last until the elections,” said a worried senior EU official. 3. Euroskepticism The polls don’t look good for supporters of the European Union. The largest single vote-winning party in the election is expected to be the Euroskeptic 5Star Movement, which has called for a referendum on Italy’s membership in the eurozone. However, their support is likely to be surpassed by Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, but few in Brussels will take comfort. The former prime minister’s largest partner is the far-right Northern League, another party that has built its rise on Euroskepticism. Both parties have softened their positions regarding the EU in recent days. On Tuesday, the 5Stars’ leader, Luigi Di Maio, said it was “no longer the right time” for Italy to leave the euro. And Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has similarly dialed back his anti-euro rhetoric. Analysts say it’s very unlikely Italy will hold a referendum on the euro. Yet many in the EU capital remain worried. A ruling coalition that includes the Northern League could put the rule of law at risk, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, warned Tuesday. And any government in which Euroskeptics have a strong say would make some European reforms less likely. The election “will have historical consequences for the Europe in which Italians will live,” wrote Sergio Fabbrini, director of the Rome based LUISS School of government. 4. Russia Whatever the result of the election, Moscow is likely to come out smiling. Unlike last year’s French election, when Emmanuel Macron was the only candidate with a clear anti-Kremlin line, in Italy every major political party has a soft spot for Russia. In December 2015, then Prime Minister Renzi threatened to block the rollover of EU economic sanctions on Russia. That’s nothing compared to the close friendship between Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In October, the former prime minster presented Putin with a birthday present: a duvet featuring a giant picture of a handshake between the two leaders. Salvini, like much of the European far right, has never hidden his admiration for the Kremlin. And the 5Stars have clear intentions: Their program calls for a reduced role for Italy in NATO and “for an immediate end of the sanctions” against Russia.
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