Steve Bannon came to Italy and was greeted with a full-page interview this Sunday (3 June) in the center-left daily newspaper, La Repubblica. The journalist, Antonello Guerrera, seemed determined to find Bannon’s influence behind the unlikely union of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Bannon would have none of it. Although he admitted to having spoken with both gentlemen and having had prior contact with the M5S, he insisted that the two groups came together because sharing the government between them was ‘the logical conclusion’. The two parties’ leaders were ‘heroes’ for having ‘overcome the concepts of left and right’. That was the only way to meet the demands of an electorate, the majority of which voted ‘against the establishment’. ‘Italians should be proud.’ Now Rome is ‘the center of world politics’. The question now is whether the lessons from Italy’s experience are at all in line with what Bannon expects.
The turmoil that struck Italian sovereign debt and bank equity markets on Tuesday, 29 June, is a stark reminder that the potential for another crisis is real, even if not imminent. Important parts of the firewall that separates banks from sovereigns remain incomplete – and central bankers remain vulnerable to political influence as a consequence. Two recent books help illustrate why. One, by former Cypriot Central Bank Governor and Leicester University Professor Panicos Demetriades, reveals the limits of central bank independence. The other, by University of Denver Professor Rachel Epstein, explores the interaction between banks and markets.
The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU) creates new opportunities for Europeans to unite around a common vision. The British played an important role in Europe both as a common market and as a political union. The challenge for the remaining member states will be to adapt to Great Britain’s absence. Last autumn, French President Emmanuel Macron launched an ambitious raft of proposals for reenergizing the European project. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel forged a grand-coalition government with a different pro-European agenda. Macron’s vision is more centralist and involves more institutionalized solidarity; Merkel’s vision is more intergovernmental and places more emphasis on political responsibility at the national level. The success of either approach will depend upon how other European member states respond to the call for unity. The next Italian government will play a critical role.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to have an exchange of emails with one of Italy’s leading financial journalists. This is part of a longer conversation we have been having over the past few years about the state of European financial markets and the role of Italy within them. The difference this time is that he published the exchange in gli Stati Generali, which is a project created to allow journalists to share stories or rely on formats that might not otherwise find their way into traditional media outlets. Knowing the journalist, the Italian version of our exchange is much more articulate than the English-language original I am reproducing here. The questions are in bold; my responses are in regular text.
When Italy’s voters went to the polls on 4 March, roughly 32.5 percent voted for the Five Star Movement (M5S) and another 17.5 percent voted for the Lega. If we add in the 4.5 percent who voted for the Brothers of Italy, well more than half of the electorate supported openly Euroskeptical movements whose leaders have flirted with the idea of leaving the euro. ‘Europe’ did not play a prominent role in the public debate during the run-up to the elections; according to pre-election polling done by SWG – one of the major national public opinion polling firms – cutting taxes and throwing out the ‘ruling class’ were more important. But the two big winners from the contest strongly advocated policies like rolling back pension reforms (Lega) or introducing a basic minimum income (M5S) that would quickly bring Italy into conflict with the European Commission over fiscal consolidation. Moreover, any future Italian government will have to draw support from one or both of these parliamentary groups. The question is what this means for relations between Italy and Europe.
Donald Trump is torn between two ambitions. One is to challenge the conventions that have underpinned U.S. foreign policy by replacing a commitment to global leadership with a determination to put America first. The other is to undo the legacy of Barack Obama. Neither ambition is easy to accomplish; taken together, the two ambitions constitute an enormous task. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they point in different directions. And sometimes they interact in a dizzying manner. Trump’s policy toward Asia is of the dizzying sort. Where Barack Obama pivoted to Asia from the Middle in a manner that both confirmed and defied U.S. foreign policy convention, Trump seems to twirl around Asia in an accelerating pirouette.
There a strong presumption that a rejuvenated Franco-German relationship can relaunch the European project. That presumption is inaccurate. The problem is not that Emmanuel Macron has too much on his plate domestically or that Angela Merkel did not get the electoral results she (and Macron) might have wanted. The major constraint on a Franco-German relaunching of Europe is not even that the French and Germans disagree on fundamental issues related to reforming macroeconomic governance in the euro area. Rather, the reason a new partnership between France and Germany is not going to relaunch the European project is that Europe is not the same.
On 21 August, I was invited to talk about the importance of ‘walls’ in a European context at an annual socio-cultural-political event called ‘The Meeting’ in Rimini. I sketched these notes as an aide for the interpreters who were supposed to render my unique version of the English language into fluent Italian. My host, Paolo Magri, insisted that I speak in Italian instead. What followed was probably more authentic as a set of off-the-cuff remarks using my one hundred and fifty mangled Italian vocabulary words, but it may not have delivered the full message. My central argument is that we should be wary of identity-based political mobilization. Any politician who wants to mobilize ‘us’ against ‘them’ is not your friend. That is as true in the United States as it is in Europe. Alas, Europe’s history with that kind of politics is a tragic one. Let’s hope we don’t have to experience it again.
The Italian government passed a series of decrees yesterday to allow Intesa San Paolo to buy the healthy assets of two small banks from the Veneto region – Banca popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. The state will move the distressed assets into a ‘bad bank’ for orderly liquidation. This action closes a chapter on the Italian banking crisis that started in late 2015 when regulators made it clear that the two small Veneto banks needed more capital. Over the intervening period, investors threw good money after bad as the banks continued to haemorrhage deposits and mount up non-performing loans. The government did not want to step in because it did not want to impose losses on large depositors or junior bond holders. Ultimately, though, the situation for the two institutions was unsustainable. Now we know what the solution looks like. The question is what we learned from the process. The short answer is that Europe’s banking union is still dangerously incomplete.
The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the ‘establishment’ with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced wth a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against ‘the system’ is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.