Whether it was because of the chorus of negative reactions in Italy, led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni himself, or because of the noises coming from the financial markets which took an immediate fall, the fact is that Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, realized last week that he had made a wrong move and corrected course.
“Whatever the outcome, I am confident that we will have a government that makes sure that Italy remains a central player in Europe and in shaping its future,” he said. It was not the most natural prose, and seemed rather embarrassed, but it was a clear step back from the alarm sirens that his previous statement had started up.
Juncker had made the offending statement early Thursday morning: “We have to brace ourselves for the worst scenario and the worst scenario could be no operational government.”
Because of this, he said, “a strong reaction of the financial markets in the second half of March” was possible—an apocalyptic scenario. Juncker has not forgotten that on the same day as the Italian elections on March 4, another vote could rattle Europe and cause even more violent aftershocks: the internal referendum of the German SPD on the proposal to return to a grand coalition with Angela Merkel. But the true point of weakness, according to Juncker, remains the Italian peninsula, as he said he was “more worried by the result of elections in Italy than by the result of the vote of SPD members.”
The first one to reply, aware of the troubles which the Belgian EC President had just caused for the Italian markets, was Gentiloni himself: “Governments are all operational. Governments are governing.” He added: “I do not agree that we should see these elections as a leap in the dark,” and that he was “not afraid of the abyss.” A chorus of replies followed, in different registers but agreeing that the alarm coming from Brussels should be rejected. These ranged from the Forza Italia’s Brunetta, who claimed to be not concerned at all since “the scenario before us is of a fully operational center-right government,” to the 5 Star Movement’s Castaldo, willing to bet that instead it will be the Movement that will ensure the stable government that Juncker yearned for, to Loredana De Petris from Liberi e Uguali, who accused Brussels of trying to influence the Italian vote.
It is likely that the President of the Commission intended to do precisely that; however, he was betrayed by his own clumsiness, to the point of getting a counterproductive result and having to reverse course. The choreography staged by him and by Giorgio Napolitano the day before was quite transparent: both “King George” and the Belgian were insisting on the absolute need to have an “operational” government ready immediately after the vote, which likely could be no other than a so-called “President’s government,” with Gentiloni still at the head, which is the focus of the plans being made on the Quirinale Hill and probably also in Brussels. Furthermore, we may note yet another eloquent pivot on the part of Berlusconi, who, after having moved closer to the Lega Nord in the days marked by the aftermath of Macerata, is now shifting back to the side of moderation, so much so that he is casting serious doubt on his participation in a final joint electoral event with his right wing allies, for fear of being viewed as a “sovereignist.”
As usual, it is all a matter of pure numbers, not political choices. The latest polls and forecasts are all saying that neither the center-right alliance, nor the 5 Star Movement, nor the open secret of the PD-Forza Italia alliance seem to be able to reach 50 percent plus one of the seats in Parliament, for which not even 40 percent of the votes would, in fact, be enough—a ‘magic number’ around which the media has spun endless speculation for weeks without any serious foundations. Berlusconi had really gotten his hopes up in the recent weeks, and he still has some, but he knows that the electoral compass is now pointing in the direction of a “President’s government,” and he intends to be ready to play a central role in it, without the dead weight of a public image bound to “the sovereignists.”
It is certainly possible that the said government would have to resign itself to being a minority government, made possible only by abstentions and members of parliament refusing to show up for votes. That is why Gentiloni is at pains to point out that any government is in fact governing, and he is showing it, for instance, by extending the tenure of the heads of the intelligence agencies. Except for the fact that, given an electorate as volatile as the Italian, even these calculations are, before March 4 itself, only a little less unrealistic than those around the nonexistent threshold of 40 percent.
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