Italian constitutional “crisis”? Keep calm and carry on!

European markets and politicians have reacted allergically to Italy’s difficulty of forming a new government. Their worries are overblown and destabilizing.

Italian politics is a very special case. Not only does it feature a political party created by a clown and a strong right wing, but it also tends to be shaky: From Prodi via Berlusconi to Conte, the country has experienced seven different prime ministers over the past decade alone. The recent episode in the Roman political arena is no exception to Italy’s extraordinary situation.

The success of the populist Lega and Cinque Stelle parties at the latest parliamentary elections had already caused a severe headache in Brussels and on the stock markets where fears of an Italian exit from the Euro were spreading. In the past two weeks, that anxiety grew to a level rarely seen in the Eurozone which suffers from regular political shocks anyway. The tension between a prospective Europhobe government and a Europhile head of state – Sergio Mattarella – was enough to send the single currency into turmoil.

Mattarella’s unwillingness to accept a government with a Eurosceptic as finance minister, potentially provoking fresh elections, sparked debates about Italy being in a “constitutional crisis”.

Yes, the domestic reaction was severe, with several political groupings calling for the impeachment of the President. And yes, it briefly seemed that new elections would be inevitable. But does the heavy noise on the spectator ranks of the political arena automatically imply a nation in crisis? Most importantly, is it a constitutional one?

The rules of the game

Most non-Italian observers worry about the possible damage that might be done to European cohesion and cooperation if a populist government is at the helm of the third-largest economy in the EU. The example of Greece being in open conflict with European creditors is still fresh in the minds of markets. They know that if Italy’s economy follows a similar path and goes bust, the reverberations will be much more profound than in the Greek drama of 2010.

Domestically, things look different. Within Italy, the standoff between the President and the prospective executive branch has been considered a period of uncertainty, but within the limits of the constitution. Paragraph 90 of the constitution states it unambiguously: The call for impeachment deprives any legal basis, unless in the case of “plots against the Constitution”. Can the rejection of a Europhobe minister be seen as such? No, as paragraph 92 shows: “The President of the Republic nominates […] the Ministers.” Consulting with the prospective Prime Minister is part of the business.

The Italian constitution holds the rules of the game and the key to understanding the recent political episode. Clearly, the President acted within his powers. Just because some political opponents might not like that fact does not change the character of the situation. A “constitutional crisis”? “Political tit-for-tat” might be more accurate.

Peculiar peninsula

Reason enough to keep calm. The concerns of EU-defenders are understandable, but their panic is not: Eventually, Italy did get its government and avoided a new round of elections. Yet, having solved the recent political headache does not end Italy’s political exceptionalism. Fragility and fluctuations will remain a defining feature of the country’s Realpolitik.

Italy is special, and so should be our expectations of its politics. Treating it like an irresponsible teenager who needs lessons and guidance from father Brussels won’t do European solidarity any good.

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