Rome—Italians were anything but indifferent this spring when the Syriza government in Greece decided to defy the dogma of European austerity. Syriza’s natural allies here, those to the left of the Partito Democratico (PD), were exuberant: At last there was going to be a real battle against the neoliberal consensus. Even Matteo Renzi, leader of the center-left PD and prime minister since early 2014 of an awkward left-right government, was campaigning in Europe against the stark austerity policy espoused by Germany. But when Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras came to Rome in February this year after his party’s electoral victory, Renzi was friendly but cautious. “We want to give Greece a hand, which doesn’t mean we always agree with them,” he said, adding that “the rules must be respected.”
You could put that down to Renzi’s tendency to seek consensus to his right, and most Italian leftists saw it that way. But it is also true that countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy found themselves in an uncomfortable spot when Syriza began trying to rewrite the EU rules. How could Italy—which had teetered on the brink of a similar debt crisis in 2011 when Silvio Berlusconi had to step down, and then, beginning with two unpopular governments prior to that of Renzi, imposed harsh reforms to satisfy the Eurohawks—now enthusiastically support Greek debt relief? How could the Italian government defend its essential obeisance to the EU’s rigid rules when another government was daring to flout them—and when Italian citizens had already paid the price?
This contradiction allowed some strange populist fellow travelers to leap clumsily onto the Syriza bandwagon in early July: They included Beppe Grillo and his anti-establishment, Euroskeptic Five Star Movement (M5S), but also Matteo Salvini, the gassed-up new demagogue of the xenophobic Northern League (LN), both maintaining (however untrue it was) that Greece was eager to leave the euro, and that Italy should follow suit.
Thus Grillo, whose M5S, although a mixed bag, tried to forge an alliance in Brussels with Britain’s Nigel Farage of the far-right UKIP, went to Athens to support a radical “No” vote in the July 5 Greek referendum. He was a walking contradiction, Grillo: out demonstrating in Athens as if he had something in common with veteran Syriza ally Nichi Vendola of Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL) and the small group of dissidents to the left of Renzi within the PD who also traveled to Greece to show their backing for Tsipras.
This week, rumors were floating that an Italian Syriza is in the making, one that would join SEL, several small parties that still call themselves Communist, and the dissidents of the PD, a few of whom have already left the party. Yet right now it is hard to see how such a left opposition could blossom into something like that of Syriza or Podemos in Spain. The left to the left of the PD lacks charismatic leaders and especially new faces, people who in the minds of disgruntled voters are not tainted with having been part of the political establishment, la casta. A similar recent experiment, the anti-austerity Lista Tsipras for Another Europe, which was elected to the EU Parliament last year, has devolved into ugly infighting.
Despite some tiny, timid signals of recovery—rising exports, GDP growth now at 0.7 percent but possibly reaching 1.5 percent later this year, unemployment stable at 12.4 percent—the recession has left a sour, angry mood across Italy, along with inchoate fears that Italians have lost control of their destiny. On the left, those concerns are expressed as a conviction that the EU suffers from a grave “deficit of democracy” and a lack of common cause or commitment to social justice that could make membership in a monetary union politically acceptable. Progressive Italians think the Union is in thrall to a neoliberal ideology executed by the likes of Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister and arch defender of austerity, when it should be centralizing its finances so as to assist weaker economies. “This Man’s Scary—To Us, Too,” the weekly L’Espresso titled a recent cover over a photo of the scowling Schäuble.