British lawmakers this week rejected both the prime minister's Withdrawal Agreement and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, making the odds of the UK asking the EU to push back its scheduled departure on March 29th higher than ever.
While the noises from Brussels suggest it's inclined to agree, all it would take in theory is one EU member to exercise its veto to deny Britain the extension.
And that, according to some, is where Italy comes in.
“The fascists have agreed to help Britain exit without a deal. Salvini will block an extension of article 50,” declared British journalist Carole Cadwalladr in a post retweeted nearly 6,000 times, drawing attention to the fact that leading members of the Leave campaign recently travelled to northern Italy, home of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his League party.
Last week @arron_banks & @andywigmore went to Veneto, the heartland of Italy's Lega Nord. Today, the plan is revealed. The fascists have agreed to help Britain exit without a deal. Salvini will block an extension of article 50. We're fucked. pic.twitter.com/06bNSrd9EJ
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) March 13, 2019
If the argument that British Leave campaigners are good enough pals with some of Italy's leaders to direct their foreign policy sounds flimsy, well, it is.
“There’s no chance in the world that this is going to happen,” Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, told The Local.
“I’m not arguing that [Italy's government] are nice people who would never use a veto. What I’m arguing is that it’s ridiculous to suggest that they would use it to please [Leave campaigners] Nigel Farage or Arron Banks.
“So either one finds a rational reason which is related to the national interest, or I think we should stop spreading this kind of rumour – which is, by the way, based on the fact that somebody has been skiing in northern Italy! I mean, come on.”
Salvini likes the snow too! Is it a conspiracy? Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
The reason why Italy almost certainly won't veto an extension, should the UK request it, does have to do with northern Italy. But it has nothing to do with skiing.
It's the economy, stupid: Italy generates a large portion of its income from manufacturing and agriculture, which export everything from tomatoes to televisions to the lucrative UK market. Italy's biggest exporters are based overwhelmingly in the north. The League's votes come largely from the north. The UK leaving the EU without a deal at the end of March would throw those same exporters into turmoil.
“Now if, in two weeks’ time… the exporters have to suddenly, from one day to the next, face the possibility of tariffs and more importantly, they now need completely different documentation, they need to set up new systems – and Salvini has caused this, right, the veto has caused this, and his explanation is – what?”, asks Albertazzi.
“To me, that is such a ridiculous claim.”
Italy's populist leaders aren't averse to anti-Europe grandstanding when it suits them. Denouncing Brussels and promising to assert Italy's sovereignty on everything from immigration policies to public spending served both the League and its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement – which, by the way, holds more seats than the League and would be required to sign off on any Article 50 veto – well during the last election campaign.
But nor are they opposed to dropping the bluster when they need to. Look at how they handled their recent budget negotiations with Brussels: the European Commission said Rome's plans would run up too much of a deficit. The coalition grumbled for a few weeks, but eventually compromised and reined in public spending proposals to comply with the EU's limits.
The Five Star Movement, the League and most especially Salvini, arguably the canniest politician in Italy today, are not such anti-Europe ideologues that they'll take avoidable risks with the economy. It's already one of the areas they're weakest on, Italy having slipped back into recession within five months of them taking office. And after all, while just 44 percent of Italians surveyed in 2018 said that they'd vote to stay in the EU, 65 percent said they wanted to keep the euro.
Photo: Patrick Herzog/AFP
A no-deal Brexit, a scenario the government has described as “undesirable“, wouldn't only be bad for Italian business. A disorderly withdrawal would also throw into uncertainty the roughly 600,000 Italians who live in the UK. And unlike Brits living abroad, Italian emigrants retain the right to vote in Italy's parliamentary elections for life.
The number of Italians in the UK is arguably one of the reasons that Italy was the first EU country to step forward and guarantee the rights of British residents, at least temporarily, in the event of a no-deal Brexit. If the Italian government was willing to make the first move then to help secure similar assurances for its own citizens from the UK, why would it now deny Britain the time to make them, not to mention create considerable ill will?
The answer, of course, is that it wouldn't: Italy's leaders simply aren't that stupid.
Suggesting that the Italian government would wilfully jeopardize the economy and threaten its own survival because Nigel Farage or Arron Banks or even, as Cadwalladr has implied, Vladimir Putin asked them to “can only come from people who have not just no understanding of Italian politics but no understanding of the populist radical right”, says Albertazzi.
“I think what they need to do is stop treating populist radical right leaders and even followers as some kind of loony, crazy extremists from Mars, because they are not,” he says. “I think that this misunderstanding is based on the language they use, which is certainly radical and often even unacceptable.
“But when you actually look how they act… they are very experienced, effective political operators.”
And just where did the suggestion that Italy would veto an Article 50 extension come from?
None other than Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore, the two controversial Leave campaigners 'revealed' to have taken that ski trip to Veneto. Both of them tweeted at Salvini yesterday asking for “a little help” realizing their hard Brexit dream.
The British media often miss the point that @Nigel_Farage has spent 20 years forging contacts with Eurosceptic European groups some of whom are now in power ! We may need a little help from our continental friends on article 50 extension @matteosalvinimi & others .. https://t.co/MSkrwuMdc3
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) March 13, 2019
— Andy Wigmore (@andywigmore) March 13, 2019
“No understanding of Italian politics”? Almost certainly. Desperate? Probably. A real possibility? Don't bet on it.