SHARE
COPY LINK
Paywall free

POLITICS

Five reasons why Italy is more stable than the UK right now

As the UK plunges deeper into political chaos it has been branded 'the new Italy' - but in fact Italy today has a more stable economy and government. Here's why.

Five reasons why Italy is more stable than the UK right now
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss on Thursday resigned after 44 days in office - a short time even by Italian political standards. Photo by Ben Stansall / AFP

The British media has been awash this week with articles proclaiming Britain to be the “new Italy”, as the UK plunges deeper into political chaos and economic turmoil.

Most recently, on Thursday, UK publication The Economist drew the ire of the Italian ambassador with a cover story titled ‘Welcome to Britaly’, suggesting that the British economy is now just like Italy’s – due to high levels of public debt and sluggish economic growth.

READ ALSO: ‘Spaghetti and pizza’: Italy’s UK ambassador slams Economist over ‘stereotyping’

The Economist also described Italy as the land of “la dolce vita” and “interminable political drama”, and suggested that Britain prefers to see itself as being on par with the US, France, or Germany.

But, like the Italian ambassador, many political and economic experts argue that the stereotype of Italy as Europe’s debt-ridden economic basket case is as tired and outdated as the pizza and pasta imagery used to illustrate The Economist’s cover this week.

If we must compare the two countries, Italy looks a lot more stable at the moment. Here’s why:

Italian prime ministers last longer than Liz Truss

UK media has pointed to the ongoing chaos within the Conservative Party as an example of the supposed ‘Italianisation’ of British politics. Some British media outlets repeated their UK-Italy comparisons after Liz Truss on Thursday resigned as Tory leader after 44 days in office, triggering the party’s third leadership contest in as many years.

Some say the comparisons are inevitable, as Italy is known for changing governments and prime ministers frequently: the country has had 14 prime ministers and 19 different governments in the last 30 years. That’s a new prime minister almost every two years on average and a new government every 18 months. 

But, aside from the fact that this changeability is an integral feature of Italy’s political system and not an anomaly (more on that below) the UK has now topped Italy – and a lot of other countries – when it comes to the record for shortest-serving prime minister.

The record for shortest time in office in Italy’s postwar history stands at 102 days – held by fascist politician Amintore Fanfani, who was prime minister six times in total. This last short stint in office was in 1954.

Italy’s current prime minister Mario Draghi is about to step down after racking up one year and 250 days in office, which is slightly longer than average for Italy.

Italy’s economic situation isn’t getting worse

As The Economist pointed out, both countries are struggling with limited economic growth and are perceived as risky by investors. But for very different reasons.

Financial Times economics reporter Valentina Romei on Thursday detailed the considerable differences between the two nations’ economic situations in an article titled ‘Britaly? You wish’, noting that unlike the UK, “Italy has been running a budget surplus similar to that of Germany. It has showed much more frugality than the UK, and of the average of the most industrialised countries.”

Romei pointed out in a tweet: “Italy’s economic growth is limited by structural problems, but the UK’s performance is hit by political choices.”

She also noted that “Investors perceive Italy as risky as the UK, but for Italy, this is because of the legacy of a public debt accumulated during the ’80s.”

“For the UK it’s because of its shambolic present.”

While the UK’s troubles have recently worsened, Italy today appears to be on the path towards economic growth.

For the past 20 months, Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been pursuing EU-backed policies aimed at ensuring economic growth and stability – and political commentators say the next government will likely have little choice but to continue with the plans he has set in place.

Italy has huge amounts of EU money on the line. It is awaiting nearly 200 billion euros in grants and loans – the country’s massive share of the EU coronavirus recovery fund package.

In order to secure each instalment, the Italian government must deliver on a long list of commitments to structural reform, and cut back on spending begun by previous administrations.

While markets reacted nervously to the far-right election win in Italy at the end of September, these jitters were vastly overshadowed by the pound plunging in response to the doomed mini-budget announcement in the UK.

Italian politics isn’t getting more chaotic

Understandable comparisons were drawn this summer after Italy’s government collapsed, leading to snap elections, at the same time as the UK faced (and continues to face) one political crisis after another.

But while such instability is unusual in the UK and the current situation looks like a particularly low point in modern British political history, recent events in Italy are nothing new or particularly surprising.

Short-lived governments have been an enduring feature throughout the country’s postwar history. In fact, this apparent chaos is not a bug but a purpose-built feature of the Italian system.

Italy’s electoral system and Constitution were designed, after World War Two and the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, with the aim of keeping extremists from seizing too much power.

Because of the way the system works (see an explanation of that here) Italian governments must necessarily be coalitions between two or more of the country’s many political parties. 

If there’s not a consensus between coalition partners over any policy, one party can withdraw support at any time – meaning the government falls, leading to either the creation of a technocratic government (there have been four of these since 1993, including Draghi’s) or an early election.

READ ALSO: Why do Italy’s governments collapse so often?

Not to say voters don’t find all of this tedious or infuriating, but the system does make it very difficult for any party to enact major changes without a broad consensus – preventing extreme ideologies from dictating government policy, and so arguably ensuring more stability over the long term.

Italy has a strong Constitution

It’s often hard to compare the Italian and British political systems in any meaningful way since they’re constitutionally very different.

But if we’re talking about stability, the Italian political system, while it has its faults, is well-equipped to curb the excesses of individual politicians or parties.

Italy is a democratic republic based on a strong Constitution, which governments are bound by and which is upheld by the Constitutional Court.

Giorgia Meloni is expected to be sworn in as Italy’s latest prime minister this weekend after her party won early elections on September 25th. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The presidential position is also important in ensuring stability. While mostly ceremonial, the position is vital in times of political crisis. The president is empowered to appoint prime ministers if there’s no consensus between parties: that’s how Mario Draghi became prime minister, asked by Mattarella to guide Italy through the pandemic and economic fallout.

And the Italian political system shares power widely between various institutions, which are not always necessarily working in line with the government of the day.

Italy is in the EU

Whichever side of the Brexit debate you’re on, it’s obvious that the massive upheaval and cost involved in leaving the European Union has done nothing to improve the UK’s current economic situation.

While the rest of Europe is also facing an economic downturn due to factors ranging from the war in Ukraine to the after-effects of the pandemic, economists agree the fallout from Brexit is deepening the financial crisis in the UK.

Brexit has hit the UK economy harder than the pandemic, according to, among others, the head of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility, and the broad consensus among economists is that Brexit is likely to continue to harm the UK’s economic outlook and reduce per capita income in the long term.

The impact of leaving the EU is obviously not a problem Italy has to deal with.

And being in the EU means Italy’s budget laws are subject to intense scrutiny from the European Commission – now more than ever due to Italy’s agreements with Brussels over the recovery fund – as well as Italian institutions.

While this means passing a budget becomes an arduous, drawn-out process, usually subject to countless amendments, it also makes it much more difficult for an Italian prime minister to simply announce economically destabilising policies like – just to take one example – massive unfunded tax cuts for the rich, without any institutional oversight.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

TRANSPORT

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

In a country as attached to the car as Italy, what would it take to get more people to use greener transport? Silvia Marchetti looks at what’s behind the country’s high levels of car ownership.

OPINION: Why are Italians so addicted to cars?

Many foreigners I speak to are shocked by the ‘car first’ mentality that rules in Italy, and by Italians’ degree of addiction to any wheeled vehicle. 

There’s practically one car around for each Italian. Between 2010-2020 the population dropped but there were three million more cars on the roads, despite soaring living costs and falling salaries. 

Italy’s rate of car ownership is the second-highest in Europe after tiny Luxembourg. All Italian regions have a lot of cars running but surprisingly, the number of passenger cars which is the highest at EU level can be found in the Alpine regions of Valle D’Aosta and the northern autonomous province of Trento, where particular regional statutes envisage special tax incentives helping locals to buy new cars.

Most Italians just don’t like walking. They aren’t active travelers who’d opt for a bike, and can’t go even 500 meters without a wheeled vehicle, be it a Jeep, motorbike, Vespa or motorino. 

But it’s not really their fault. People in Italy haven’t been educated on eco-friendly modes of transport, simply because infrastructure like bike lanes, pedestrian paths, high-speed trains, efficient trams, subways and buses are rather lacking. And there aren’t many walkable pavements in cities, let alone in old villages. So the car is Italians’ second home. 

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

There’s an historical reason for this, too. After the second world war, during the economic boom when Italy finally rose from the ashes of the defeat, owning a cinquecento or maggiolino was a status symbol. In the 1960s my father would squeeze eight friends into his cinquino and drive around all night, sharing the fuel cost. Then the car fad turned into a frenzy, and now it’s an obsession.

Iconic Italian car and motorbike models fuelled a post-war fad – which has become an obsession. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Whenever I need to go somewhere far from my house I wish I could do the entire trip by public transport and ditch my car, so as to avoid having parking problems too. I remember once when I was at university there was this huge party near the Colosseum, I drove around for an hour looking for a parking spot and eventually I gave up, went back home really frustrated. 

Car sharing also is something totally foreign to Italians. You just need to look around in the morning at rush hour to see that there’s just one person per car, which is totally unsustainable climate-wise.

READ ALSO: Rome ‘among worst cities in Europe’ for road safety, traffic and pollution

Even in areas like Milan, where public transport is more efficient than in the southern regions, people still stick to their car or motorino which just proves how it’s a matter of mentality rather than of transport provision. 

On the other hand, if I want to visit Tuscany or Umbria from my house in Rome’s northern countryside, there aren’t even any direct connections.

My Italian millennial friends refuse to take a bus or tram to the gelateria a few blocks away from their home – the car is the rule, and they don’t care if they risk a fine for double parking, or parking in front of a building entrance. Forget walking, it just isn’t ‘done’.

Italy will soon invest some €600 million in projects aimed at improving bike and pedestrian lanes under initiatives funded by the PNRR, but the mindset of drivers must also modernize for all this money to be really effective. 

OPINION: Why cycling in Rome isn’t as crazy as it sounds

Italy needs an information campaign to raise awareness of environmental and health issues, and this must start inside schools and continue in college. Families also should educate kids to healthier transport modes, and stop buying those ‘micro cars’ when they’re 13 which don’t require a driver’s license. 

I often ask myself what it would take to get Italians – but also other nationalities – out of their cars, or off their noisy motorino with illegal upgrades that make a hell of a noise. Rising oil prices haven’t done the miracle in making car ownership unaffordable. 

Hiking car prices would kill the industry, so the only way is to give tax breaks or incentives to families who keep just one car and manage to share it, or raise taxes if each family member has one. 

Perhaps in a very remote future, interconnected green transport from the doorstep to the destination might be the solution, but at the moment that’s science fiction.

SHOW COMMENTS