Matteo Salvini at a rally in Rome in July
Alessio Perrone

Few outside his native Italy had heard of Matteo Salvini before he emerged in 2018 as the new global star of far-right populism. Catapulted by the election success of his League party, the scruffy and sardonic northerner had grown into Italy's most talked-about and incendiary politician, solidifying power in his role as interior minister in a government led by caretaker Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Salvini's favorite topic was immigration, and he made worldwide headlines by ordering authorities to block migrant rescue vessels from docking on Italian shores. It was a radical new policy that put the lives of refugees at risk. His popularity skyrocketed.

But last week, a year after his coalition's patchwork majority disintegrated and Salvini was forced into the opposition, he was the one suddenly exposed to the elements. As reported by the daily La Stampa, a raucous mix of insults and chants in his favor ("Matteo! Matteo!") accompanied the Italian Parliament's vote to strip Salvini's parliamentary immunity. That, in turn, enabled a Palermo prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against him for the very policies that had once made him so beloved by his anti-immigration supporters.

The charges: "kidnapping," on the grounds that as interior minister he'd forced vulnerable refugees to remain stranded at sea in violation of existing laws requiring authorities to save people at risk.

What happens when democratically elected leaders adopt undemocratic policies, and even threaten lives?

It is not yet sure whether Salvini will, in fact, be taken to court for his actions — the judiciary will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial. For now, he remains a member of Parliament and head of what is still Italy's most popular party.

But the case highlights a growing tension in how Western democracies deal with populists challenging what had seemed basic standards of decency. What happens when democratically elected leaders adopt undemocratic policies, and even threaten lives?

Another theater for this debate is in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has carried out policies during the COVID-19 crisis that defy all scientific logic, even as the death count continues to rise. To date, some 90,000 have died there, more than in any other country outside the United States.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — Photo: Lucio Tavora/Xinhua/ZUMA

In response, Brazilian labor unions representing more than 1 million health professionals recently filed accusations against Bolsonaro for Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague "for refusing to protect Brazilian health and the Brazilian population," according to daily Folha de S. Paulo.

Populists rose to power across the world promising disregard for existing rules, international agreements and institutions – "the system" or "the establishment." At the time, many interpreted their rise as a sign that liberal democracies were ailing. Now, after they acted to defy those rules, taking regular whacks at age-old boundaries and testing democracies around the world, these trials could be a sign that our democracies are fighting back.

But it could also be a sign that the crisis is about to go deeper. Suing democratically elected leaders risks testing the resiliency of the very institutions pro-democracy supporters aim to protect. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long leveraged attacks against him in the courts to gain popularity at the polls, and thus weakening the power of the judiciary.

Back in Italy, another populist who has faced magistrates ever since he entered politics is Silvio Berlusconi, who has managed to convince millions of Italians that he was being attacked unfairly by a corrupt system. A force in Italian politics for two decades, his say-anything approach largely paved the way for the rise of Salvini.

But it could also be a sign that the crisis is about to go deeper.

But the country's history always points back to the singular example of someone who was democratically elected but cared little for democracy. Benito Mussolini used his standing as a member of Parliament to launch a coup d'etat, going on to murder political opponents, call off elections, invade weaker countries and eventually forge an alliance with Adolf Hitler — who himself first rose to leadership through the polls.

Leave it to the fascists to remind us that democracy is about much more than just winning elections.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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