We try to make sense of the big story in European politics this week: not Brexit (not yet!) but the high stakes standoff between the Italian government and the EU. Why has the proposed Italian budget produced this showdown? Who is really pulling the strings? And what does it tell us about the current prospects for populism in Europe? Plus we assess the ups and downs of the Macron project and ask what its fate means for the future of France and of the wider European project. With Helen Thompson, Chris Bickerton and Lucia Rubinelli.
DAVID: Hello – my name is David Runciman, and this is Talking Politics. Today we're going to continue our tour of the world's democratic trouble spots. We did the United States last week. We did Brazil at the weekend. Today we're going to do Italy and we're probably going to get to France and we might just mention the UK. I have with me today Helen Thompson, who knows a great deal about European political economy, Chris Bickerton who knows a great deal about European political institutions, and Lucia Rubinelli who knows about European political thought and also knows a lot about Italian politics. Two things happened last night. One—and this is Wednesday morning, I should say it's always Wednesday morning on this broadcast.
HELEN: Almost always.
DAVID: Almost always except when it's not. One was we think there is potentially the makings of an agreement between the EU and the UK government and now we have to see if the UK government can hold together and we don’t know. So maybe we'll touch on that at the end. The second thing that happened last night was the EU set the Italian government a midnight deadline to come up with a new budget because the EU has rejected the Italian budget as having breached its rules. And the Italian government let that deadline pass and wrote back and said we're not budging. And so in one of these stories there is the makings of an agreement and in the other of these stories, there is a growing showdown. It's at least possible that the Italian story is more significant. So we're going to try and make sense of that to start with. Chris, can you just spell out the background of this? So what is the budget argument fundamentally about and how significant is it that the Italian government won't back down?
CHRIS: So it's about probably a couple of things. One is about whether a fiscal stimulus type budget is acceptable within the European Union's budgetary rules. And the other is about disagreements about growth projections for the Italian economy. Essentially the Italian government, which is made up of the League and the Five Star Movement—two unconventional political parties, political movements—have come together and part of their promise to their voters was to do something different, and to do something different with the economy, and that has translated into a budget that tries to spend a bit more to get the Italian economy going. The Italian economy still is smaller than it was in 2008. It really isn't growing at all. And so this is a kind of a demand led budget.
DAVID: And the rule that's being broken here is the deficit rule.
CHRIS: Yes, I mean there is a kind of a limit of 3 percent, which the EU has had for some time.
DAVID: And it’s been broken a lot in the past.
CHRIS: Well yes, I mean…
DAVID: That line has not been held consistently.
CHRIS: Absolutely not. And that line has been broken most notably by some countries, which are today very strict on it, but have in the past not respected it. But in the Italian case they're projecting a deficit of 2.4 percent in 2019. This is related to the amount of debt, overall debt that the Italian economy has, which introduces enormous spending in terms of simply servicing that debt. And the Commission's view is that the servicing costs will simply go up…
DAVID: Just to be clear about this, so they're not breaching the 3 percent rule. The view is that the state of the Italian economy, particularly its indebtedness, means that even 2.4 percent is unsustainable.
HELEN: They're breaking secondary rules of the fiscal compact and they're breaking an agreement that the previous Italian governments had made about what the budget deficit for 2019 would be. So the Commission's view is that agreements from one government have to continue to the next.
CHRIS: There is a balanced budget rule, which is that over time governments, have to show and commit themselves to balancing their budgets rather than running systematic deficit. So the promise of bringing the Italian budget deficit down to 0.8 percent of GDP was along these lines of balancing the budget over time and that's been replaced by something much more expansionary, which takes up 2.4 percent. Now the reason why the growth discussion is really important because if the Italian economy grows a lot then that has a massive impact on its ability to service its debt. And so the problems of debt are not unrelated to whether an economy can grow or not. So in some ways you can see both sides of the argument. But the Italian government's position is just, ‘We think a fiscal stimulus is what the Italian economy needs at the moment.’ [5:03]
DAVID: I notice… we’ll come on to another of these in a minute… but the Italian politicians have been drawing on American history to come up with some of their slogans and one of them is ‘We've nothing to fear but fear itself,’ this is a kind of Rooseveltian moment where the fear is on the EU side that they have these kind of conservative and negative projections of the future whereas the claim of the Italian government is they're the ones who are injecting hope into this process because they believe that the economy can grow but they have to start from here, right?
LUCIA: Yes and there are I guess two interesting things to be said here. The first one is that differently from a few years ago, I would say that it is widely accepted that we are challenging the budget rule of the European Union. So the fact per say that we are going to create more deficit is no longer seen as such a big problem as it used to be seen under Berlusconi and then under Monti. I guess the discourse has shifted quite importantly there. What there is disagreement about, meaning what the opposition is contesting to the government, is how does extra money is going to be spent. So what they are contesting is whether these measures in the budget, which are mainly some tax reductions, lowering the retirement age, and this sort of universal income that the Five Star had promised. So the thing that opposition parties are contesting to the government is whether these measures are actually going to bring about growth.
DAVID: Again just to be clear, so there's pressure coming from two directions here. So you've got the EU, the Commission, who are pushing back on the grounds that there are rules or there are previous agreements that are being breached, and then you've got the internal opposition in Italian politics who are saying we've got to do something here but this is the wrong thing.
LUCIA: Exactly. So there is this agreement that what has been done so far is not really working Of Renzi’s trying to defend what his government did but I would say that there is a widespread consensus that something needs to be done and that the EU is not offering a solution.
HELEN: Yeah I mean I think that it's important to see that this isn't just the populists—to give them that label—challenging authority.
DAVID: I noticed Chris very carefully called them ‘unconventional’ rather than populists.
HELEN: Cause the Renzi government had pretty much exactly the same confrontation. In fact the Renzi government wanted a bigger budget deficit when it confronted the Commission in 2016. And Renzi said if his party had won in the run up to the election in 2018 that the budget deficit will be 2.9 percent, i.e. as big as it could be without hitting the 3 percent rule. So there is, as Lucia says, some actual political consensus in Italy that Italy cannot be bound by the fiscal compact and the Stability and Growth Pact, which is where the 3 percent comes from. It takes a government like Monti’s, or the one that came after Renzi’s…
DAVID: It’s so hard to keep up.
HELEN: …It is… well I actually couldn’t remember the pronunciation, that's my problem… is that you don’t actually have that many politicians in Italy now who are going to say, ‘We are fine with doing what the Commission says where the budget deficit is concerned.’ What you have is a contest about what that fiscal stimulus should be. But it’s interesting in the case of Renzi that really the Commission to all intents and purposes backed down because it understood that Renzi had got that referendum coming up and it didn’t ultimately rock the boats officially and then after that then Renzi moved a little bit. What’s different this time around, I think, is that the conversation is happening in a context in which the ECB is about to withdraw support for Italy through the end of QE. So the stakes are actually much higher than when Renzi was having this confrontation.
CHRIS: but I think we’re very much in a different place than we were with Matteo Renzi. I always thought with Renzi there was something slightly sort of false and a bit like a charade… you know he called Merkel this kind of lecturing old Aunt and he wasn’t going to listen to her anymore. But you didn’t feel that the actual substantive kind of policy content of what he had to offer was really shaking up the workings of the eurozone. This time around, in some ways the rhetoric is not as extreme as some of the stuff that Renzi said. But the substantive disagreement is there. And I think the consensus in Italy has shifted very much towards doing something. The question is what to do. And there’s disagreement about what to do but there’s no debate about whether to do something or not. So I think that’s a very significant change. And the parties that are sort of leading this are very much committed to doing it. It’s not that old kind of thing you had, the sort of Democratic Party, they’d talk but wouldn’t really necessarily follow up in policy terms.
DAVID: It’s very striking because Salvini, particularly, what he is known for outside Italy is some pretty incendiary rhetoric. You can almost see it the other way round—I totally take your point —but as Helen said, this is within a sort of spectrum of possibility where there’s quite broad consensus actually, and potentially it’s not quite as radical as it looks. And yet the language that’s being used by the Italian politicians—you know we think that people in Britain are being rude about Juncker, it’s nothing compared… I mean the one that I saw was they explicitly say ‘Well there’s no point in sending him a new budget because he'll be too drunk to read it.’ Salvini’s not a restrained politician. [10:07]
CHRIS: But the impression with Italy, I think, is that people tend to think that, in economic terms, it has very large debt and somehow it’s been unable to contain its spending—that’s absolutely false. Since Italy joined the Eurozone it has been very restrained in its spending. The debt that it has had been accumulated in earlier periods, not since joining the euro. So the change in Italy there is from being pretty good at observing these Maastricht criteria, the Stability and Growth Pact, to simply saying this is not working for us anymore, we’re not thinking in those terms anymore, and we’re going to take the European Union on.
LUCIA: Yeah, and I would say that this is reflected also in a shift in discourse, as David was saying. And going back to Europe and what you said about the idea of Italian leaders using American slogans, there's nothing to fear but fear itself actually is meant to be an attack against the European Union. What the Five Star government and the Northern League did is to create a discourse whereby the oscillations of the market only depend on the type of discourse we have about ourselves. So it's not going to be 2.4 or 2.5 that's going to change, what's going to change what type of discourses we’re able to sell.
DAVID: So Salvini, I saw, said of the spreads, the famous spreads, ‘It’s what I put on my bread for breakfast in the morning. That's what I think a spread is.’ Not the kind of spread that Helen has talked about many times.
LUCIA: Exactly. And interestingly even the leader of the Five Star, they have been accusing the European Union, the technocrats, opposition government, which basically means Renzi, the newspapers—that's new, that’s interesting, a lot of attacks against newspapers—to build up fear to mastermind a plan whereby they're going to instill fear in the international markets so that then the spread is going to rise and then there are going to be problems and Italy will not be able to flourish as it should. But the idea is that are objective criteria that will make Italy flourish but that there is a general project fear that's preventing that.
DAVID: And speaking of American slogans are they talking about fake news? Is that become part of the…
LUCIA: Yes all the time. Fake news is part of…
DAVID: What is that in Italian? Or is it just fake news?
LUCIA: Yeah. I wouldn't say there is an Italian translation they use ‘fake news.’
DAVID: They use the English words?
LUCIA: And there is a constant attack especially from the Five Star against mainstream newspapers saying that they shouldn't have any public funding, that all they're doing is spreading fake new, that they have a detailed plan about how to make the government fail etc.
DAVID: In rhetorical terms actually this is closer to Turkey than to America, I mean this is the Erdogan playbook, that the markets are part of the giant fear mongering conspiracy against the government to try to do its best by its people.
HELEN: I don’t believe for a minute that Salvini really doesn’t care less about the spreads because he knows perfectly well the mediating factor in the way the markets behave is the European Central Bank. And the reason why Berlusconi lost his confrontation when he wanted to have a higher budget deficit was because the ECB was not supporting Italian bonds and that meant that the Italian spread over German bonds could push to a crisis point. The reason in part why Renzi won his confrontation was because Italian bond yields didn't rise at that point in late 2016. The problem that Salvini’s got is at the moment he's done quite well because they actually haven't risen… well they rose in the run up to the decision on the 23rd of October but they've been fairly stable since. The difficulty comes once the ECB stops buying Italian bonds in December.
DAVID: And once it doesn’t have an Italian as its head.
HELEN: Well I think that the crisis point comes before Draghi actually leaves. It comes, now that this conflict is in place, it comes as soon as there are no QE purchases, which is the end of December.
DAVID: Have they been pushing back against the ECB too? So in their list of villains… including Draghi?
LUCIA: You know here it's interesting because the Five Star are different from the League. So the Five Star they have accused Draghi continually. So when in October when the government presented a budget for the first time, Draghi weighed in the public debate and said, ‘No that's wrong. That's not going to work.’ And Di Maio attacked him very, very violently while Salvini remained silent. So Salvini is much more careful. He has a very strong rhetoric when it comes to national pride, when it comes to anti-immigration discourse, etc. but he remained quite silent when it comes to the ECB.
HELEN: I mean quite sensibly because he knows that Draghi will have some discretion, which is what to do about reinvesting the oil purchases that mature. So there will be some kind of wriggle room at least for a while as to how much support the ECB gives to Italian bonds and ultimately Salvini has to keep Draghi onside so he needs to keep his mouth shut on that subject.
CHRIS: But it's also worth remembering the Five Star movement has from the very beginning talked a lot about monetary sovereignty. Grillo would attack the European Central Bank a lot. It’s commitment to having a referendum on the euro disappeared. There’s been a general softening, I think, of its line as its kind of grown enough on its own government. So the trajectory has not been towards more radicalization around Eurozone membership in the Central Bank, it’s been towards more accommodation, which I think then puts this kind of budgetary spat into a bit of context. It’s not a random fight. I think there are some things not on the table. This isn’t the sort of nuclear option. This is seen to be a pragmatic, realistic, concrete disagreement, well-rounded, well-founded, which they think they can win. I don’t think anybody thinks that the budgetary projections for 2019 of 2.4 percent of GDP is going to sink the eurozone. But if it becomes, if you like, absorbed into an existential question for the eurozone related to the position that the ECB might take about whether it supports or not the Italian economy, then we get into crisis territory. And I think the Five Star are not wanting to push it into that, they want to restrict it to a struggle about fiscal stimulus.[15:53]
LUCIA: And the League as well.
So another important piece of information I think is that the main secretary to the Premier is Salvini’s economic adviser within the league and he is renowned for being actually quite a sensible person when it comes to economic policies. He plays the other side of Salvini. So Salvini is the one who makes the big statements, who is provocative and then—his name is Giorgetti— He is the one who translates Salvini’s statements into measures that actually can open up a dialogue with the European Union. So there is also this other side.
DAVID: Because that leads on to the question of where the power is within this complicated arrangement, which is the Italian government. When we spoke about this last it was during the period where this government was being put together and there had been a move from the election where a Five Star got roughly twice… not quite twice as many votes as The League but it certainly got significantly more votes than The League. By the time the government was being formed they were polling neck and neck. And now we've reached the point where The League are actually polling ahead of Five Star. Now how has this shifted? So we've got the Prime Minister, as you said, the famous Giuseppe Conte—we’ll come on to him maybe in a second. But it's this unusual government that's being run by its deputies effectively. How is that balance being played out. Does it really matter who's in the ascendancy in public opinion between these two? Because they are very different movements
LUCIA: Yes I think it matters quite a lot and I think the Five Star were surprised to find out that Salvini, who started with 17 percent votes, now is over 30 while they lost four or five points. And you can see this play out both in the public discourse in the sense that The League is increasingly more powerful. They won local elections, especially they won local elections in the South, where traditionally it was the autonomous party that would always be in power. Now it’s The League, so that's a big shift. And you also see that level of what the government is doing because Salvini has much more leverage, he has much more power, he gets everything he wants, while the Five Star have to threaten a crisis every time in order to get something out of Salvini.
HELEN: I think the most striking thing is that the Five Star have somewhat dwindled but the center left have not been able to benefit from it because the Five Star movement could only have been as successful as it was by taking votes from the left as well as from the right. But actually the shift that's taken place so far since the election has only benefited The League.
CHRIS: I think the budgetary spat is also driven by this internal relationship between The League and the Five Star. I always felt that the Five Star had a much harder time in government to actually deliver because it was promising more difficult things. Lega, I mean, okay, it was promising a hardline on migration. Salvini’s managed to take advantage of some situations such as the arrival of boats that he refuses to let them dock in Italian ports, that creates a lot of news. But for Di Maio, for the Five Star, delivering on their promise which is basically a substantial social transformation in Italy, a complete reform of its labor markets really focusing on people's day to day, that’s much more difficult. So the budget, I think that's driven by them because they think this is what they're elected to do and this is really important and they have to be able to spend more money to deliver on what they promised. And if they don’t get this through and if they stand down that I think there's probably an awareness that this will hurt them a lot in terms of their public support.
DAVID: How much of a sense is there in Italy that as The League rises… with Five Star there was always the possibility that something interesting was happening in Italy that wasn't happening anywhere else. Five Star is a pretty distinctive kind of movement. It's hard to find parallels for it. Whereas, as I was saying, The League both in its rhetorical strategy and some of the policy positions seems to fit much more closely into that pattern of—for want of a better phrase—right populism, which then strays close to far right populism. Is there a feeling in Italy that actually Italian politics is moving quite significantly to the right? And—we talked about in relation to America so we might as well talk about it in relation to Italy—that something that we could recognise as 21st century fascism is bubbling under the surface?
LUCIA: So I think that's an interesting question. And, yes, there is a sense that Italian politics is moving towards the far right. And part of this sense comes not from the fact that The League is in power, The League has been power for before with Berlusconi, for instance. I mean it was less nationalist and more federalist but it's not the first time The League is in power. What is striking is that the Five Star, who started a relatively leftwing type of movement, has moved completely to the right. And it doesn't seem to be losing that many votes, as I said before it lost maybe 4 percent. So the question is what's happening within the Five Star movement. Are they also moving towards the far right or are they keeping some of their leftist agenda? And this connects to the question of fascism. Yes there is a lot of debate in Italy about whether what we are seeing is the rise of fascism. And there are some elements in the public discourse that seem to point out, well there is something going on. For instance, at some point, Salvini said something about stop funding state benefits for the victims, Jewish victims of the Holocaust. That turned out to be just a sentence he said, nothing concrete.
DAVID: But still.
LUCIA: Nonetheless it is quite scary. So there is a lot of debate about that. And definitely intellectuals, especially from the center and the left, as well as newspapers, traditional Italian newspapers are trying to build that kind of discourse.
CHRIS: I don’t know if I agree that the Five Star is drifting so much to the right. I think it was always not left or right. It was a kind of post materialist, sort of environmentalist movement that was, you know, ideologically quite difficult to position and picked up voters from all sorts of different places. And I think the fact that it went into government with The League was a decisive thing. I think, my feeling was I wasn't even sure they'd be willing to do that because it seemed to run counter to their identity as a movement. But they did and I think it's been a kind of an uncomfortable time since then. I think this budget thing is really important because it shows that they are trying to deliver not on the immigration stuff that Salvini dominates but on what they saw as central to their identity. And they’re sort of tarnished by association inevitably, which is what coalitions can always do and it can have negative consequences as we see in lots of places. But I don't know—if they don't get this through and if they see there’s nothing in it for them, I don't know what they will do. But I don't think they just drift into a far right populist sort of mode. [22:21]
DAVID: If part of their core identity was environmentalism, one of the features of the right populism, whether it's Trump or some of the Eastern European variants, the Czech Republic for instance, is that it’s skeptical about environmental issues. Is that a point of tension between them? Where is The League on climate change?
LUCIA: Well that's interesting because there's no debate about climate change whatsoever. So even the Five Star…
DAVID: No debate because they agree or because no one talks about it?
LUCIA: It's just not an issue. And interestingly we had quite a few disasters recently—the bridge that collapsed, all the problems with weather, extreme conditions a few weeks ago. There’s no debate about the environment at all.
HELEN: I think the crucial thing that's happening in Italy is it's migration that's dragged the politics to the right. And Salvini is just much better at talking in a language that seems to work in terms of winning votes than the other parties are about it. And I think that the important thing as well as is the way in which he’s able to sort of connect all the stories together. So he can connect the story about the bridge, effectively blame it on the inability of the Italian government to have a fiscal stimulus because it can’t spend money on infrastructure, that becomes the EU’s fault, the EU’s hypocritical about migration—which it indeed it is hypocritical about migration, where some countries like France go to great lengths to ensure that migrants end up getting sent back to Italy. Italy then gets criticized for the way that it deals with, or Salvini particularly gets criticised for the way in which he deals with the boats. So the fact is he can take pretty much every issue that is salient in Italian politics at the moment and construct it into a single narrative in which he—it is increasingly becoming he—is a representative of the Italian nation standing up to these global forces, whether they be nongovernmental organizations or whether they be the European Union. And as a narrative it's proving to be quite effective.
LUCIA: And that’s more effective than the Five Star narrative because as Chris was saying, yes, they have a different set of measures that they want to implement. But the main measure is this basic income as they call it, which is however a highly divisive measure because it splits Italy around the center. So the North doesn't want it because in the North there's no such problem as unemployment or at least it's less felt. Where in the South there is a lot of problem with unemployment. So their main programmatic point is seen as divisive. So even there a discourse is much more complex, much more complicated.
DAVID: [25:22] Let's try and situate this in wider European politics, and we'll come on to this in a second because we haven't talked to Chris yet about where we think Project Macron is at the moment and it's always good to catch up on that. One more thing that an Italian politician said that borrows from American politics, the famous Giuseppe Conte said, ‘Read my lips. Italy is not leaving the euro.’ As many commentators pointed out it's a weird one to choose because George H.W. Bush said ‘Read my lips no new taxes,’ and then he introduced new taxes. But it was an attempt to make clear that this is absolutely not part of what's being bargained over here. It's a bit like when—in the football analogy—when the chairman has to say that he backs a manager, that's when the manager's days are numbered. Merely saying it raises it as a possibility.
HELEN: Well I think that the issue with the southern European states saying—or governments of these southern European states saying—we're not leaving the euro is that it makes the issue into a matter of their potential secession from the eurozone, of saying we don't want to be members of it any longer because it causes us too many problems. But the real risk that they face is … Greece now has actually been expelled from the euro, not voluntarily choosing to leave the euro. Now in Italy's case I think that expelling Italy from the euro is quite obviously a whole other proposition. The prospect of expelling Greece from it, that is a fundamental crisis of the European Union. And in that sense I think that the Italian government does think that that is a card that it has to play in this confrontation. But ultimately the question has to be is can the Eurozone be patched up in ways that are acceptable both to its southern European members and to Germany and in a slightly different way to France. And I think in some sense the French position will actually matter less than the other two. And I think ultimately that's what this playing out of this drama with the Italian budget, in the end, at least in conjunction with the ECB aspect of it, will lead to an answer.
DAVID: When they say we're not leaving, how does that work as a negotiating strategy? What are they actually trying to convey there?
CHRIS: So one, I think, is this general commitment to the eurozone as a as a project, which certainly when the government was formed and there was this squabble and fight around nominating a euroskeptic finance minister, there were these doubts, you know, how committed might this government be. Certainly one of the, both actually really floated ideas about a referendum on membership. So there's a need to kind of reassure, I think, because that then makes the negotiation not about that. It makes it about the budget not about Eurozone membership and the two shouldn't be connected. I don’t think there's much appetite on either side of the government, certainly not, I can see, to initiate any sort of plan or project. I mean there was some discussion about how you might issue parallel currencies in order to help Italy without formally leaving the eurozone. I don't think that's gone very far even though it's probably still sort of existing in certain places. As a negotiations strategy, I think it's just to shut that down. By saying it, in some ways you then put it back on the table. I don’t think that's the intention. I think that was the unintended effect.
DAVID: No I mean certainly if you say in those words, ‘Read my lips,’ you absolutely put it back on the table.
LUCIA: Yeah but I wouldn't read too much into that.
DAVID: You wouldn't read into it?
LUCIA: No. I mean you're right Chris that there was this problem with the finance minister who was a euroskeptic—and he’s in government actually, not as a finance minister but as a minister of European affairs. But again his plan is not necessary to leave the eurozone but it's just to, as Helen said, play the card of Italy being too big to be pushed out, to try to reform the European Union. And on that we should say that another very important element in this negotiation is the European elections in May. That's what they're aiming for.
DAVID: And that's so striking and it comes up a lot that we hear in the wider context of European politics that people are doing things and waiting for the results of the European elections in May. And from a British perspective, there's always been this feeling that those elections to the European Parliament—because it's not a real parliament—are kind of for show. They’re where you signal in politics but nothing really substantive hangs on them. And yet so much at the moment—and these are huge questions for European politics. Why would they wait on the results of an election to a parliament which is not itself going to decide anything because these decisions are going to be taken in other places by other people?
CHRIS: I think there are two reasons. I think one is that they do say a lot about national politics.
DAVID: So if there was a big movement to the “populist right” that would really matter here?
CHRIS: Which would then translate into MEPs and would influence very much the balance of power within the European Parliament. It's a kind of a proof or a kind of stamp of success or failure. So people like Macron are really thinking very seriously about what this can say about their electoral fortunes. So it's… there's a kind of sense in which it indirectly measures the state of things at the national level. But it's also the case that if you can capture certain committees in the parliament, the parliament is a veto player within the European Union.
DAVID: And when I say it's not a real parliament, obviously it has enormous potential influence, it's just not actually the decisive actor. [30:24]
CHRIS: I mean it's not a traditional sort of Parliament in the sense that we think of the legislature during the kind of debates that take place in the legislature. That's not how it works. but its committees are very influential in seeing through or stopping certain things that the EU wants to do and you can capture those committees if you have a certain amount of MEPs. You then have rights to being rapporteurs in committees. And that's the sort of institutional game which I think all national parties know how to play.
DAVID: In that sense it's strikingly similar to the House of Representatives. We were talking about that with Trump, right? It's controlling the committees, controlling the information that in the current political climate can be decisive…
HELEN: But I think what's really striking is the influence it had last time over who was the head of the commission—that is why Juncker is the head of the commission because he was the candidate of the party that ended up being the largest party. And I think it's really ironic that you know the last European parliamentary elections in Britain, that issue just completely passed the entire campaign by. There was no discussion of it by either of the main parties, or indeed for that matter by the Liberal Democrats. And then when David Cameron found that really Juncker was going to be president of the Commission, I think that in some sense wasn't quite the beginning of the end—because I think there were reasons why the beginning of the end had already started, if you see what I mean—but it was an important part in the story because that was the point when he learned that he didn't actually have the influence over Merkel that he thought because he thought she was going to veto him, Juncker being the him there, and she didn't. And that played a part in the attitude that the Commission took in the last years of Britain's membership, in the path to a referendum, the outcome of the renegotiation. So the last European parliamentary elections really mattered.
CHRIS: There was that scene of Cameron on a sort of small lake in Sweden with the Swedish Prime Minister, I Merkel, I think Rutte, maybe, Mark Rutte of the Netherlands trying to get them to accept that it shouldn't be Juncker but someone else and that the council should have the final say on the present European commissioner. It was a complete failure on his part. It's far too late and terribly ineffectual. There was a kind of a symbolic sort of moment. I think Helen’s right.
DAVID: You mentioned that Macron is also waiting for these elections in part to signal where he is in his projects. So just—we’re going to do this briefly and we'll do this in much more detail in the future—but he's had a rocky few months, I think it's fair to say. He took a bit of time off for exhaustion, which may or may not symbolize the state of his government. Where do you think we are in in project Macron?
CHRIS: Three days I think he took off.
DAVID: And the press were there to cover his recovery weren't they.
CHRIS: Yeah, for Macron, the European parliamentary elections next year were to be a kind of a crowning achievement of the arrival of En Marche as this kind of movement that could even be a stimulus for a pan-European movement. Now I think it's double edged. Some people also think it might cement his inability to win votes.
DAVID: Am I right that they are currently just polling behind whatever the National Front is now called? What is it called… the National something. Anyway, whatever Marine Le Pen’s party.
CHRIS: Well Macron himself is polling very low. I mean he's been polling lower than his predecessor for some time. I think a number of things are going on. One is the golden moment has passed. Some of the things that he sort of presented have come back to bite him slightly. This kind of sense of being omnipotent and all achieving means that everything ends with him and if something fails then it's his fault. So taking responsibility for everything has a downside. The other thing is I think he's kind of cutting a slightly more sort of solitary figure in political terms. I mean I was struck by how long it took him to fill certain key cabinet positions. Because he's had resignations by people, important people that he sort of drew from civil society, particularly on the environment. His environmental minister resigned and that was an important figure. And for the French Ministry of Interior, it took him a couple weeks to fill that position. He could have filled that straightaway but I think he didn't want to fill it with just a Macron crony because it was a demonstration of his ability to pull people from across the political spectrum to support his project. And he couldn't. He ended up filling it with an absolute Macron crony of the highest kind. So I think that suggests that there's a certain sentiment that maybe the kind of political forces outside of En Marche, the more traditional ones, are beginning to think that there's a life beyond Emmanuel Macron. And they're sort of reluctant to side with him because they might think that they can get something themselves in the future without having to support En Marche.
DAVID: Is there any sign of a revival of the center left? Melenchon is still pretty popular. The center right has always in a sense been the mainstream opposition to Macron. Other than the socialists, anyone? Okay. At the moment, the big crisis in France is the diesel tax, right? The French government that insisted that cars convert to diesel and is now making those drivers pay. And it's, as I understand it, for people in Britain it has some echoes of the fuel tax revolt, but it's also highlighted this sort of urban/rural divide because people in Paris don't drive much. But if you depend on your car this feels really punitive. It’s a big issue, right? [35:27]
HELEN: I think it goes beyond the rural/urban divide because the last poll I saw, something like three quarters of people were against it, I mean this is a large majority that is opposed to Macron about this.
CHRIS: Because I think it's not just about that. I think it's kind of galvanized a certain sort of sentiment, a certain sort of sense that he's sort of out of touch. I mean he’s just taking decisions and doesn't really connect with people. I mean this is a big deal. I think maybe it's diffused in some way but then something else will come along. Macron is Macron and he doesn't have this kind of reach out into French society that a political party would really provide him with, something that could really insulate him and get the message across in a different way. There isn't that sort of deep penetration of French society and so when something happens it goes straight to him and flares up very, very quickly.
HELEN: I think the other difficulty though for Macron is he wanted to define his projects at the European level. He wanted to say in some sense his election meant the return of Europe, I mean he was quite keen on that rhetoric, as were his acolytes. But first of all that was a fairly incoherent hope because it entirely depended on what Merkel is going to do and there was never any real evidence that Merkel was going to back him in a significant way about the ideas for the euro that he had or indeed the ideas for integration more generally. But also it kind of ignored the fact, the depth of the economic problems that the French economy has. In one sense he's had bad luck because lots of economies this year have actually taken a significant downturn. Indeed Germany's just turned in a negative quarter of growth. France has actually done better than Germany for this last quarter. But Macron has not been able—I mean I’m not passing a judgment in this—But he's not been able to get the French economy going again in a significant way. I don't see how he could have done, actually, given the different structural forces that seem to be sort of pushing towards, if not recession, at least lower levels of growth at the moment. But the combination of having talked the language of Europe whilst not being able to achieve anything on the domestic, economic front is a pretty lethal combination.
CHRIS: I think Helen’s right. Macron, one of his phrases, which if you look at his… it wasn't really an autobiography or a memoir, it was a kind of book Revolution, it was a kind of project for a government I suppose with slightly autobiographical elements… One of the phrases that really struck in my mind was, ‘Empowering people who get things done.’ And he obviously meant himself partly but he also meant, you know, lots of other people. But the emphasis on getting stuff done was central to Macron’s political offer. He would get things done that nobody else had been able to do because he was an outsider, because he was young, because he was ambitious, because he was himself. And what we found, I think, is that some of the reforms he's introduced, getting them through was quite an achievement for him but the effects are very unclear for the time being. And so there isn’t the sense of actually getting things done. And at the European level, that was the place where he could more tangibly get stuff done if he could get deals. But it was always dependent on others. And the fact that Merkel now is really at the end of her reign, whether that's good or bad for her, I think that suggests that nothing really can happen very much for the time being. And so on both fronts he’s not… his main message was, ‘I do stuff,’ then he's not really managed to deliver beyond the sort of legislative packages that have been flowing.
DAVID: It almost feels like in a week where on the one hand there's a sort of fuel tax revolt because of the maybe unforeseen effects of something that he did get done. And on the other hand he gave this well-received speech about the dangers of nationalism at a very, very general level, which has provoked a spat with Trump. And you know, at that level of politics, which isn't about dealmaking, it's about Trump and the kind of Twitter sphere. The bit in between is what's missing. It's almost that level of sort of international politics where you do come up with tangible results because you've worked hard to produce some kind of deal that will stick. That's the bit that's missing. Micro stuff's happening, super macro stuff is happening—whatever the bit in between micro and supermacro, that's where he’s struggling.
HELEN: No I entirely agree. I think what he's done is he shifted from being, ‘I am the symbol of the future of Europe,’ in the sense of ‘I can get things done in Europe’ to ‘I am the symbol of the future of Europe because I am going to confront the United States…
DAVID: Values rather than actual practical, economic outcomes.
LUCIA: And if I can say values that at least Italy perceives as being completely betrayed on a daily basis.
HELEN: Absolutely. He’s a total hypocrite when it comes to migration.
LUCIA: Yeah exactly. So when he got elected there was also the centrist people in Italy, they were super excited, but then it turns out that the first things he did in Italy were to send back migrants on the border in a very violent way. So a few people died and they tried to hide what they did. Basically what they are doing, the French police is doing, is stepping into the border without any permission from the Italian police and it is seen as completely unacceptable and hypocritical. [40:16]
DAVID: So while we've been talking no one has resigned from the British cabinet. So we can't really discuss the so-called Brexit deal because we don’t know what's in it. Who will put up with it, who will throw their toys out of the pram. But I'm going to ask a last very general question, which is, what's so striking in all of this is everything is in flux in Europe. We've touched on Merkel, but German politics is up for grabs. French politics is pretty volatile at the moment. Italian politics is super volatile. There’s a lot of movement. And yet there was absolute, to this point, solidity in the negotiation over Brexit. And we've discussed this a bit before, but there's a deal. The question now is can the British government hold. But I still feel at some point what's moving in European politics has got to fray the European approach to Brexit, doesn't it? Or are we at that point where these things are entirely separate, so in the minds of European politicians, they've got their own battles to fight but the Brexit issue is one where they can hold together while we fall apart?
CHRIS: I think it's the latter. I think it's just less of an issue, as we've said before on this podcast. And I think in a number of national capitals, they're not really talking about Brexit, certainly not in Berlin. People are negotiating it.
DAVID: They’re sort of happy to leave it to the negotiators, the functionaries…
CHRIS: On the terms that have been set, which so far, given the sort of positions of the UK government, haven't infringed the kind of basic terms that the EU has set. You know this could have come close to a little bit. There's been maybe small compromise on the EU side but not anything to really shake up the guidelines.
DAVID: So there genuinely is a gap between flux and possibly even chaos in some aspects of European politics and a negotiation over Britain's exit.
HELEN: Well I think that's because the difficult questions for the future are not being talked about, they're not being negotiated athe moment, they're all being pushed into the future relationship. And as soon as that set of negotiations begins, assuming that we get past the withdrawal agreement—I mean by that that it's ratified by Parliament, which is obviously of course a big if—but let's say that that is what happens, then a whole set of negotiations have got to begin again about what the future economic relationship is between Britain and the European Union. And at that point I think we might expect to see some of the differences of interests between the European Union states coming to the fore because in that sense the question of like, maintaining the authority of the European Union in relation to member states exiting, that will have been achieved by the way in which the negotiations leading up to withdrawal will have been realized. But the question about the future is a whole other proposition and clearly there are a number of different possibilities at stake and different European Union states have got an interests in relation to it and different judgments about what kind of relationship Britain should have with the European Union.
DAVID: When we have a clearer idea of what is actually going to happen in British politics in relation to this deal we are going to talk about it on this podcast. We also have coming up a really interesting interview with Martha Nusbaum, one of the world's leading philosophers, talking about fear and anxiety and disgust in politics. As always links to some of the things that we've been talking about and further reading is on Twitter so please follow us there. And do please join us again next week. My name is David Runciman and we've been talking politics.