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Will Italy be next European domino?

Torn electoral posters for the March 4 general

Torn electoral posters for the March 4 general election, seen in Rome on March 2. Credit: AP / Gregorio Borgia

Eight years ago, the euro and the European Union were rocked by the near-collapse of Greek finances. Since then, migrants and Russia have crowded Europe’s banks from the headlines. But as events in Italy over the past two weeks have shown, the European peril is not dead. It is only resting.

The proximate cause of the danger is political. The Italian elections in March resulted in victory for the so-called populist parties — the League and the Five Star Movement. As in Germany, France, Austria, and elsewhere, traditional conservative parties did poorly, and the socialist left did worse.

The League and the Movement espouse a grab bag of policies, many of them nonsensical, as well as a disturbing affinity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But among the mishmash is a shared conviction that the euro has been bad for Italy, and that its shackles need to be loosened, if not removed entirely.

One of the tragedies of continental politics is that, since unquestioning support for the euro and the EU is dogma common to all mainstream elites, voters who dislike either have little choice but to vote for the extremes. This only leads the European establishment to view the public with even greater contempt.

The result was that, after the League and the Movement agreed on a coalition government, it was vetoed by the Italian president, a traditionally non-political figure, on the grounds that the proposed government put Italy’s acceptance of the euro into question.

In a sense, Italy is merely replaying the Greek tragedy. The Greeks too elected a populist party that wanted to free Greece from the clutches of the euro. Like Italy, that government was brought down by the pressure of the Euro’s paymasters, who wanted above all to stop Greece making a break for it.

The simple fact, as Greece and now Italy have shown, is that democracy and the euro are incompatible. If you use the euro, you can govern yourself only so long as you elect governments that are acceptable to the European Central Bank, which runs the currency, and Germany, which pays the bills.

Over the past week, I’ve been at a conference in Paris on European defense. I was struck by the lack of sympathy with Italy I found in its margins. The European attendees were completely unwilling to admit that the euro might in any sense be bad for Italy — or anyone else.

Yet the Italian people do deserve fellow feeling. There has been no economic growth in Italy for 10 years and jobs have disappeared. The inevitable result is emigration by the young, and a willingness on the part of those who remain to vote for the League and the Movement. Italy is a far bigger Greece.

The euro is part of the problem, though not all of it. On one hand, Italian productivity began to decline in the 1990s, well before the euro. Many Italian practices are indeed counterproductive. On the other, the euro makes it perilously easy for Italy to borrow money, and difficult to pay its bills by exporting.

But the greatest error of the euro rests in its name. By its very nature as a European currency, it turns every economic divergence and every bit of fiscal incontinence from a national into a European crisis. Italy, like Greece, has had fiscal problems before. The euro makes them everyone’s problem.

The peril now, though, rests not in Italy, or even the euro. The peril rests in the fact that we are in the ninth year of an economic recovery. Sooner or later, there will be another recession.

When that happens, Europe’s tax revenues will collapse, as will its defense spending. Borrowing will soar across the continent. We will have 2010 all over again, in far larger and more fearsome form. The dominoes are lined up to fall — and Italy is merely the first in the row.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.