Is green the answer to Italy’s political crisis?

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Even by Italian standards, the latest political crisis is remarkable. Many predicted an early death for Italy’s populist coalition Government, made up by the 5 Stars Movement (M5S) and the far-right nationalist League, yet few could have foreseen how its final weeks played out.

During the normally sleepy month of August, Matteo Salvini made an extraordinary miscalculation. An error which looks set to lead Salvini and his party back into opposition for the next three years. Following May’s European elections, which saw League win over 34% of the vote, Salvini’s lust for power skyrocketed and heightened tensions with the M5S. This culminated in early August with Salvini tabling a motion of no confidence against his own Government. The aim was to break up with the M5S and hold new elections in the autumn. He went all-in, confident to win next round of elections.

The break-up also had a second benefit. Salvini could avoid parliamentary scrutiny over allegations about a plan to channel millions of fossil fuels-linked money from Russia to League ahead of the European elections. Setting off a Government crisis has bought him time and a new set of headlines. However, things might now turn against Salvini as the M5S and the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) are willing to cooperate to avoid an early general election. If a deal can be reached, a new “yellow-red” Government could be on the horizon.

This is perhaps the last chance for Italian progressive forces to convince citizens to support an alternative vision to Salvini’s nationalist one — one that is European and green. As many are now observing, the new split in Europe and beyond might no longer be left vs right but instead green against nationalist.

In Italy, the surge of nationalism has grown hand-in-hand with anti-climate action. Salvini voted against the ratification of the Paris Agreement in 2016 and since then he has consistently played down the climate crisis while supporting fossil fuels development and climate deniers around the world, like Amazon fires starter and Brazil President Bolsonaro. On climate, Salvini is much closer to Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s positions than any other European leaders.

A M5S-PD Government is last chance to offer a credible alternative to Salvini’s dangerous future. However, finding a deal between these two political forces is not straight forward as they have been at loggerheads since M5S’s first inception over ten years ago. That said, there are some areas of convergence — climate action being one of the strongest and the one in which Italy will play a key role in partnership with the UK in the run up to COP26, the UN Climate Conference of 2020.

There is an emerging consensus that tackling the climate crisis should be a pillar of any future M5S-PD deal. While in theory this is a promising start, there is much less clarity about how this could be done. The “climate literacy” of the Italian political establishment suffers more than others from the lack of a meaningful Green Party, progressive parties that for years have ignored the climate challenge and a media landscape that struggles to convey the urgency and depth of the crisis.

Yet a M5S-PD Government has a great potential to turn into one of the greenest Government in Europe, if they are bold enough to carry out necessary reforms and set out a convincing vision of the future. Climate action should not be seen in silos but the driving force of both the dominant political narrative and Government policy. Next budget law, to be presented in October, will be the first test to do so at domestic level. Redesigning the tax system through a green fiscal reform should be a top priority alongside lowering the income tax and fighting tax evasion.

Italy has a pot of €19 billions of environmentally harmful subsidies that can be reused for spurring investment in energy efficiency, renewables, electric grid, electric mobility and climate resilience projects. This would have immediate and substantial short-term impact on everyone’s life while boosting the economy and reducing the imports of gas and oil on which Italy massively rely on, in particular from Russia.

In parallel, to mitigate the collateral effects of the ecological transformation there is a need for a just transition plan that offers credible alternatives to workers and communities affected by technological change, especially in heavy-industry and fossil fuels dependant regions. They often coincide with the poorest and most socially-deprived regions, such as Sardinia, Basilicata and Apulia.

In Europe, Italy could play a leading role for green reforms and rebalance the power dynamics of the French-German duo. Italy could use its position to broke agreement for new rules that allow for increasing green spending, ensure next EU-budget is designed to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050 and adopt the new climate-friendly energy lending policy of the European Investment Bank.

Finally, climate action can dig out Italy from its self-imposed isolation and relaunch its role in the world. Over the next three years, Italy will find itself at the heart of major multilateral decisions which will shape global affairs for the next decade. At the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit of 23 September, Italy must commit to delivering a national net-zero strategy by 2050. International credibility always begins at home. The partnership with the UK to deliver a successful COP26 in 2020 is the key moment to put Italy back on the map by brokering international consensus for countries to raise their national climate commitments. And in 2021 Italy will host the G20 Presidency. If the Dems win back the White House, this will be the first moment to rebuilt global trust in multilateral cooperation after the turbulent years of the Trump’s Administration.

There is no plan B. Failing to provide an alternative vision anchored in climate action — one that can mobilise the youth against the nationalist fantasy — will pave the way for Salvini to regain power at next general elections. This is a fight for the identity of the country and the future of Europe.

A failure will have dire consequences, with a Salvini-led Government most likely leading the country to a Euro-exit and eventually Italexit. At best, Italy will be confined to irrelevance and embark on a steady economic decline as it loses out in the global race to a carbon-free world. At worst, Italy becomes a rogue nation controlled by Putin and other fossil fuels powers acting as Trump-style disruptor of the existing multilateral order. The clock is ticking.

European environmentalist. Heart and soul between Italy, the UK and Germany.

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