Say to hello to west Europe's first populist government

Conte-Salvini-DiMaioROME — Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor, was sworn in as prime minister Friday, nearly 90 days after an inconclusive March 4 vote.

Italy’s first-ever populist government will now be tasked with repairing ties with the European Union after nearly three months of bitter negotiations.

The new government features the heads of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the right-wing League party – both of whom campaigned as vocal critics of the EU.

Relations between Rome and Brussels got off to a bad start. The continent’s most high-profile euro-skeptic, France’s Marine Le Pen, called Italy’s new government a “victory of democracy over European Union threats.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, earned the ire of Italy’s new leaders by stating Italy should ”stop blaming” the EU for the country’s woes. Juncker later apologized.

The U.S. Embassy in Rome on Friday warned U.S. travelers to beware of three separate demonstrations set to take place Saturday, saying they could become “unruly or violent.”

“It was starting to become a joke: three months of flip-flopping and sudden changes of direction,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former director-general of the Italian Treasury and now a professor at the London School of Economics. “But the new government will inevitably raise many eyebrows.”

Financial markets have been nervous about the new government. The Italian Stock Exchange lost 10% of its value in May, and yield on Italian bonds this week rose to levels last seen in 2014. Since Italy’s vote in March, the euro currency has lost nearly 1% of its value every week.

“The new government is going to have to make it a priority to calm markets,” said Gian Franco Gallo, a political affairs analyst with Milan’s ABS Securities. “If the volatility continues it will become too difficult for the new government to govern.”

Gallo said he expected leadership in both Rome and Brussels to make conciliatory remarks in the coming days.

Veronica Auriemma, 49, an office manager, said she isn't expecting much from the newly formed government.

“They key is to set expectations low and hope for the best,” said Auriemma, who said she supported a center-left party that is now part of the opposition. “I guess you have to give the new government a chance but I am not expecting too much. Whatever happens, we’ll survive.”

Marco Sagese, 29, a restaurant worker, agreed.

“Most of these new ministers never had a role in government before,” said Sagese, who supported the 5-Star Movement. “We have to be patient and keep our eyes open to be sure they don’t go too far.”

Sagese said he is among the two out of three Italians who support staying in the euro currency zone, something the party he voted for wants to call into question. The euro has been Italy’s currency since 2002, when it replaced the Italian lira.

“I’m too young to remember much about the time before the euro, but I like going on vacation to France and Spain,” he said. “My parents told me that when we had the lira it was too expensive to travel outside Italy. When they had time off, all they could afford to do was to make a ham sandwich and go to the beach. I don’t want to go back to that.”

Photo: From left to right: Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and The League leader Matteo Salvini
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account. (June 2018)

Story/photo published date: 06/01/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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