Italy’s Right-Wing Government Collapses – Will the Next One Be Better?

Yves here. We’ve been giving short shrift to Italy because so much has been happening on other fronts, but also because Italian politics are even during normal times, daunting for outsiders, and these are not normal times.

However, the fracture in Italy is taking place under the backdrop of Eurozone-created stresses continuing to damage its already weak economy. In some ways, it’s remarkable that the EU has managed to paper over the rot in the Italian banking system, where many banks would be zombies or dead if their bad commercial loans were written down. But Italy’s economy is dominated by medium-sized and small businesses, so the sick state of the banks is the direct result of post-crisis GDP contraction.

The odd marriage of right wing Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement led to some noisy pushback against EU and Eurozone policies, such as on migrants and Italy’s desire to run bigger deficits than EU rules allow. Unfortunately, the drama greatly exceeded progress. But Italy can’t continue to be the sick man of Europe without it eventually having serious repercussions. But “eventually” could still be a while.

This Real News Network interview discusses the collapse of the Lega Nord-led right wing government and the prospects for a new coalition between the Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party. Luciana Castellina points out that this is what Lambert would call an overly dynamic situation; even what some of the major parties stand for is in play, and that’s before getting to Five Star being an all-over-the-map constellation of positions.

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Italy’s coalition government between the right-wing League Party and the populist Five Star Movement collapsed on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned. Italy’s latest political crisis began last week, when Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, announced that he wanted a no-confidence vote against his own coalition government so that a new general election could be held. However, his move backfired when Prime Minister Conte decided to resign instead, allowing for coalition talks between the Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, so that a new government could be formed that would exclude the right-wing League party. Here’s what Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti had to say after meeting with Italy’s President on Thursday.

NICOLA ZINGARETTI, DEMOCRATIC PARTY SECRETARY: Good morning. We express to the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, our willingness to try and form a different majority and to start a new political phase to create a government that will be a political discontinuation of what there was before. For us, it is not an easy choice, but because of the negative legacy left by the previous government, and the political distance that separates us from some forces, in particular the Five Star Movement, a key player of the Conte government.

GREG WILPERT: Thirteen months ago, when the coalition between the League and the populist anti-corruption Five Star Movement began, the right-wing agitator and strategist Steve Bannon called it a populist experiment. He told The Daily Beast at the time that the cooperation between the League and the Five Star Movement would be almost as significant as the Trump administration or Brexit in shaping a new political order. That experiment, however, seems to be over for now in Italy.

Joining me now from Rome to analyze Italy’s political disarray is Luciana Castellina. She’s a co-founder of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, and has been a deputy both in the Italian Chamber of Deputies and a member of the European Parliament. Her latest book in English, published by Verso, is a memoir titled Discovery of the World: A Political Awakening in the Shadow of Mussolini. Thanks for joining us today, Luciana.

LUCIANA CASTELLINA:   Hello.

GREG WILPERT: So, Salvini is trying to topple the government in which he himself is a senior minister. Now, this looks like a big gamble, actually, in a country known for many political scandals and short-lived coalitions. Should Salvini be concerned that Italians will punish him for dragging them into yet another election, or is his popularity so big that this gamble is justified?

LUCIANA CASTELLINA: You know, I want to just make a preface. It’s very difficult to explain what happens in Italy to a non-Italian audience because it’s a very bizarre and new situation. All the political forces who are contending in parliament at the moment are different from what they used to be. And so, how can I explain to you who the Five Stars are, just to tell you something? It’s something which can be one thing and another. There is right-wing people inside, there are left-wing people, and they are much more left-wing than Salvini, of course, but it’s difficult to understand. So now what I think that Salvini, in any case, received a coup. I mean, he’s in a more difficult situation than he used to be. He is strong if he goes to the election immediately, but what happened in the last weeks proves that he is not so sure of himself as he used to be.

The wave of demonstrations in Italy in the last weeks against him, knew because lot of people [inaudible] understood that what he was promising to everybody was just fake news. So now, he’s embarrassed and he’s on his retreat. The point is, will the new alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star work or not? That’s the question. And my personal— and not just personal— opinion is that the Democrats should have looked for an agreement with the Five Stars from the very beginning. They – “okay, if you accept these points and you are supporting this government – otherwise, no. And instead, they lost a couple of years now in this absurd game which was the government.

GREG WILPERT: So, Luciana, the Five Star Movement and the PD, which is the Democratic Party, which is supposed to be a center-left party, are now negotiating for a coalition agreement. I’m wondering, first of all, what do you think can one hope in the best case scenario could come out of this negotiation in terms of a government? Will it be a center-left government if it succeeds, or could it be something worse? What do you think?

LUCIANA CASTELLINA: Well, you see, we all, I mean, on the left, we all hope that this government will succeed because if you go to elections in this moment, in this framework, there is the real possibility that Salvini may get a lot of votes. Plus, we have a very bad electoral load, which means that Salvini could enjoy a premium of a prize, and so it is very dangerous because Salvini’s very dangerous. But after having said this, the kind of program on which they will work if they succeed in making the government, is very, very vague because the Democratic Party has taken a very right-wing position when he was in government, you know?

On migrants, for instance, the Minster of the Interior of the Democratic Party of the time is the one who made the agreement with the Libyan government to send back the migrants. So one of the main most important points – it’s difficult to say that on one side you have the left, and on the other side the Five Star are something else. The Five Stars are a mixture of all possible positions. It’s a wide protest and now [inaudible] as well.

So what kind of program will come out? We don’t know. And I really – it depends very much on what we could probably do from outside the government. We are all hoping that they make the government because Salvini is much worse, but what kind of government will come out, it’s difficult to say. The position proposals are very vague, both sides. And I would say, in a certain way, the position of the Five Star are more left-wing then those of the Democratic Party. For instance, because they have faced and they are speaking about the ecological crisis, and it isn’t enough just to say economic development, but to say it must be a new model of development. I just think this example will show you how bizarre and ambiguous is the situation.

GREG WILPERT: Now, Italy’s economy continues to face serious problems. Its indebtedness as a percentage of GDP remains over 130%, and economic growth has been stagnant for almost 10 years now. Now, how is Italy’s current economic situation affecting the political situation in Italy at the moment? And also, wouldn’t this have an impact, a negative impact perhaps, on the League’s possibility of wining an election, should it come to an election?

LUCIANA CASTELLINA: Well, you see, misery and crises economically does never help with reasoning well. They feed the protests, and the wide protests, and this is what’s happening in Italy. The situation in Italy, the economic situation depends very much on a very high public debt, which has been accumulated by the previous governments. A long time, longer debt cancellation, the government have spent without managing and never trying to keep the budget in order. So now we are since years in a situation in which Italy cannot spend money, so we have a very bad situation at universities because the budgets are cut. We have great unemployment because two situations which exist in every country: The old work and the old jobs no longer exist, but this loss of jobs has not been replaced by new form of jobs, more technologically-advanced. Because of this, what would have been required are investments, and these investments were not there because of the depth and the lack of resources.

And then, you know, this is why Italy is in such a bad situation. One might should say that all Europe is not in a good situation, not just Italy, but Italy more because it has always been a great weakness, which is the south and the north. And you know that Italy has more migrants than immigrants? Because there are millions of young Italians all around the world who try to find jobs in other European countries, but all go abroad— New Zealand, Australia, and so on. I mean, just to tell you how bad the situation is. We have the south of Italy, which is getting worse and worse. It’s going to probably be like— So that is, the context is very difficult. And when you have unemployment, misery, and cuts in public spending— everything, health, schools, universities, and everything— then what comes out is a blind protest. It’s not a project.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now, but we’ll probably come back to you soon, especially as we find out how these coalition negotiations are going and whether there’s going to be new elections, but we’re going to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Luciana Castellina, co-founder of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. Thanks again, Luciana, for having joined us today.

LUCIANA CASTELLINA: Goodbye. Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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21 comments

  1. Ignacio

    Ir seems Italy is in a political cul de sac in which the bottom is filled with a mix of anger and the xenophobia of Liga Nord. Really a bad situation. I hope the brother of inspettore Montalbano has the ability to manage such a difficult situation but what Italy needs like water is a brilliant leadership to get out of the trap. It is not just italexit but total disintegration of the republic what might happen. Sad times we are entering.

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  2. MisterMr

    I’ll put in my two cents as an Italian living in Italy.
    Essentially the M5S were a populist party that appealed to both disaffected left voters and disaffected right voters. In the former legislature it spent its time in opposition by ranting against the center left, that was in power.
    In the last elections it won a lot of votes (35% iirc) but not enough to govern alone, and it couldn’t form an alliance with the center left party because they spent the last legislature ranting against them, so they had to strike a post election alliance with the Lega, who are hard right wing populist.
    The Lega had much less votes than the M5S but managed to look equally or more important in government because of Salvini’s antics.
    Salvini is the leader of the Lega and cultivates a macho image, by going strongly against immigrants and against the EU (seen as a cosmopolitan conspiracy).
    As a consequence all the disaffected right wing voters, who were half of the M5S voters, flocked back to the Lega, that in the European elections got extremely high votes (it previously was a more niche party because it was hated in southern Italy, as originally it was a separatist Northern Italy party).
    The M5S will be lucky if they get 15% of the votes in the next elections, because half of their voters now see themselves as Lega voters.
    Furthermore, the M5S voters who didn’t flock to the Lega are presumably the ones who are closer to the left.
    So in the end the M5S has nowhere else to go than an alliance with the previously hated PD.
    Even if they don’t form a government with the PD, at the next elections it will be obvious that they are on the left against the Lega that, with an alliance with other right wing party, can try to win alone.
    So in the end the M5S will be forced to make an alliance with the neoliberal center left, it is better that they do this now when they can blame it on Salvini.

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    1. MisterMr

      I forgot to tell that Salvini hopes in new elections because, given his recent popularity, he would almost certainly win big if elections were held now, but if the M5S and the center left strike an alliance according to Italian law there will be no new elections, that for the M5S is important because if elections were held now they would lose a lot of parliamentary seats.
      Unsurprisingly, M5S see Salvini as a traitor, while pro Salvini people say that a new government without new elections would be antidemocratic, even though Italian law clearly states that new elections are not held if it is possible to find a mayority in parliament.
      M5S used the same rhetoric against the center left in the previous legislature.

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    2. DJG

      MisterMr: Grazie tanto. You have summed up the situation, which isn’t all that hard to understand. Castellina’s protestations in the interview that Italian politics are sooooo mysterious and inscrutable are just plain silly.

      Salvini misbehaved seriously. Yet the M5S allowed itself to be misled into giving him the Ministry of the Interior. How stupid can one be? So the result is that Salvini worked Twitter like Trump–exactly like Trump. And he made nice with clowns like Orban in Hungary and Bannon from the U S of A.

      I suspect, though, that even Salvini, who isn’t that bright, wasn’t prepared for the situations in Soverato (Calabria) and Catania and Siracusa in Sicily, where crowds were out with whistles and empty bottles to throw at his car. Sicilians usually don’t chant “We’re All Filthy Peasants” and chase politicians down the street.

      Grillo’s great service was to get rid of Berlusconi, who is somehow, though, still circling, looking for a place to land. After that, the M5S let itself be hoisted on NoTav. Hell, just let the train go through–and make a plan to remediate the damage to the Valle di Susa. But to let that situation make the government teeter–incompetent.

      More M5S baggage: The absurd part, though, was getting into government with no legislative plan, with the baggage of a lot of malign statements about the Left, and with general cluelessness about how horrible the Lega is. Yes, Renzi is a clown, so you ally with Salvini? The mystery is finding a group of Italians who are that naive.

      The central problem in Italy is the economy. As you mentioned, the brain drain is terrible. The Mezzogiorno is in economic collapse. None of this is a mystery.

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      1. David R Smith

        Why do you say Renzi is a clown? I’ve always considered him to be something like Macron. Serious and well-meaning, but somewhat out of touch and narcissistic, but nothing at all buffoonish about him, a la Salvini and Berlusconi. .A few years ago, he was being touted as Italy’s last and best hope for providing stable government.

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  3. Marshall Auerback

    I’ve long felt that Italy is the place where the rubber would meet the road, as far as the euro’s existence went. Weirdly, the only hope for the EU is the fact that Germany itself is finally falling into recession, so the austerians are going to be on the back foot everywhere.

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    1. Susan the other`

      I was thinking that too about Germany. The latest PR from them is that it is going to take a huge infusion of euro to get them out of this economy and launch them on the next, presumably greener, one. But how they go from being an apex industrial producer to something greener is more complicated that manufacturing. I think it literally requires changing the entire consumer mentality. So Germany will be very interesting to watch and if they can do this artful dodge then we all can.

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  4. Kurt Sperry

    The Left in Italy, like in the rest of the EZ, is always hamstrung by the fact that it cannot change the austerity course, even if they win in a landslide fashion. Left policy is actually disallowed by the Germans and the ECB. Why vote for a Left that cannot enact any meaningful policies? So the game is fixed within the EU against social welfare, against fiscal stimulus, against addressing issues that need to be addressed. The Left cannot deliver much to the electorate but empty rhetoric, and promises that cannot be fulfilled. What use is a Left that can’t deliver better economic outcomes because they are operate completely subservient to a system of corporate neoliberal authoritarianism? The shape of the Euro Zone makes putting left wing policy into place impossible, so when people inevitably become discontented, it pushes them into the arms of the reactionary right. Now the Macrons and Merkels don’t like the populist right, but they’d far rather face them than to face a populist left could actually challenge the economic status quo. The populist right, however crass and philistine they may be, are no threat at all to the neoliberals; a populist left would be, so discontent must be channeled towards clowns like Salvini to relieve the pressure without any threat to the neoliberal scam.

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    1. Clive

      Yes, a lot of the anti-populism framing in Italy and elsewhere by neoliberals is of the fascists-under-the-bed alarmist war drumming. It’s not the far-right that’s the imminent danger to social democracy, it’s the technocrats.

      For the longest while, I shed a tear (metaphorically speaking) for the demise of the international rules-based order. I’ve shifted position on that one. Internationalists, who’ve benefited from internationalism but only along narrow, national-self-interest lines, and/or bent the rules and played the system for their games of sovereignty one-upmanship can’t then complain about the resurrection of nationalism in other countries.

      A rules-based order is only sustainable and viable when everyone plays by the rules and those rules are drawn up then followed in good faith. If the various parties to the agreements can’t or won’t do that, we’ll need another system.

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      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        I posited that the pattern is quite obvious:

        1. Government becomes so obviously and utterly corrupt that populists gain power;

        2. Technocrats and billionaires thwart everything the populists said they would do;

        3. Populist gets thrown out and right wing rides in as saviour, “see, that other way doesn’t work, we’ll make the trains run on time again, the problem is those filthy immigrants, etc”.

        Greece/Tsipras: check
        Italy/M5S: check
        Sanders elected 2020: awaiting technocratic checkmate

        My personal conclusion is that a complete overthrow of the existing institutions and power structures is the only thing that will work.

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    2. DJG

      Kurt Sperry: This is one of the reasons why I am astounded to see Renzi still circling around and being generally unhelpful. He is the Bill Clinton and Tony Blair of Italy–he ruined the Left and won’t go away. If he somehow gets into the new government, he’ll one of the reasons that it will fall.

      I request that Pres. Mattarella make Renzi the Ambassador to Fiji.

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  5. Synoia

    Interesting comment: The shape of the Euro Zone makes putting left wing policy into place impossible.

    That would explain Corbin’s indifference to taking control of Brexit. Let the Tories get the blame, and then win an election, post Brexit.

    I have wondered how Corbin would “pivot to the left” if still under the EU Neo Liberal system.

    I have read that many of Italy’s jobs were exported, some to Turkey. I fail to understand how Italy can recover economically without the ability to force local manufacture and displace imports.

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    1. Kurt Sperry

      Corbyn wouldn’t even be constrained by the fiscal straightjacket of the Euro. The UK is at least still in charge of its currency. The UK was in a very good position overall within the EU, but with their own currency. The inexorable fiscal ratcheting down of the social infrastucture that the EU imposes on the EZ could still be resisted. He, I think, instead fears the regulatory constraints of the EU, which are likewise built on the needs of the globalist neoliberal economic order. But I think Corbyn made an enormous political error not putting those misgivings (plus the risk of splitting Labour) aside and embracing Remain. The regulatory constraints could be fought and resisted piece by piece, and he could have found allies in Southern Europe for his battles. And Brexit would have likely killed the Tories (and made the LibDems irrelevant) for a generation if he had boldly done so.

      Corbyn, in my view, blew a once in a lifetime chance to change the course of UK history for the good with his dithering and his political incompetence around the Brexit issue.

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      1. Clive

        It is much easier to say you can finesse away the EU directives than to do it. And more’s to the point, why belong to a structure where you don’t want to be bound by that structure’s stipulations?

        And getting allies in the rest of the EU27 is a similar pipe dream — if Germany and France resist, it’s virtually impossible to form any sort of insurgency. Look, for example, at the stitch-up over the President of the Commission.

        Turning the EU away from its course of neoliberalism isn’t going to be easy — it’s been embryonically neoliberal since its inception. A Corbyn government would be on borrowed time from day-1. Starting a battle on two fronts would tax fragile Labour Party unity, it’s institutional capability and leadership bandwidth simultaneously. Even an optimal leader would find it difficult to keep all the plates spinning. Corbyn certainly isn’t that — but I do think he realises his limitations and the consequences of that, namely to not put too much on his to-do list.

        Besides, why is it the UK’s job in general — and the Labour party’s job in particular — to fix the EU’s limitations?

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  6. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    Kurt Sperry – doesn’t say much for Democracy does it ?

    I guess the EU expected the ooalition to fail & are also likely to be hoping that normal service will be resumed. As for the Right even in it’s most extreme forms, Corporations did not have any problems working with the Nazis & i don’t expect that they would again. Hitler lost the Socialist wing of his party when they discovered that he was trying to get into bed with the banks etc, but I suppose that was inevitable anyway & helped him in his task.

    Bayer was a big player in Auschwitz as part of the conglomerate IG Farben who funded Mengele, manufactured Zyklon B gas & employed a certain Primo Levi as a chemist.

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  7. Susan the other`

    I enjoyed watching Beppe Grillo back when Five Star formed. I enjoyed him but I found his politics totally incomprehensible. Lucianna Castellina was very informative. I noticed she couldn’t finish her sentence about what would become of southern Italy if they can’t get their economy to work. “It will be like _.” Salvini, on the other hand, has been quite salient. He makes no bones about his politics. He’s ready, yesterday, to leave the EU and go back to the lira and spend his way to prosperity. I think that’s probably a good plan as long as Salvini is also a good environmentalist. He seems more like an opportunist right now. Just wondering, is Nicola Zingaretti any relation to Luca?-)

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    1. lou strong

      Castellina was informative about some aspects of the situation, but informative as well about her own inability to understand that any left-leaning policy is made impossible not by the high public debt in itself, as she indicated, but by the euro masters and rules, as Kurt Sperry has very rightfully pointed out and repeated.You can observe the measure of her intellectual and political misunderstanding in the fact that she stood as a candidate for the last EU parliament elections in the Syriza lists ( !).

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  8. Kurt Sperry

    Yes, Nicola is Luca’s brother. And Andrea Camilleri who authored the books on which the popular TV show is based, was a staunch leftist too. The PD is the veal pen all of the left’s hopes are herded into and slaughtered, much like the analogous DP in the US, but with added hopelessness because the PD couldn’t fix things even if they really wanted to because they don’t have any fiscal authority, which is been outsourced to the ECB and the neoliberal order who are locked into control of the pursestrings of the entire continent.

    As for Salvini leading Italy out of the EZ, I’ll leave it to him to explain,

    “The idea of leaving Europe, leaving the euro has never been in the pipeline,” Salvini told reporters on the sidelines of a rally near Matera, in southern Italy.

    “This is yet another Repubblica [PD press juggernaut and mouthpiece] fantasy, and I leave it in the pages of Repubblica.”

    There is a minority within the Lega for a new Italian Lira as there also is within the M5S, but I don’t see them ever doing more than using empty threats to try fruitlessly to get a little fiscal leeway from the real masters or to make meaningless populist noises for political reasons. Once you adopt the Euro, you can never leave. All possible exits have been barred and boobytrapped. And as long as Italy remains within the EZ, it has no control over its economic course, that will always be dictated from the North. And there is no way to leave the EZ, so it is a case of total TINA. The PIGS are essentially colonies of the North, the ECB, the IMF, and the stateless neoliberal global order and will remain so under threat of complete economic catastrophe and becoming a failed state.

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    1. eg

      While I agree completely with your description of the characteristics of the Euro Zone, I cannot accept the declaration that states “can never leave.”

      Difficult, yes; impossible, no. History is not a ratchet.

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  9. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    I wonder whether immigration might become an increasingly important factor if the situation resumes to pre – Salvini open door. It does appear to be likely that the human flow won’t stop & perhaps due to climate change & possible wars will likely get worse overtime. It is obviously an issue that the Right could take full advantage of.

    Germany has restricted the flow as has Salvini stating that Italy will not become Europe’s refugee camp, for which he has been castigated as being a racist. It all has me wondering if eventually a state of saturation will occur in the Southern parts of Europe in a too many people in the lifeboat sort of way, with added other factors like a recession & a continuance of the general decline in Italy’s economy. Perhaps the Neo-libs believe that Italy as a source of cheap labour is the answer to the problem, with many of the Italian brightest leaving the country for dead.

    I just wonder if there is a breaking point in which despite the chains, people say enough is enough & to hell with the consequences, especially if they do not know the full truth & believe the propaganda spooned out to them. It seems to be the case with Brexit but obviously being in the EZ, it would be worse for Italians.

    I have visited various parts of Italy around 30 times over the years as admittedly a tourist, love it’s culture & people & would hate to see it go down the pan.

    This brilliantly made film gives real faces to the tragedy of the refugee crisis in 23 countries & highlights the hypocrisy on the issue in the EU :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVZGyTdk_BY

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  10. elkern

    So, hasn’t the ECB noticed that Austerity is destroying Europe?

    I’m a Europhilic Yank; I pictured the EU as an important positive step – a continental federation of existing Nations, creating a (relatively) civilized new World Power. But damn, they’ve really screwed it up.

    Krugman (yeah, he’s a rabid neolib chipmunk, but not always wrong) pointed out that it’s dangerous to have a single currency without a unified political structure to redistribute resources when necessary/desirable. The ECB seems to be much more powerful (and united) than the EP; and it’s obviously NOT being managed for the benefit of all. So, structural reform might help (EP should have power to change ECB Directorate, at least slowly). But don’t ECB managers read the news?

    How do you say “pitchforks” in European?

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