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24 February 2023

Should we really not worry about Giorgia Meloni?

When Giorgia Meloni was the clear favourite to win last October's election, a lot of people panicked. She is the leader of a far-right party with historic links to Italian fascism. Four months later, the rest of the world is relieved. She has not defaulted on Italy's debt, or picked fights with the EU. Knowing which fights to fight and which to avoid is certainly a quality of political intelligence. She seems to have that.

Yet, the notion of a far-right politician, who is also intelligent, does not fill me with peace of mind. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, also started off as a moderate conservative, before turning progressively autocratic. It is hard to believe these days, but Vladimir Putin spent his first years in power wooing western politicians like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. The annexation of Crimea happened in year 14 of his reign, the invasion of the rest of Ukraine in year 22.

Italy does not pose a military security threat to any of its neighbours. But it poses an economic security threat. The biggest foreseeable accident would be an Italian departure from the eurozone. Meloni says she has no plans to do this. I believe her. She does not define herself in opposition to Europe. She has learned from the mistakes of Matteo Salvini's Lega and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Their coalition in 2018 briefly toyed with the idea of a parallel currency for Italy. But they were incompetent and unprepared. Today, nobody in their right mind would try this again.

But that does not settle the issue. Meloni is dangerous not because of what wants to do now, but because of what she needs to do later to remain in power. Exiting the eurozone may one day become her only viable power option.

Since the ousting of Silvio Berlusconi during the euro crisis in 2011, there have been seven Italian prime ministers, including Meloni. Mario Draghi and Mario Monti were technocrats. Giuseppe Conte, Enrico Letta and Paolo Gentiloni ended up as transitional figures with little impact. Matteo Renzi was the most flamboyant. He passed a few important labour market reforms, but ended up misjudging the public mood.

The deep reason they all got booted out was their failure to address the lack of productivity growth, the deep cause behind Italy's economic misery. Italy has had virtually no productivity growth since it joined the euro. Data from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands (quoted in https://economy2030.resolutionfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Lessons-from-Italys-economic-decline_.pdf) show that in the 2014-2019 period, the eurozone as a whole had annual productivity growth of 1%. The UK had 0.6%. Italy had 0.2%. If you only look at 2018-2019, Italy's productivity growth came in at minus 0.2%.

One of several consequences of absent productivity growth are regional poverty traps. When Italy joined the euro, the big economic gap in Italy was between a wealthy industrial north, and a hopeless south - the mezzogiorno. Today, areas of abject poverty and desolation are now scattered around the country. According to a study by the European Commission {https://lab24.ilsole24ore.com/cervelli-in-fuga-trappola-talenti-europea/?refresh_ce=1} 13 out of Italy's 21 regions have entered a doom loop of emigration, low educational attainment, and low investment. This includes of Italy's otherwise prosperous north. Italy has one of the worst demographic outlook of all EU countries, the second lowest proportion of graduates among 25-64 year olds, and badly needs immigration to fill jobs. {https://lab24.ilsole24ore.com/cervelli-in-fuga-trappola-talenti-europea/?refresh_ce=1}

No prizes for guessing how Meloni stands on the issue of immigration.

There are parallels to post-Brexit Britain, except that the situation in Italy is much worse. Italy has less fiscal space, a much greater gap of wealth differences between richest and the poorest regions, and politicians who do not even pretend to be levelling up because no one would believe them.

An obvious solution sought by Meloni are fiscal transfers from richer EU countries. When the pandemic hit Europe, the EU did exactly this for the first time ever. It agreed a fund of €310bn in real money. It is less than it sounds, because it is stretched over many years. Italy got over €80bn for investments in green technologies and digital infrastructure. Linked to those grants are economic reforms. Some have happened, but the the speed is now slowing down.

Even my Italian friends, who on average are more optimistic than I am, do not see a noticeable productivity growth shift arising from the investments. Unlike Renzi, Meloni is not a reformer. She is a pragmatist, but not willing to spend political capital on them. And northern EU countries, most importantly Germany and the Netherlands, are baulking at the idea of further fiscal transfers to help the south.

So here we are with an impossible triangle: Meloni says she has no plans for a euro exit. She also has no plans to solve the underlying problem. And eurozone also has no plans to save Italy. Italy falls into the category of countries that are too large to save and too large to fail. But eventually, something has to give.

It is, of course, possible that she is not a smart as we think she is. She, too, might delude herself about her own popularity and meet the same fate as her six predecessors.

For as long as Italy does not have a strategy to deal with its chronic productivity growth problem, you cannot attach a zero probability to an Italian euro exit. None of the problems that became apparent during the eurozone's sovereign debt crisis have been resolved.

All it would take for a calamity to happen is a prime minister, who is intelligent, ruthless, and who knows how to win elections. You underestimate Meloni at your peril.

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