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Beppe’s Buca

Mark Gordon - published on 03/06/13

The rise of Movimento 5 Stelle signals to some the entire project of the EU is at the brink of collapse

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As any American who’s ever eaten in a Buca di Beppo chain restaurant knows, it’s easy to caricature the colorful culture of Italy. The name of the restaurant translates directly to “Joe’s Hole,” meaning, presumably, “hole in the wall.” Each location features garish walls festooned with Italianate imagery, nominally Southern Italian food, and a large, banquet-sized “Pope Table” presided over by a bust of the current pontiff. A meal at Buca di Beppo is fun in a clownish sort of way, but no one would seriously mistake either the food or the ambience as a genuine slice of Italy.

Unfortunately, there’s another “Joe” making a spectacle of Italian history and culture, only this one is a real person and he happens to be one of the most powerful figures in Italian and European politics today. He is Beppe Grillo, a popular Italian comedian and the founder of a political party, Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), which received over 25% of the popular vote in Italy’s recent parliamentary elections. As a result of Italy’s complex system of proportional representation in the Chamber of Deputies, part of the Italian parliament, Movimento 5 Stelle now holds enough seats to make Beppe Grillo the kingmaker in selecting Italy’s next Prime Minister. But Grillo has refused to make an alliance with either the center-left coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani or the center-right coalition headed by the disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Both coalitions received larger percentages of the vote than Movimento 5 Stelle, and one or the other must have a leading role in any new government.

But Grillo isn’t willing to go there, at least not yet. He has referred to Berlusconi as a “psycho dwarf,” and Bersani as a “dead man walking.” Moreover, he doesn’t appear to have any interest in wielding power in the current Italian political system, which he describes as “already destroyed.” His goal instead appears to be a revolutionary reshaping of Italian politics and possibly even the Italian constitution itself. He has said, for instance, “we can change everything in the hands of respectable people, but the existing political class must be expelled immediately.” And he has vowed on his popular blog that “the Five Star Movement parliamentarians will not form associations with other parties or coalitions or groups except for voting on the points it agrees with.” In other words, Movimento 5 Stelle will join coalitions on certain specific issues and pieces of legislation, but not governing coalitions. That is a prescription for continued stalemate, leading to greater uncertainty and popular discontent, and the potential destabilization of the Italian state.

As one might expect, the Italian elections and their chaotic aftermath have thrown the European Union into deeper paroxysms of doubt about its future. Italy is not Greece or Portugal – it isn’t even Spain. Italy is a first-rank European state, and this crisis threatens the very identity of the European Union as a political entity. What’s more, the emergence of Movimento 5 Stelle gives succor to similar antiestablishment movements across the continent and may confirm to many former EU stalwarts that the entire project is at risk of collapse. The already fragile economics of the Union are also in jeopardy. Italy has enormous debts and is facing another credit downgrade by Moody’s, the investment ratings service. If the bottom falls out of the Italian economy and the government – such as it is – is unable to meet its bond obligations, the Eurozone could come crashing down.

The Italian political crisis has real implications for the Vatican, as well. Beppo Grillo has routinely mocked and dismissed the Church, even going so far as to call for rethinking the Lateran Pacts, the treaty that guarantee the political and diplomatic independence of Vatican City. The Vatican didn’t take a formal position on last month’s elections, but many observers believed – not without with good reason – that the Church was rooting for Mario Monti, the interim prime minister (following the November 2011 resignation of Berlusconi) leader of a Christian-center coalition. Monti only polled around 10% of the vote, and his coalition is now a distant fourth power in the Chamber of Deputies, after the Bersani’s center-left coalition, Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, and Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle. That effectively leaves the Church out in the cold politically.  

The Vatican’s current political weakness could have a major impact if the current crisis leads to an economic collapse or social unrest. First, the Church is a major land and property owner throughout Italy, and yet it pays few or no taxes on those holdings. In fact, estimates of the amount of tax revenues those holdings might bring in range as high as €2.2 billion, or almost $3 billion. During the first flare-ups of the economic crisis two years ago, there was a big push to get Church property on the tax rolls. Those efforts were blunted, but we could expect to see that initiative revived should the Italian fiscal situation get much worse. There is also the question of direct cash transfers from the state to the Church in the form of charitable donations. Just less than one percent of all Italian income tax revenue is given to charitable enterprises, most of which are run by the Church. The total amount is estimated at over €1 billion every year, which some say is more than necessary to actually do that charitable work. Under the pressure of a deepening financial crisis, those funds could come under greater scrutiny.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the Church is the political instability brought on by Beppe Grillo’s refusal to compromise in arriving at a governing coalition. There is the whiff of fascism around the uncompromising populist Grillo. He frames his agenda in terms of “direct democracy,” the popular will, the restoration of virtue in high office, and Italian national sovereignty. Those are all good things, of course, but they have a certain historic resonance, particularly in Italy, where another clownish figure once leveraged similar themes into great power. In their day, that man and his strutting followers had to contend with a much more powerful Church. The next clown might just make opposition to the Church his springboard to power, which would transform farce into tragedy. It that case, Beppe’s Italy would surely become Beppe’s buca

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