EU vs Rome: What’s the matter with Italy?

The EMU is skewed towards the interests of certain EU members and Italy isn’t one of them. This is the reason behind many of our problems.

[Disclaimer: This blog post was written during the last budget proposal standoff between Italy and the European Commission. However, the current situation is similar: We just moved to the next stage of the game. Italy and the EU do not fight over budget proposals anymore but over concessions made by the Italian government to get its budget proposal through in the end.]

The European Commission (EC) and Italy have been on collision course over Italy’s draft budget plan. In a sudden break from fiscal policies of its predecessors, the populist-nationalist coalition in Rome submitted a draft budget plan to Brussels that was not accepted by the EC due to “particularly serious non-compliance” with EU rules. Given Italy’s giant pile of government debt and Rome’s dubious expenditure plans, the EC is probably right.

Italy and the EC are now playing the chicken game. Basic game theory teaches us that the matter will eventually be resolved – just like most other greater problems of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in recent years. Both main actors would lose so much by stubbornly sticking to their positions that they will give in at some point, but whoever blinks first will get a worse compromise. However, admitting defeat is still better than risking an unprecedented crisis.

This was not the first and will not be the last standoff between Italy and the EC. What is the underlying issue with this country?

The answer is relatively simple: Italy cannot set rules, but it can circumvent them. Rome is not strong enough to write common rules itself or to bend existing ones quietly, but it is important enough to hold the rest of the Eurozone hostage when the rules become unbearable. When a more dominant actor, e.g. Germany, violates European rules and runs major imbalances – be it because of excessive deficits in the 2000s or its unsustainably high trade surpluses – it can manage to avoid serious consequences. When Germany or France facs situations that require European action, they can also make use of such assertiveness to push through reforms that are in their own interest.

In contrast, Italy was merely a reactive player in recent years while the European regulatory framework constantly increased pressure to change its growth model more towards a northern European one. This means switching from the allegedly interventionist, state-centric approach towards a more “ordoliberal” and corporatist model. However, not even Germany and France were able to follow the rules they made; how was Italy supposed to do that under far greater adjustment pressures?

Many rules are skewed towards northern countries

A good example for the situation Italy finds itself in is the EU Single Resolution Mechanism for banks (SRM). A few years before the SRM was introduced, European banks had to be bailed out by governments – using billions of tax payers’ money – in the course of the Global Financial Crisis. An important reason for this was that resolving a major bank was so complicated and had such devastating consequences that they were essentially too-big-to-fail – especially without having appropriate resolution procedures in place. To avoid such bail-outs in the future, a credible insolvency plan for banks had to be developed, preferably Europe-wide due to the great interlinkages between member states and the resulting contagion effects.

The new framework was circumvented – some say disregarded – by Italy shortly after it took effect. For example, the infamous Monte dei Paschi di Siena was recapitalized and saved from bankruptcy. This seriously corrupted the credibility of the new resolution framework and caused outrage in Germany and beyond.

What is forgotten is that the SRM was made for European states that had to bail out their banks during the Global Financial Crisis because they had allowed them to pursue unsustainable business models – Italy was not one of them. Italy’s banking supervision seems to have been far superior to that of its European peers. While Germany and other “ordoliberal” economies recapitalized their banks with hundreds of billions, “interventionist” Italy only gave out a temporary and general guarantee for deposits to avoid panics. Consequently, German banks were in much better shape than Italy’s right after the crisis, not because of better business models but because of half a trillion Euros of state-aid. For them, the SRM might have been the right measure at the right time to show that such interventions will not happen again whereas the new SRM framework caused serious problems for Rome. One cannot simply change incentives retrospectively. Permanent tensions due to the economic crisis prevented banks and investors from restructuring their portfolios. It is likely that this even exacerbated Italy’s economic situation.

When small interventions were needed to help banks after years of anemic growth, they were illegal under the new rulebook that was designed for states that had already restructured their banking system. The Italian banking system (and its whole economy) was not in shape for absorbing the crash of a bank – it could convincingly argue that it had to circumvent the rules to prevent greater turmoil. The European answer to the Global Financial Crisis had created a supportive environment for countries such as Germany, which behaved interventionist, while disrupting Italian efforts to restore growth.

This situation is only symptomatic for many others in which Italy was not powerful enough to adjust the common framework to its needs. The bulk of Italy’s debt stems from before joining the Euro system. At the moment it joined, Italy was already violating the Stability and Growth Pact by exceeding the 60% debt/GDP-ratio by far. It was handicapped from the beginning, which probably harmed its growth prospects. Furthermore, the whole setup of the Economic and Monetary Union with its highly independent central bank does not fit into Italy’s prior growth model: it was designed for a Franco-German approach to economics (probably more skewed towards German preferences). But there was little time and help to adjust the Italian model to the new circumstances – a difficult endeavor even with enough time and support.

This is not to defend Italy; this is to partially blame both sides for the current problems. Those who say that it is Rome’s responsibility to follow the rules when they join a club are not wrong. Indeed, Italy should have reduced its government debt while it could, it should have addressed the problems of its banking sector much earlier, and its judicial system is so inefficient that this harms growth without any external pressure – just to mention a few self-inflicted wounds. However, it is also absurd to admit a party to a club whose requirements the said party does not fulfil, and then tightening these requirements even further. Without time and support to adjust, the membership was bound to cause serious trouble. The current issues – including an electorate voting for erratic and dangerous policies and the decline of pro-European parties – appear to be symptoms of another rebellion against the trap Italy finds itself in.

Realities of European co-operation: the potential ways forward

This behavior seems to be in line with Dani Rodrik’s famous trilemma of the world economy. Rodrik argues that one can only have two out of three things at a time: deep economic integration across states, democratic control, and national sovereignty. In Italy it seems to be the case that we are in a situation where markets and foreign governments have influenced Italian politics to a large extent. This means that both national democratic control and sovereignty have been somehow corrupted. They were partially governed from Brussels, Berlin, and Paris (and Frankfurt). The people of Italy did not vote for populists because they are as nationalist and chauvinist as the Lega or because the M5S appears to be so consistent and trustworthy. They probably simply saw that they had no control over their matters anymore and these actors promised to bring it back. When you are cornered, you fight back if you can; Italy can do that and has done so in the past. The new populist government just moved the occasional relieve operations to a new level.

To find a sustainable solution to avoid such standoffs in the future, we have to decide which of the three irreconcilable goals we could abandon. Certainly, democratic control is not negotiable. Hence, there remains a choice between European integration, including the EMU, and national states being the primary actors of economic policy. With a common fiscal and economic policy, the EU could adjust for differences in growth and prosperity among regions. Germany would have received direct and indirect transfers when it was the sick man of Europe, Italy would receive aid today – similar to how Germany has managed to transform formerly agrarian Bavaria into a prosperous industrial center by using the money generated in the Ruhr Valley. The alternative would be reducing integration and falling back into a world of nation states that can conduct their own economic, fiscal, and monetary policies.

Whatever the people of Europe eventually decide to do, we either have to step forward or backward. The current situation will continue to produce standoffs like the present one. Even if we would give Italy more power in the European arena, other countries like Germany would sooner or later begin to circumvent the rules.

This would not be a desirable path to take. The chicken game assumes that all parties behave rationally. Just one irrational move will lead to a breakdown of the whole house of cards sooner or later.

A slightly different version of this blog post was published on on 2 November 2018. 


Frederik is a PhD scholar in political economics at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He is interested in international and European banking regulation, taxation, and the EMU. He also worked as an adviser to German MPs concerned with European economic affairs.

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