Read: Italy’s Voters Aren’t Anti-Immigration But Their Government Is
Sure enough, just after the European Commission said Italy was going against its commitments by submitting a budget that projected a higher deficit than Europe deems acceptable, Di Maio took to Facebook—one of the government’s main means of communication—with a response at once defiant and pouty.
“This is the first Italian budget that the E.U. doesn’t like. I’m not surprised. It’s the first Italian budget that was written in Rome and not Brussels!” he posted. “Considering the damage they did to us first, we certainly couldn’t continue with their policies. We’ll continue to tell the European Commission what we want to do, with respect. But they also have to show respect toward the Italian people and the government that now represents them. We’ll continue to work for the good of citizens with our heads held high.” He closed his message with emoticons showing a flexed muscle, a smiley face, and an Italian flag.
Meanwhile, Salvini posted on Facebook a photo of himself smiling. “We’re going ahead with a smile, Italians ask that of us. We’re convinced we’re in the right. #TeamItaly.” This kind of rhetoric could play well domestically—especially for Salvini, who is the de facto leader of the government and is gunning for more power—until it suddenly doesn’t.
One thing the government might not have fully considered: Besides Rome and Brussels, there are also the financial markets, which have been pounding Italy recently, sending its bond spreads to unsustainable levels. The spread—the most despised term in southern Europe, for years now fodder for populists and pro-Europeans alike—can rise even when borrowing rates fall. A widening spread indicates that investors think Italian government debt is riskier in comparison to German debt than it was previously; it is a way for the markets to express worries over a country’s prospects. These two populist parties won by saying they would get Italy’s groove back so that it would no longer be ruled by spreads. And now look.
“On the one hand, the narrative of victimhood is a very obvious default option and it’s been around for quite some time,” Federico Fubini, an economics writer for Corriere della Sera, told me on Tuesday. “But I think if you look a little bit under the surface, probably they’re scared to death because they had not factored in the financial markets.”
The government’s game of chicken with Europe might backfire. “It might be a lose-lose proposition,” Fubini continued. “If they hold on, it can be very damaging to the economy,” he said of the rising borrowing rates. “But if they step back, there is an element of face loss. So I think it kind of has to get worse before they change tactics.”
Salvini now has to come to terms with the markets affecting his political aspirations. “He doesn’t have a ready answer at hand,” Fubini said. “If pressure increases, that will start feeding into opinion polls. You’ll see him blinking. He’ll rail against Soros or some other conspiracy.”