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The League voted against von der Leyen: Is a crisis looming in Italy?

The Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte stands between the leader of M5S, Luigi di Maio (on the left), and the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini (on the right). [personal archive]

The Italian ruling parties were split on Ursula von der Leyen. In the vote which elected the first ever woman at the head of the European Commission, Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S) voted in favour, while Matteo Salvini’s the League voted against. Until the very last moment MEPs from the League didn’t take their final decision. At the end, few minutes before the decisive ballot, they announced they would vote against, through an official statement.

The League’s vote against the president-elect of the European Commission is now producing a political earthquake in Italy. The Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte officially spoke out in favour of von der Leyen. He took a political commitment with the other European heads of state and government, but the League betrayed him. Conte himself immediately accused Salvini’s MEPs of “institutional disrespect” and accused the League to have voted “against the national interest”.

A matter of commissioner (and not only)

First of all, a no-confidence vote against von der Leyen turns into a no-confidence vote against Conte. This fact opens an internal political affair for Italy. At EU level, Conte’s credibility is now more in jeopardy, and the position of the prime minister is weaker in front of the other leaders.

Secondly, after von der Leyen’s appointment the political negotiations for the distribution of the Commission portfolios will start. Italy has been claiming an “important” portfolio for itself, but according to the internal deal between M5S and the League the Italian commissioner is supposed to be a politician from the League. Unfortunately the League decided not to back von der Leyen, who is the only responsible for the organization of the Commission. Given what happened in the European Parliament she might opt for a less relevant portfolio.

The Movement fears a “relegation” of Italy to a second-class Commissioner. It means a non-strategic portfolio. Five years ago the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, voted against Jean-Claude Juncker. Once elected at the head of the EU executive body, Juncker gave Hungary the commissioner for Culture and education. Italy might be the new Hungary in the next European Commission.

Italian government at stake?

The split between M5S and the League is far from having no consequences. “Coming back to the election of von der Leyen, you must know that there was an agreement”, Di Maio’s MEPs stressed. “The agreement was that even the so-called ‘sovereignists’ had to vote for her, being aware that ‘her’ majority wasn’t there. In this way we could condition any future decision in Europe”.

Well, “the League broke that pact”, denounced Fabio Massimo Castaldo, vice-president of the European Parliament and prominent M5S politician in Brussels. Now, he stressed, “it is difficult for one of his candidates to pass the hearings in Parliament”.

In fact candidate commissioner must pass through public hearings in the European Parliament relevant committees, before they are confirmed or rejected by a vote in the Plenary. According to the institutional calendar, the Plenary is expected to vote the entire college during the 21-24 October session.

The message from Castaldo sounds like the beginning of a ‘civil war’ between the two Italian ruling parties for the commissioner Italy will have to receive. Since the League broke the pact, Salvini’s party has no more the right of claiming the seat for itself. That’s what Castaldo means. In any case, staying together has become more difficult for Salvini’s and Di Maio’s parties.

How the Italians voted

In the end, the Italian constituency was divided on von der Leyen. Apart from the League, the MEPs from Brothers of Italy also voted against (FdI, sitting within the Conservatives of ECR). On the other hand, the Democratic party (PD, S&D), Forza Italia (FI, EPP) and the Five Stars (M5S, NI) voted in favor.

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