Italian lawmakers were issued a stark warning in recent days when thousands of citizens took to the streets to express anger at E.U. austerity programs and a political class that has been unable to restrain its base impulses, much less relieve them from soaring unemployment and poverty. President Giorgio Napolitano, for one, took notice, suggesting on Monday that unless the government takes tangible steps — and quickly — further social unrest (perhaps even of the violent variety) is a certainty. And now that Silvio Berlusconi is effectively out of the picture, the pressure to deliver has never been higher, as center-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta and his coalition have no more excuses, no outsized villains at whom to point their fingers. Failure to reach a deal on some kind of boost in public assistance that simultaneously eases the anxiety of bankers in Berlin and Brussels could be catastrophic given that the Five Star movement, and its rejection of Europe’s financial class, continue to lurk on the fringe of the political scene, having secured a generous share of the total vote but essentially no power in elections this past winter.
Indeed, that seems like the real subtext of the president’s message to lawmakers: take action, or Five Star (or some other less predictable — and perhaps more extreme — political movement) will take it for you, whether by building up momentum ahead of the next elections or simply creating such chaos in Italian cities that the grand coalition ruptures. It’s not enough that Berlusconi, likely the most influential figure in public life over the last two decades, has made an undignified exit; in fact, if the current Berlusconi-less government fails spectacularly, that might only make his return (under the Forza Italia banner that made his name in the 1990s) all the more likely.
So Napolitano is fulfilling his mostly symbolic role as steward of the government and advocate for its people, certainly, but also offering a heads-up of sorts to politicians across the ideological spectrum. The dysfunction of the past decade is not going to cut it anymore, and neither will heady promises about the influx of investment and wealth that come with E.U. membership. Italians can see the images of Greeks rioting on their televisions as well as anyone else, and given their proximity — geographic and fiscal — to that trouble-spot, the old guard in Rome is taking notice. Even a modest economic relief package would go a long way toward taking the air out of a bubbling insurgency before it’s too late.