'Centrism Can Only Work if Traditional Parties Renew Themselves': Ex Italian PM Enrico Letta

Enrico Letta, dean at Sciences Po, speaks to The Wire about Brexit, migration in Europe and hope for reviving liberal, humanitarian values globally.

Enrico Letta, former Prime Minister of Italy and founding member of Italy’s Democratic Party, is a champion of centrist politics in Italy. Since his time as PM, he has moved into the academic world as the dean of Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs.

This new role brought him to India in search of a more diverse set of education partners. During his time here, The Wire caught up with him to discuss his views on immigration, the yellow vest protests and a Europe in transition.

What do you think the underlying triggers behind France’s yellow vest protests are? And what do you see as possible outcomes, particularly regarding its spread through Europe?

The West, the old western countries – US, UK, France, Italy – are in a moment of change due to social upheaval. These changes come in different shapes. In the US, the protest vote brought Donald Trump to the White House. In the UK, we had Brexit. In Italy, the current government is the outcome of these protests.

And of course in France, we’ve had the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) over the past few weeks. So, I think it’s a moment in which western societies are dealing with social development and movements with different outcomes. But the main problem is always the same:

First, the rise of inequalities. Second, anxiety about the future for the middle classes. Earlier, the middle class used to live by a very step-by-step, easy sequence, knowing the future. Now, everything happens suddenly. Social upheaval, unemployment and changes. So that brings anxiety, the need for proximity, fear of foreigners. These are some of the outcomes.

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Simultaneously, we have the crisis of migrants in Europe. And if you combine that with these social earthquakes, we are in a moment that is conducive to social movements. I don’t see these movements seriously damaging Europe though. I see strong resilience from the EU. The EU resisted Brexit.

We are simply in a moment in which social movements are asking political leadership to be more aware of their problems. Outcomes for Europe depend on how the leadership in our countries will react to these anxieties. I also don’t think it’s a European problem: think of the US. It’s the general mood of the western world.

Do you agree with the assessment that the current Italian government is the first true populist government in Western Europe? Do you think traditional establishment politics – center right and left – are dying or can they find new ways to stay relevant?

I think this government too is the outcome of social anxieties. Italian institutions are different from the French ones; they allow for a government like this. It’s just the Italian way to react to these anxieties.

But it’s not just an Italian thing: think of Austria, Eastern Europe, even the UK and France. In Italy these anxieties have created a government, yes, but it’s a part of the larger problem the Western world is dealing with today.

I don’t think we have to worry about centrism as an ideology. I think the main problem is that traditional parties haven’t been able to find modern and up-to-date answers to these anxieties. Centrism can only work if traditional parties renew and refresh themselves.

What more can the Italian government do to handle immigration, especially from the Southern Mediterranean?

The real answer lies in the economy. How to secure jobs, how to give opportunities, how to protect people when they lose jobs, how to assure healthcare for old people – western societies are aging, so you have to secure healthcare services – these are the questions that need to be answered.

Once that happens, yes, we need tools to address migration. We haven’t had a toolbox so far. The situation is different than it was two years ago, we are farther from the core of the crisis. So it’s easier, but the problem is still there. We don’t have a European migration policy. There is space for parties to refresh their policies.

Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers’ protest against higher diesel taxes. Reuters/Benoit Tessie

Speaking with CNBC you said, “There is a link [between Brexit and Italy], because the Italian situation is a very unstable one, a very complicated one,” adding, “I am scared of an unstable storm, a complicated situation from abroad that can bring instability to the markets and then to Italy too.” Can you simplify for us how the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is adding to that instability?

The relationship between Brexit and Italy is under the umbrella of the western world’s social problems. What I meant then was that Italy has the highest public debt in Europe, so we need financial stability. In the case of financial instability, Italy is the country affected most by a rise of interest rates.

I fear that if Brexit is out of control next week, it will create instability, furthering a cycle of debt. If tomorrow, there’s no deal in parliament, you risk repercussions.

More generally, what do you see as the outcome of Brexit, whichever way it goes? What is the future of European integration in its wake?

Until now, Brexit seems to have united Europe. Nevertheless, I fear Brexit. It is a very negative outcome of a crisis. I don’t see any happy end. I hope though, that there is a second referendum, which is unlikely.

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I think we have to centralise some answer to some problems like migration. You can’t have 27 answers. But at the same time, we have to make countries and governments aware of their national roles. For instance, there are many fields – industry, economics – in which there is a need for national level conversations. These are fields where national governments failed – look at the rise of unemployment. We haven’t managed to raise our companies to the level of Chinese or American giants.

Liberal, humanitarian values seem to be on retreat worldwide. Is this a passing phase or should one be worried about the future?

I’m not pessimistic. Working with students in our university, I see people from around the world. The big problem is not the youth, but aging people who fear for the future because of a nostalgia for the past. Western countries have to work to give positive answers to social anxieties, which can only come from an optimistic youth.

While we’ve seen an uptick in the US’s economic growth, Europe isn’t showing signs of a meaningful recovery. What can the EU do to recover growth?

Increasing competitiveness and economic growth, overcoming unemployment and keeping migration under control are the three things that need to be done. How do we make that happen? If we invest in industry 4.0, digitalise our world, try to eliminate borders among us, give young people opportunities and work to strengthen our big companies, it will bring competitiveness. The mood is not there as of now, but with younger leaders, we can get there.

This interview has been edited for style and clarity.

Mallika Khanna is an editorial intern at The Wire.

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