Italian “Yellow-Green Government” and the European Union: a complicated relationship

Federico Mariano Giuntini,
 University of Cagliari


The crisis of the Italian “Second Republic” political system has facilitated the rise of the populist Five Stars Movement (M5S) and the success, within the federalist Northern League, of the far-right leadership of Matteo Salvini. Both these new political actors have defended Eurosceptical stances: the M5S has advocated a consultative referendum on Italy’s permanence in the Eurozone and Salvini has openly called for leaving Euro. After being the political winners of Italian general election in March 2018, M5S and League formed a joint cabinet, named by themselves “Government of Change” and by Italian medias “Yellow-Green Government” (based on their historical colours). Italy’s conversion into the “populist laboratory of Europe” (as Professor Tatiana Zonova has referred to it) led to a sharp deterioration in the relations between Rome and Brussels, until the political crisis occurred in the summer of 2019 between M5S and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on one side and Salvini on the opposite one, resulting in the turnover between the League and the Europeanist Democratic Party in the Italian government.

Key words: Euroscepticism, European Union, Italy, Populism, Yellow-Green Government

Note to readers: This paper proposes the main topics debated by the author at the panel “What’s the future of the European Union? A discussion on the forthcoming European Parliament Election”, held at MGIMO on 15th May 2019, and has been updated with the political developments that led to the end of the “Yellow-Green Government” in August 2019.

Main body

The Italian general election of 4th March 2018 will be remembered, in all likelihood, as the main passage point between the so-called “Second Republic” and the “Third” one. The first clear signs of this political transition appeared five years before, when the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, “Five Stars Movement”, founded in 2009 by the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo) won a strong success  in the Italian general election of 24th and 25th February 2013, being the most voted party and the third political force after the traditional Centre-left and Centre-right coalitions. Moreover, on 7th December 2013, in the primary election for the leadership of the federalist Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania (“Northern League for the Independence of Padania”), the radical Matteo Salvini got a landslide victory against Umberto Bossi, founder of the movement in 1989 and its historical leader.

Since its foundation, the M5S has defended a critical position towards the European integration process, the single currency system and the economic austerity policies promoted by Brussels. In the programme for the European Parliament election of 25th May 2014, the movement proposed seven points: the abolition of the Fiscal Compact (the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union signed on 2nd March 2012), the adoption of Eurobonds as EU public debt securities, an alliance for a common policy between the main EU Mediterranean countries, a derogation to the 3% deficit limit imposed by Brussels, a fiscal incentive for the national farming, the abolition of the balanced budget established by Mario Monti’s Europeanist government and, finally, the controversial consultative referendum on Italy’s permanence in the Eurozone (M5S, 2014). In 2014 European election the M5S came second, in face of the huge success of the Partito Democratico (PD) led by the newly elected secretary – and newly appointed prime minister – Matteo Renzi.

For its part, the Lega has historically opposed the idea of a “European Super-state”, advocating a “Europe of people and Regions” (Lega, 2014a). Nevertheless, the movement has showed an intricate evolution in its concrete positions towards the European Union, voting in favour of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, against the European Constitution in 2005 and in favour of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. To understand this ambiguity, it must be considered that if on the one hand, for the Lega, Brussels has always represented a negative symbol of bureaucracy and homologation, on the other, under the leaderships of Umberto Bossi (1989-2012) and Roberto Maroni (2012-2013), the EU has been seen as a counterbalance to the main enemy of the North: the Roman centralism. The new federal secretary Matteo Salvini, realizing the opportunities afforded by the rising Euroscepticism, fostered a paradigm shift in the movement ideology: state sovereignty became a tool to oppose the Brussels centralism, Lega’s motto changed from Prima il Nord (“North first”) to Prima gli Italiani (“Italians first”) and the – rarely returned – admiration for the European stateless-nationalist and independence movements turned into a growing alliance with the main Eurosceptic state-nationalist and anti-immigration parties. In its logo for the 2014 European election – in which it resulted the fourth political force, behind Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – Salvini’s Lega added the inscription Basta €uro (“Stop Euro”), proposing to leave the Eurozone, to build a «Europe of peoples and Regions» and to restore the primacy of national sovereignties over Community law, especially in managing immigration and in supporting domestic products and companies (Lega, 2014b).

After the victory of the “no” vote in the 2016 constitutional referendum promoted by Matteo Renzi (proposing to abolish the perfect bicameralism, decreasing membership and power of the Senate, and to suppress the provincial administrative divisions, intermediate level between municipalities and regions), the M5S and the Lega consolidated their position in view of the aforementioned 2018 general election. In its programme, the movement led by the new political leader Luigi Di Maio proposed to cease the austerity policies promoted by Brussels, to reform the European single market, to revise the main EU Treaties (including the possibility to leave the currency union), to reject the TTIP and CETA Euro-Atlantic free trade agreements, to oppose the sanctions against Moscow and to relaunch the Euro-Russian partnership, exploring the opportunities of new strategic alliances with the BRICS and Latin American countries (M5S, 2018). Even Salvini’s Lega, although it was formally running within the traditional Centre-right coalition, presented its own programme, suggesting a review of all the European Treaties limiting state sovereignties (with the stated goal to return to “pre-Maastricht Europe”), the start of a shared process of leaving the Eurozone, the abrogation of the Schengen Convention on free movement in Europe and of the Dublin Regulation on asylum application in the EU states and an improvement in the Euro-Russian relationship, while confirming the privileged alliance with the USA (Lega, 2018). Despite these more or less explicit stands on Euro in their parties programmes, with the approach of the voting, Di Maio and Salvini avoided statements on this sensitive issue.

As stated above, the election of 4th March 2018 deeply changed the Italian political landscape: the M5S was the most voted party (with 32%); Salvini’s Lega (17%) overcame Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (14%) inside the Centre-right coalition, which nominally was the first political force (with 37%) but did not reach the threshold necessary to form a government (40%); the great losers were the PD (19%) and its Centre-left coalition (23%). Then, a difficult phase of bargaining between the main political forces began: eventually, the two political winners of the historical election, M5S and Lega, concluded a deal for a joint Governo del Cambiamento (“Government of Change”). In the Contratto di Governo (“Government contract”) signed on 18th May 2018 by Di Maio and Salvini, they introduced their own strong points, respectively citizenship income and flat tax, alongside the revision of all the main Treaties regulating the European economic governance, the abrogation of the UE Dublin Regulation on asylum application and the withdrawal of sanctions against Russia (Lega & M5S, 2018). The selected Prime Minister was the jurist Giuseppe Conte, who took office on 1st June 2018, after several days of serious institutional crisis generated by President Sergio Mattarella’s denial to endorse the appointment as Minister of Economy of Paolo Savona (an economist critical of the European status quo and a former theorist of a possible exit from the Eurozone), who finally was designated as Minister of European Affairs.

In spite of the positions on Euro historically taken by Savona, as well as by Di Maio (new Vice-Premier and Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Social Policies) and Salvini (new Vice-Premier and Minister of the Interior), Conte’s government (which, as President Mattarella required, included members of the traditional establishment in several key ministries, like Giovanni Tria for Economy and Enzo Moavero Milanesi for Foreign Affairs) adopted a pragmatic and reformist Europeanist line oriented toward a redefinition of the EU governance, without calling into question Italy’s permanence in the common European institutions. Nonetheless, expansionary economic policies planned by the “Yellow-Green government” came into conflict with the conservative approach advocated by Brussels, tending to prescribe austerity policies with the aim of reducing public debt. Throughout the course of his government, Conte had to constantly negotiate with the European Commission in order to avoid the so feared “infringement procedure”, a real possibility after the Brussels rejection of the Italy’s draft budgetary plan for 2019 (EU Commission, 2018). The new Italian government, by the will of the M5S, opposed the dominant orientation in the EU even in respect of the Venezuelan political crisis, by refusing to follow the US example and to recognise the opponent Juan Guaidó in place of the country’s elected president Nicolás Maduro, as most EU Member States and the European Parliament did and as Vice-Premier Salvini also wanted to do.

In the middle of these and other discrepancies with the EU institutions and within the Italian government itself, Conte kept proposing a constructive and reformist approach towards the European Union and the integration process. In his address to the European Parliament on 12th February 2019, Italian Premier claimed to «relaunch the European project, making it regain its credibility and cohesion» and regretted that «in the last thirty years European governance has strongly anchored itself to the pure economic dimension, in a perspective univocally oriented to the implementation of liberalist guidelines, aimed at favouring the privatization of essential services and goods», calling for «a radical rethinking of the forms and the institutions that have characterized the history of the integration in the last thirty years». Moreover, with reference to EU foreign policy, he stated to «strongly believe in the transatlantic relationship» but stressed that «Russia and China are part of every solution to major international crises», suggesting not «to renounce dialogue» and not «to promote isolationist policies towards them», but «to promote their full involvement» (Conte, 2019a). These points were reiterated in Conte’s “Letter to Europe” on 19th March 2019, in which he identified «responsibility, solidarity, growth and work, stability, competitiveness and leadership towards the rest of the world» as the «pillars without which the European building remains unbalanced and at risk of continuous failures or collapses» and called for a new mutual trust between the EU Member States (Conte, 2019b).

Over the months, the “Government of Change” internal balance has increasingly altered, on account of national surveys and of regional and administrative elections held between March 2018 and May 2019, ever more positive for the Lega (still a member of the Centre-right coalition at regional and local level) and negative for the M5S (which, until then, had always refused any electoral alliance). This factor constituted a further reason for interest in the European election planned for 26th May 2019. For the occasion, Di Maio’s movement presented a programme based on ten points confirming its de facto social-democratic and environmentalist character: European minimum wage for all workers; investments aimed at growth and full employment; financial support for needy families; incentives for companies to reduce pollution; common European migration policy for repatriation and redistribution of migrants; fight against transnational tax evasion; more EU investment on education, research and innovative start-ups; ban on GMOs and pesticides harmful to health and environment; cutting salaries and privileges of European commissioners and parliamentarians; elimination of budgetary constraints for expenditure on education, health, infrastructure and land security (M5S, 2019). Instead, Salvini’s party proposed the common programme of its far-right “Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom”, focused on opposing «any policy aimed at creating a super-state or any supranational model» and «any transfer of national sovereignty to supranational bodies and/or European institutions», as well as on «preserving the identity of the peoples and nations of Europe» through «controlling and regulating immigration» (MENL, 2019).

The election results of 26th May confirmed the mentioned trend: Lega triumphed with 34.3%, M5S stopped at 17.1%, widely exceeded even by PD with 22.7%, while right-wing Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia got respectively 8.8% and 6.4%, the ultraliberal +Europa 3.1%, the Greens 2.3%, the Left 1.8% and the Communists 0.9%. This ever increasing support, presumably, made Salvini believe it was time to cease his alliance with the M5S, to vote again exhuming – also at national level – the traditional Centre-right coalition and, finally, to replace Conte as Italian Premier. Meanwhile, on 20th June, Conte wrote a new “Letter to Europe”, asking to «take up the new challenges, working on the renewal of the common rules and on the introduction of tools that could more effectively satisfy the citizens’ needs» and even to «open, now, without further delay, a “constituent phase”, to redesign the rules of governance of our societies and our economies, reconsidering development and growth models that have proved inadequate in the face of the challenges posed by impoverished societies, crossed from distrust, disappointment and resentment» (Conte, 2019c).

It was in a “European divergence” with Conte and Di Maio that Salvini found one of the main pretexts for triggering the cabinet crisis (along with the dispute on Turin-Lyon TAV – Treno Alta Velocità, “High Speed Train” – opposed by M5S and supported by Lega and finally even by Conte, and thus approved by Lega and the opposition during the vote in Parliament). Indeed, Salvini severely blamed the compromise backed by Conte at the European Council of 2nd July for the designation of the then German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission, as well as the M5S vote in favour of her election at the sitting of the European Parliament on 16th July. Therefore, on 8th August, after starting an unusual seaside pre-election campaign, Lega’s leader triggered the most paradoxical political crisis of the Italian Republic’s history in order to «get full powers» (Salvini, 2019), with the conviction that another parliamentary majority would have been impossible and that the only viable solution would have been to call a new general election soon. Instead, an increasing number of PD members (among the first, a revenant Renzi, controlling a minority of the party, that split the following month) spoke against an early election and, hence, in favour of a new parliamentary majority made up of PD and M5S (Renzi, 2019a; Renzi 2019b), an option endorsed by Grillo himself (Grillo, 2019). The new axis became evident at the Parliament’s sitting of 13th August, when M5S e PD jointly rejected Lega’s proposal to schedule for the next day a vote of no confidence against Conte (Senato, 2019a). The discussion was scheduled for the 20th August: then, Conte gave a very harsh speech against Salvini, receiving applause from PD and the left opposition, and finally resigned (Senato, 2019b). After a week of tense negotiations between M5S e PD, on 28th August both parties communicated to Mattarella their agreement for a joint government led by Conte and, the next day, he was again appointed Prime Minister by the President of the Republic, definitively closing the controversial experience of the “Yellow-Green Government”.


The coming to power of two historically more or less Eurosceptic forces such as M5S and Lega led both of these subjects – especially the first – to assume more pragmatic and articulated positions, oriented to a profound redefinition of the European status quo rather than to a tout court exit of Italy from the common institutions. However, the persistence of particularly stringent rules and approaches at European level, as well as the strong political rivalry between the forces hegemonic in Europe and those in power in Italy, contributed to make the relationship between Rome and Brussels particularly tense and complex. The recent end of the “Yellow-Green” experiment does not involve the cease of the Italian supposed “populist anomaly”, due to the permanence in the government of the “Yellow” component, the M5S; however, the turnover between Lega and PD will presumably make possible to move from a more antagonistic phase towards Brussels to a more proactive one, reflecting more faithfully the approach of Conte himself. To sum up, it can be expected that the new “Yellow-Red government” – as Italian medias soon named it – will not archive the “populist laboratory of Europe”, but rather that the second Conte’s cabinet will determine an evolution of the nature of the laboratory itself, probably making it less politically sterile and increasing its potential to affect the much-needed redefinition of the rules of European governance.


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