Saturday, the 2nd of June
The entire European Union project was under threat this week as a rudderless Italy faced the prospect of a snap election; a vote that populists could leverage as a referendum on the republic's continued membership in the EU.

That threat was neutralised on Friday as the country's (and modern Europe's) first ever all-populist government was sworn in. Some commentators are congratulating Italy for averting a crisis. But the real challenge has only just begun.
Neapolitans gather to hear MS5's Luigi di Maio speak. PHOTO: Ciro Fusco
The pride before the fall
To understand this week's turmoil in Italy we must first take a short step back.

In February 2014 Matteo Renzi started what would turn out to be two and a half years of well-intentioned but ineffective centre-left rule as Prime Minister. Here was the youngest leader in modern Italian history - a political outsider known as 'the scrapper' - with a bold proposal to dig deep into the traditions of Italian parliamentary democracy, to break it at the roots, and to turn over new soil.

We say Renzi was well-intentioned because Italian constitutional laws are at best a confusing thicket and at worst an ossified system that stifles democratic norms. So change has been long overdue. We say he was ineffective because he was trounced in the 2016 referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms, and forced to step down as Prime Minister. 

Renzi's Partito Democratico was riven by insurrection in 2017 whereupon he duly seized the helm. And when President Sergio Mattarella called for a general election towards the end of the year, the "scrapper" was ready for another tilt. Unfortunately for him, while he was busy consolidating power within the party, Renzi's opponents in Lega (formerly known as Lega Nord - the Northern League) and Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement, or simply MS5) had ballooned in popularity. On March 4th this year Italians voted in no uncertain terms: Renzi was again handed a severe defeat. The upstart populists in MS5 won nearly twice as many seats in the Chamber of Deputies as Renzi's PD did; Lega more than doubled that figure.

The government-in-waiting
Yet nearly three months have elapsed since the election and Italy has had no government. We can discern some of the reasons why in the makeup of MS5 and Lega; they are in a sense victims of their own success.

A crude sketch description of Lega would highlight the racism of its early days but the party has come a long way since 1991. Even so, they are still renown for fierce anti-immigration policies (despite, one could note, their primary voting bloc living farthest from the refugee-choked streets of Catania and Naples). It is a party of Eurosceptics who have advocated departure from the monetary union. Party leader Matteo Salvini has been particularly forceful on the matter. There is even an active minority within Lega that still advocates for Padania (the area north of the Po River) to secede from Italy. While this is an extreme position, it's one that is held by a vocal minority of northern Italians. 

MS5 is a mixed bag and a fascinating one at that. Founded in 2009 by a popular comedian, MS5 has made the leap from protest vote to political powerhouse. Its ideology can be hard to pin down but one thing is for certain, its leaders are experts at leveraging voter anxieties. MS5 make a mockery of the 'left vs right' duality; while some describe them as the 'New Right', others point to their full-throated support of left-wing bastions: environmentalism, anti-establishment beliefs and a limited basic income. MS5 is at the cutting edge of Europe - pushing for direct democracy, advocating for politics to be a limited service rather than a lifetime profession, and advancing social justice issues like same-sex marriage. However, its leaders have played coy on big ticket items like illegal immigration and the European Union. And their deputies have at times resorted to threats, bullying and outright violence within parliament itself.

Not so fast
One reason for the delayed formation of government has been MS5's vow to never work with another political party, let alone one (Lega) - a group supported by arch-enemy Silvio Berlusconi. Lega promised the same in return. Ultimately, however, neither promise amounted to much because the two populist parties finally decided to bury the hatchet. They plucked Giuseppe Conte (a law professor) apparently out of thin air and tasked him with forming government as Prime Minister. Conte's radical pick for the finance ministry Paola Savona was then slapped down by Italy's President on Sunday. The ageing radical Savona has previously described Italy's adoption of the Euro a "historic error". Conte immediately resigned his position in protest. 

The President then instructed the caretaker Prime Minister to form a cabinet with technocrats and just get on with the job. But both MS5 and Lega slammed that decision and made clear that they would shoot down any cabinet not of their choosing. Liugi di Maio - MS5's representative at the general election - even called for the President himself to be impeached. Yet as Tuesday faded into Wednesday and the quagmire continued it appeared as though some of the very firm positions of MS5 and Lega were starting to become malleable. On Thursday the two parties finally decided to cut their losses and propose a new cabinet  - a proposal that Italy's very relieved President duly accepted.

Out of the woods?
Not quite. Conte most now form government. And while he himself may be an unknown quantity, many within his cabinet are not. Lega's Salvini will take the top job within the interior ministry, an appointment that has galled many Italians. The openly xenophobic Salvini has promised to pursue the closure of refugee camps, force deportations and crack down on Islam. And while the firebrand Savona missed out on guiding Rome's finance policy he will remain a thorn in the side of Brussels as the minister for the EU. The finance position meanwhile has been given to the political novice Giovanni Tria.

The prospect of a new vote earlier this week shook the international monetary markets, and European finance chiefs remain deeply concerned. When Greece flirted with the idea of leaving the monetary union three years ago the global markets were hammered; Italy's economy is ten times the size of Greece's. Exacerbating these fears is the fact that the Italian banking system is on the verge of collapse, as witnessed by the nationalisation of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Italy's skyrocketing debt is also only going to expand as the new government pursues a flat tax rate while simultaneously instituting a citizen's income.

Italy's new government must be given the benefit of doubt, and a chance to lead the country. But let's not harbour any illusions: the coalition comprises two ambitious upstarts that have little in common other than a host of disparate, untested ideologies. Without a doubt, there'll be significantly more to come on this story.
For a short time he was Schrödinger's journalist. PHOTO: AFP
The Great Fake of Kiev - On Tuesday Olechka Babchenko found her husband lying dead in a pool of his own blood on the floor of their apartment in the Ukrainian capital. The journalist - an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin's imperial ambitions - seemed to have gone the same way as so many others who have spoken out against Russia's strongman. And then on Wednesday Olechka watched as her dead husband fronted a press conference held by Ukraine's internal security services.

Before a stunned audience Arkady Babchenko revealed the ruse: working alongside the Ukrainian authorities he had faked his own death in order to disrupt an actual assassination attempt and identify those responsible. It's strongly suggested that the would-be gunman was paid by Russian interests; needless to say there has been much gloating in Kiev and several red-faces in Moscow.

The former Russian soldier who documented the disastrous Chechen campaigns rose to become one of the country's best-known (and most scathing) war reporters. However an inflammatory Facebook post in 2017 proved one scandal too many and he was hounded out of the country. Some prominent voices within the Western media criticised the trick; they claimed it blurred the line between truth and fiction in a country where media manipulation is already rampant. In reality, local authorities have made this controversial trick something of a habit in recent years -  and are unlikely to stop while it gets results. 
The company without a competitor. PHOTO: Stephen Lam / Reuters

Up and about in Brussels and Paris - In the age of the internet the breakneck speed at which notable figures are torn down is often matched by the speed of said individuals' rehabilitation. Mark Zuckerberg strode on-stage to a rockstar-like reception at this week's Viva Technology conference in Paris. He reiterated his position that Facebook would continue to take a 'broader' view of its responsibilities. Hours earlier French President Emmanuel Macron too had taken to the stage and rather forcefully encouraged Silicon Valley to embrace the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation. 

Zuckerberg insisted that most users are comfortable with the new opt-in/opt-out privacy controls; let bygones be bygones. Yet Facebook's compliance with the GDPR is hardly newsworthy; the regulations are far less of a hindrance to the giant tech incumbents than they are to smaller digital players. Even still, an Austrian lawyer believes Facebook (like Google, WhatsApp and Instagram) is already in contravention of the rules. Max Schrems, an activist who has successfully challenged Facebook in the past, has filed official complaints with the relevant watchdog over the 'take-it-or-leave-it' consent approach.

While complex arguments about Facebook's regulatory environment keep legal eagles on either side of the Atlantic gainfully employed, the rest of the world continues to grapple with the constellation of problems that follow in Facebook's footsteps. Authorities in India and Sri Lanka are desperately trying to quash the spread of fake news (including racial or religious invective that has led to numerous outbreaks of violence). And Papua New Guinea has even taken the novel step of trying to shut down Facebook in the country to combat fake news.

Athenians on general strike. PHOTO: Nick Palelogos / Al Jazeera
  1. Spain's Prime Minister admitted defeat ahead of a no-confidence vote filed last week
  2. A 24-hour strike against austerity paralysed Greece's transport system on Wednesday; nine years of European Union-enforced measures have depressed wages across the country
  3. The US Justice Department gave the thumbs up to the (long-awaited) $66b merger of agri-business Monsanto and pharmaceutical giant Bayer
  4. US and North Korean negotiators entered a second day of talks to revive the June 12 meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump after the US President abruptly pulled out
  5. On Wednesday Belgium paid tribute to the four victims of an ISIS-inspired terrorist who attacked policewomen and passersby in the city of Liege
  6. A new report alleged that over the southern summer hunting season as many as 120 of the 330 whales killed by Japanese "research" craft were pregnant
  7. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was indicted on charges of rape and sexual assault in New York; this pertains to just two of the 70 women who had accused him
  8. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad threatened to attack the Kurdish-held north-east; the question arises as to how deeply Washington will back its regional cat's paw
  9. Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza after a flurry of rocket and mortar fire was repaid with heavy Israeli bombardment of the strip
  10. Another ceasefire between Pakistan and India seems to have held during the week; allowing people to return to their homes in the disputed Kashmir province
  11. A growing chorus of voices called for significantly tighter regulation of the 'Big Four' accounting firms following their failure to detect financial malfeasance
Emmanuel Macron and Mamoudou Gassama. PHOTO: The Independent
Spiderman of Paris - By now Mamoudou Gassama is an unexpected celebrity. Quite extraordinary footage emerged last week of the agile Malian migrant scaling four-storeys of an apartment block facade to save a dangling toddler. The superhero connotations are hard to miss. Now French president Emmanuel Macron has awarded him honorary citizenship for his bravery. It's a novel and heart-warming situation for many, but perhaps a bittersweet one for those in France still waiting to have their own immigration papers processed.

The holy grail - The famed chimera of the crusaders is invoked for all kinds of reasons. And while this mention doesn't quite guarantee eternal life it may still grant a lot more of it to millions of people. The holy grail in question is a liquid biopsy, a blood test that would allow oncologists to detect tiny amounts of cancer DNA in the bloodstream prior to the patient displaying symptoms. Having passed trials with flying colours the liquid biopsy is now a reality; it is adept at testing for 10 major cancers and worked for four out of five test subjects. 
A shocking toll.  PHOTO: Alvin Baez / Reuters
Counting the dead - Many believed that the official death toll of 64 from Hurricane Maria was hopeful at best, deluded at worst. They were right. A new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine has raised that death toll to 4,645, well over double the death toll of Hurricane Katrina. But Washington's attitude towards its unincorporated territory could not have been clearer in the aftermath of the tragedy (the comparatively light hurricane to hit Houston received far more support). It's yet to be seen whether this new revelation spurs more meaningful support for the island.

Timing is everything - Donald Trump's decision to not extend tariff waivers to some of America's closest allies has sparked a major backlash. Washington's temporary exemption for Canada and the European Union ended this week, just as the G7 summit kicked off over the border in Charlevoix. Needless to say the European powers and America's northern neighbour have used the foreign affairs powwow to lambast Trump's trade policy. France has refused to negotiate while the tariffs are in place while Canadian and other European partners have announced billions of dollars worth of their own tariffs.
Your weekend long read... The Washington Post interviews a noughties pop-rock icon who spends all his money trying to find UFOs. Meet Blink-182's Tom DeLonge.

Quote of the week... “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” - Oxford scientist Joesph Poore lays down a challenge for the world's omnivores. Would you go vegan to save the planet?

What we're reading... One of Scotland's best contemporary authors covers the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Andrew O'Hagan for the London Review of Books approaches the subject with compassion and dexterity.

One last thing... If you haven't purchased an inkl plan as yet, we're offering you a month for just 99c. That's just 3 cents a day to read the world's best news coverage. Help us help the news help you.

Tom Wharton for inkl.