Home / Articles / “Populist” Government in Italy: Catastrophe or Useful Catalyst?
The recent entry into office of the new Italian government was received, in media and financial circles, as well as by most European leaders, with a mixture of indignation and concern. How could Italy—one of the founding members of the Union and its birthplace due to the Treaty of Rome—bring to power Eurosceptic, anti-establishment forces likely to jeopardize the stability of the euro and to create unprecedented tensions within the EU? The alliance between the far-right League and the Five Star Movement (M5S) stemming from a leftist, anti-globalization ideology, is regarded by many as the unfortunate confirmation of the rise of all kinds of “populisms” and therefore as a reversal of the virtuous pro-European momentum generated by last year’s election of French President Emmanuel Macron.
Ironically, however, this negative perspective is not entirely shared in Paris, where French diplomats see in the Italian results a validation of their own long-standing priorities on Europe and an opportunity to convince their EU partners to finally follow along. As a general rule, whenever European integration finds itself in a crisis or an impasse, the role of France as an “inspirator” comes to the forefront. This is especially the case today since President Macron’s enthusiastically Europeanist stance contrasts with the otherwise prevalent euro-gloominess and gave rise to high expectations. In this context, it is telling that in the aftermath of the Italian elections, Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine cautions against the negative use of the term “populist.” It suggests, according to him, “the people voting wrong,” that is, “against the wishes of the elites.” This gray eminence of French diplomacy, a sort of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski combined, who has advised successive presidents from François Mitterrand to Macron, prefers to emphasize that “the people are dropping out.” He explains that citizens’ legitimate demands in terms of identity, sovereignty, and security have been ignored far too long by the elites, and thus paying attention to those legitimate demands is to be welcomed, not feared. The new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (officially: President of the Council) endorsed the adjective “populist” in similar terms. To Conte, “If populism is the ruling class listening to people’s needs, if anti-system means aiming at introducing a new system, then both political forces [of the coalition] deserve both these qualifications.”
An EU-wide Trend
Far from being an exception, the Italian elections are part of the general upsurge across Europe of anti-establishment, Eurosceptic political forces, with various, sometimes conflicting, agendas, but which can all be categorized as “populist radical right.” Either they are actually in power (on their own or as part of a coalition) as in Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and now in Italy, or they achieved remarkable scores in recent elections, as in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Slovenia, or Germany, not to mention the vote on Brexit, where Eurosceptics of all parties combined in the referendum result.
If the central theme today is the rejection of mass immigration, especially of Muslim origin, European citizens’ frustration goes back to broader roots and spans over several decades. The current identity malaise is part of a deep, increasing dissatisfaction with the version of Europe advocated by the elites. In the face of globalization, the working and middle classes feel increasingly abandoned and exposed. They look with suspicion at a Europe that dismantles internal barriers and leads to the growing surrender of national levers of action towards Brussels, without putting in place corresponding protections at the European level. Since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty establishing the EU in its current form, where “yes” (approving the ratification) won with a margin of barely 1% in France and even lost in Denmark, in every one of the subsequent referendums on Europe—whether in Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, or Ireland—citizens responded with a resounding “no.” At least they did so in the first instance since they often had to “think again” and return to the polls.
The real novelty in Italy is therefore not that there is a majority of Eurosceptic voters. Rather, it is that two parties who represent opposing strands of Euro-criticism have managed to come together. This has no doubt been facilitated by Italy’s particular situation. The country has been especially hit by the two major European upheavals of recent years: the uncontrolled flow of migrants and the fallout from the 2008 financial/economic crisis. It is no coincidence that the party leaders of the government coalition, both of whom became deputy prime ministers flanking PM Conte—the Lega’s Matteo Salvini at the head of the Interior Ministry and the cinquestelle’s Luigi Di Maio steering the Ministry of Economy— have reserved these two themes for themselves.
The Italian Case
Italy is the third largest economy in the Eurozone and hosts its second-largest industrial sector, but also faces some of Europe’s biggest challenges. Its public debt has risen to 132% of GDP, whereas its growth rate is one of the lowest (1.5%) and its unemployment rate one of the highest (10.8%) in all of Europe. Italy’s economic crisis goes back further than 2008, and in the public perception, it is closely linked to the single currency. Indeed, per capita GDP has fallen by 10% since the euro was introduced in Italy in 2002. Critics denounce the rules of the Eurozone, optimized for Germany but disadvantaging other partners as a “straitjacket” and the principal source of economic difficulties. In this context, the austerity policy advocated by Brussels in the aftermath of the financial crisis has been seen as especially unfair since it does not correct the Eurozone’s built-in inequities. The new government’s economic program intends to break with the logic of austerity. Following a Keynesian approach, it puts the emphasis on investment, consumption, and growth. But then, there is the German factor. Even though the Italian coalition has already considerably watered down its position on the euro, no longer aiming for an exit, it is difficult to see how the proposed break with the austerity policy could not lead directly to a confrontation with Berlin.
Immigrazione was the central theme of the 2018 campaign. After the arrival of 700,000 migrants over the last five years, the issue is an absolute priority for most Italians. As a country of first entry into the Schengen area, especially for migrants from Africa, Italy is responsible, under the so-called Dublin Regulation, for processing all asylum applications on its soil. Rome has been complaining for years about the unfairness of this mechanism and the lack of solidarity shown by their European partners, who either drag their feet to comply with their migrant relocation quota or outright refuse to participate. In this field, the first steps of the Conte government confirm the uncompromising stance put forward during the election campaign. Interior Minister Salvini reaffirmed the promise to expel 500,000 illegal migrants, using shock phrases, such as “The good times for illegals are over – get ready to pack your bags” or “Italy cannot be Europe’s refugee camp.” He also immediately put his words into practice, shutting Italian ports to the migrant-transporting ship Aquarius. At the European level, Prime Minister Conte used his first official speech to demand an “obligatory” and “automatic” redistribution of migrants/asylum-seekers—a rather explosive proposal, as a number of member states are fundamentally hostile to the idea.
Implications for EU Policy
During the election campaign and the three months before the coalition government was finally set up, most European reactions depicted nightmare scenarios in which “the populists” coming to power would paralyze, if not blow away, the EU. However, if this were to be the case, Italy would probably be not the cause, but merely the symptom and the trigger. Granted, EU meetings are prone to become more animated than before. The first steps of the Italian coalition suggest that some vociferous statements, public clashes, and harsh interest-based politics are to be expected. Tacit management of disputes will be more difficult and the outcome more uncertain. Nevertheless, democratic debate will not necessarily be worse off for it. Rome’s first steps also indicate that the new government would not rule out compromises, on a case-by-case basis.
As noted above, Italian leaders already have toned down their discourse considerably on the euro. Another contentious issue is Russia, as some European partners fear that the Italian government might be too pro-Putin (the League has a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party). However, the coalition’s statement about Moscow not being a military threat, and to be considered a partner rather than an enemy, is not an unorthodox view in itself. The Italian government advocates the lifting of EU sanctions, but it no longer speaks of “immediate” lifting or unilateral pullout. The question of Moscow’s return to the G7/G8 resulted in a public muddling with Prime Minister Conte first supporting President Trump’s favorable position, then finally joining the rest of the Europeans who disapproved. As for the new government’s intractable stance on immigration, it will at least ensure that this crucial issue stays at the top of the EU’s political agenda—which should be the case anyway, given both the urgency of the migratory challenge and the fact that it is set to intensify in the coming decades.
More generally, voters’ defiance towards “Europe as it works today” could paradoxically reinforce those who advocate for a more assertive Europe on the international stage. The French Foreign Minister, speaking before a U.S. audience a few months ago, highlighted this linkage between the need to prevent the rise of extremism and the ambition for an independent Europe. As he put it: “We want Europe to protect . . . not only its citizens but also its interests. And we shouldn’t feel ashamed in saying that Europe is a power that knows how to use the balance of powers and knows how to go into a struggle for power, even with the U.S. We’re there to defend our own interests, and this is a new element that we’re starting to understand. And I hope that Europe will be successful, because if we don’t, we run the risk of having all the countries, including mine, having a return of populism that would be devastating.”
The (French) Solution
Certainly, the future of the coalition gialloverde (yellow and green, based on the colors of the League and the M5S) is anything but guaranteed. The Conte government, Italy’s 62nd in the past 70 years, starts with a thin parliamentary majority. Its fate will be scrutinized closely, both by fellow “populists” and by the mainstream parties. If the alliance of left and right populists holds, others might be tempted to follow suit. Conversely, if it collapses under the weight of its disparate components, it would act as a deterrent against such initiatives in the future. Government action will be a delicate balancing act from the start. If, once in power, the coalition tones down its signature proposals in the name of “realism,” it is likely to disappoint its supporters, in Italy and beyond. On the other hand, if it seems to be too attached to fantapolitica (fantasy politics, a term used by critics) with no regard to feasibility, or, to compensate for the lack of results, it adopts an increasingly radical discourse, it would scare off potential voters and give precious leverage to the opposition.
All these possible developments are obviously of great interest to those who have in mind their upcoming national and European parliamentary elections (the latter are due next year). In the long run, regarding the deep malaise of the populations, the Conte government’s fate is less decisive than the reactions, in terms of concrete decisions, from the other European leaders. Will they persist in their denial, too happy to throw the “populist” anathema on the otherwise legitimate expectations of their citizens? Or, on the contrary, will they be able to appreciate that these expectations do not necessarily involve (not yet at least) the rejection of Europe? Apart from a viscerally anti-EU fringe, Eurosceptics who are “merely” frustrated and critical with the EU in its current form still remain attached to Europe. Serious policy changes could potentially satisfy those voters and save the EU.
Rarely have Barbara Spinelli’s words sounded as timely as these days. The Italian politician, Member of the European Parliament, and daughter of one of the EU’s founding fathers is convinced: “It is in Paris that the future of Europe will be decided.” Indeed, French diplomacy intends to seize the opportunity to push through its long-awaiting priorities. French leaders rushed to emphasize that the Italian elections, as the overall “populist” trend on the continent, reflect EU public opinion’s longing for a protective and sovereign Europe. Which happens to be the one advocated by President Macron (and all his predecessors). Paris is convinced that the only way to counter, or even turn, the Eurosceptic tide is to recognize where “populist” complaints are legitimate and offer a concerted solution to them. The most emblematic and urgent example is the necessary reinforcement of the Schengen area’s external borders. Beyond that, the double motto of “protection” and “sovereignty” covers a wide range of issues, from trade disputes to social and fiscal harmonization, as well as foreign policy. The alternative would therefore be clear-cut: an independent Europe protecting its interests, its identity, and its own model, or the return to nationalism and to the “every man for himself.” As Italian novelist Umberto Eco had warned: “Europe will either become European, or it will fall apart.”
Hajnalka Vincze is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Her work can be found at her website www.hajnalka-vincze.com, and she can be followed on Twitter @H_Vincze.