The likelihood that a populist party will head the next Italian government, formed after new elections in the autumn, is sending shockwaves through Europe. Once again, the European Union is facing a mortal threat – the status quo is under siege from the unstoppable rise of populism, and shadows of Europe’s darkest past are looming over the continent.
Commentators have been speaking of (western) Europe’s “first populist government”, while some have even gone so far as to liken the coalition between the “red” Five Star Movement (M5S) and the “brown” League that was set to take power before the intervention of president Sergio Mattarella, to the Stalin-Hitler pact of the 1930s.
Most commentary pieces on the developments in Italy have three things in common. First, they show a poor understanding of Italian politics in general, and M5S in particular. Second, they employ limited historical perspective, seemingly thinking that populism emerged only in the 21st century in Europe. And third, while they highlight the anti-EU sentiments in the government parties, and less so in the Italian population, they fail to address their explanations and validity.
Leaving aside that neither M5S nor the League is extremist, ie anti-democratic, M5S is also not radical left. In fact, it is barely left at all. As various experts have argued recently, largely to no avail, M5S has no clear core ideology. Its nominally leftwing positions (eg environmental protection and free internet) are combined with (radical) right stances and alliances – M5S is part of Ukip’s Europe for Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) in the European parliament. Most importantly, M5S became Italy’s largest party by running a strongly anti-EU and anti-immigration campaign.
Secondly, the M5S-League government is not the first populist government in Europe, western Europe or even Italy. Populist governments existed in eastern Europe, for example in Romania and Slovakia in the 1990s, and currently exist in Hungary and Poland. Western Europe has had, and still has, populist governments. Andreas Papandreou’s Pasok governments were populist, particularly in the 1980s, and the current Greek government is a real coalition of left and right populism.
Finally, the first rightwing, populist government in postwar western Europe was – you guessed it – in Italy. In 1994, Silvio Berlusconi formed his first coalition government, consisting of his rightwing populist Forza Italia, the populist, radical-right Lega (Nord), and the “post-fascist” National Alliance (AN).
Finally, below the groundswell of political resentment that brought M5S and the League to power, there is a little-told story of EU failure. A recent Kantar Public poll on European attitudes, commissioned by the European parliament, showed that “Europeans love the EU (and populists, too)”. However, Italians love populists much more than the EU. A position that’s unlikely to shift given the EU’s reaction to the election just gone, hinting there would be economic consequences for the country because of the electorate’s choice, which would lead to the public mood moving away from the populists.
Italy has the lowest percentage of people saying their country had benefited from EU membership (44%), and the highest percentage of those saying it had not benefited (41%). This comes after a sharp decline in EU support starting in 2015. But0 whereas many countries faced a similar decline in 2015, most have recovered since 2017. Not Italy.
The reason is simple: the decline in EU support across Europe was primarily related to the so-called “refugee crisis”. Once this was “solved” by the EU-Turkey deal, support rebounded and support for rightwing populist parties started to decline again (while remaining higher than before). Italy bucked this European trend, because immigration remained a major problem in the country.
A year ago, at a workshop in Berlin, an MP for Italy’s then ruling centre-left Democratic party pleaded her social democratic colleagues to help with the country’s ongoing influx of asylum seekers. But, just like the pleas of her colleagues, they were ignored in Brussels. Scared that an acknowledgement of a “crisis” in Italy would bring the refugee issue back on the agenda in their own countries, and show that the “problem” had not been solved at all, Italy was sacrificed for the alleged good of the union.
Thus the Italian elections were predominantly about immigration, and anti-immigration sentiments coupled with anti-EU sentiments. Like Greece before it, Italy changed from a very pro-EU country to a strongly Eurosceptic country within a few years.
There are many internal reasons for the political and social malaises in both countries, but the EU’s lack of solidarity with a weaker member state that pays the brunt of the price of a European problem, has at the very least worsened the situation.
If Italy is to return to the polls late in the summer, the EU has a few months to try to undo at least some of the damage of the past few years by openly acknowledging Italy’s immigration problems and offering true help and solidarity. If it does not, we will see an even stronger League, leading either a solid rightwing coalition government or an even more anti-EU, populist coalition.
- Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist