March 14, 2018
By Dominik Kirchdorfer and Riccardo Venturi
In 2016, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US caused a hysteria, with some people fearing populists would continue to gain ground; completely unopposed. Last year, those same people did a one-eighty turnaround and suddenly were proclaiming the victory of pro-Europeanism, as Rutte, Van der Bellen and Macron defeated their respective populist opponents. After somber results in Austria, the Italian election should now constitute a wake-up call for everyone that views these political events in black and white.
Just because one country or one election is won by pro-Europeans, does not mean every country and election will follow suit. Nor, can we simply split the political camps into pro-Europeans and populists. Populism is too broad a term and pro-European parties and candidates can be just as populist as anti-European or more accurately, anti-globalisation parties and candidates.
Italy’s election outcome is a symptom for the lack of vision and leadership provided by our established political parties. In this particular case, we have two clear protagonists to blame: Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi.
Renzi has proven to be an ineffective leader and a disappointment in the eyes of Italian voters. There is no doubt that the former mayor of Florence initially represented a transversal hope for the renewal of Italy. Indeed, during the first phase of his political career, he pledged to start a profound process of rottamazione (scrapping) of the political class in a constructive but dismissive manner, opposite to the frightening fury of the rising Five Star Movement.
However, his scramble to power by all means and his always more confrontational approach were later served when, gambling himself away, he promised to step down from office if the constitutional referendum he proposed to change the political system failed in 2016. For one year, all opponents, even those within the Democratic Party, campaigned against him by pushing aside the heart of the matter. Renzi, weakened also by the low approval ratings on his economic policies and by the outbreak of the migrant crisis, was finally punished by an electorate that now considered him arrogant and presumptuous, corroborating the Latin motto ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ and leaving the door open for anti-establishment movements one more time.
At the same time, the Democratic Party’s inability and unwillingness to find a more suitable lead candidate than Renzi only confirmed Italian’s opinion and fear: This party will not bring us any progress.
Berlusconi is an old hat and one Italians know only too well. He is out of style and just don’t know it yet. Indeed, in spite of losing the coalition’s primacy to the advantage of the more radical Northern League, he pretends to ignore what is happening to the right of Forza Italia by disperately shouting to the World that he continues to be ‘the playmaker of the center-right’.
However, his influence on Italian media still made him a powerful and dangerous player in the elections. Before the vote, the Italian media was dominated by anti-immigrant rethoric (and talk shows). Berlusconi tried to use this more radical narrative to keep up with this change in the public mood and to engineer his return. However, the more he tried to keep control of the entire center-right by winking at the pro-European middle-class and proposing a moderate Prime Minister such as the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, the more he lost support by an electorate now focused on issues such as immigration, security and border control, where he could not promise more than the far more authentic populist Matteo Salvini and his Lega Nord did.
Therefore, Italians found themselves without a real pro-European alternative, with the political cleavage unfolding along the establishment-radical divide. However, both the Five Star Movement and the Northern League have been tactically perfect, reassuring the majority of voters by stopping their Anti-European Union tirades and pushing away the debate on a possible referendum along the lines of Brexit. On the contrary, both parties expressed their readiness to become governing forces and pledged to improve the lives of the citizens with alternative measures that would require structural changes in the countrywide system. +Europa, instead, insisted too much on the idealistic concept of belonging to Europe, confining itself to a niche political option for the pro-European young, educated and urban elite.
In conclusion, we can see that the most recent shake up in the landscape of Europe is already showing its effects on European affairs. In the past, whenever the European project would take steps forward, it would be the Franco-German alliance that forged the path ahead; backed up by the rest of the Six. With the election of Macron, it seemed the time had come for yet another push forward. Italy changes things. First Angela Merkel showed signs of weakness by taking so long to form a new cabinet, then Austria cosied up to the Visegrad states and kindled with South Tyrol. With Italy in turmoil and no stable government in sight, the Franco-German alliance is weakened. With the news that a new Northern Alliance has formed to oppose their steps to integrate the European Union further, European integration is in jeopardy. The fact alone, that the Netherlands have joined this alliance, should give French and German politicians pause to rethink their plans. As the soon approaching Hungarian elections promise no signs of political change in Central Europe, it is likely a new approach to European integration will be necessary if the European project is to be further integrated at all.
Author : EFF – European Future Forum