Collapse of pro EU centre as Italian voters embrace parties opposed to the EU establishment
The Italian elections have resulted in the predicted swing against the centre-left pro-EU Democratic Party, the successor of Italy’s once mighty Communist Party – the party of Togliatti and Gramsci – and today the Party of outgoing Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
From a position in 2008, when the Democratic Party won 37% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of that year, it fell to 25% of the vote in the elections of 2013, and has no fallen further to just 19% of the vote in the elections which have been held now.
The result is that the Democratic Party has now fallen to third place behind the combined Beppe Grillo’s insurrectionary Five Star Movement (which won 32% of the vote) and the right wing alliance nominally led by Matteo Salvini but whose best know figure is Silvio Berlusconi, the individual who has dominated Italian politics since the Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s.
As it happen, the result of the election was almost as big a blow for Berlusconi as it was for the Democratic Party. Expectations that he would emerge as the ‘kingmaker’ in forming a new Italian government have been dashed, with his Forza Italia Party winning only 14%, less than its alliance partner, the considerably more right wing Northern League, which won 17.7% of the vote, and which is now clearly established as a powerful force in Lombardy and the Veneto.
What the Italian election in fact shows is the gathering pace across Europe of the swing against establishment parties which are strongly identified with the EU.
Though Berlusconi has had his own major falling outs with the EU establishment at various points during his political career, he is nonetheless very much a member of the Italian establishment and is someone who has long played a major role in European and EU politics.
As a result Italian voters refused to turn to him, just as they turned their backs on the even more strongly pro-EU Democratic Party, choosing instead to vote in large numbers for the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, both of which have been strongly critical of the EU, and both of which have at times considered the possibility of Italy quitting the Eurozone, though neither of them as it happens advocates it now.
The Italian election in fact serves as a further case study of the malign effect of the draining of the life blooded of politics in Europe as the EU has become increasingly centralised and technocratic.
I discussed this phenomenon back on 25th June 2016, in an article I wrote for The Duran shortly after the Brexit referendum in Britain
…..the EU, at least as it has become over the last decade, is best understood as a cabal of three governments, primarily those of the US and Germany, with France treated by the Germans (though not by the US) as a sort of junior partner, which make the decisions in secret that are binding on all the rest….
…..any European political leader who tries to hold out against this system risks finding their objections simply ignored whilst becoming the target of the wrath of the US and of the EU establishment…..
In such a situation, where a political leader’s chances of survival and ability to get things done depends so much on staying on the right side of the EU’s leadership – and ultimately of the US – rather than their own country’s voters, it is unsurprising that the quality of Europe’s political leadership has declined to so great a degree. In place of people like De Gaulle, Adenauer, Brandt and Thatcher, European political leaders today increasingly come over as colourless technicians distant from their own voters because the system allows for nothing else…..
The EU can work – as it did in the past – when it functions as a genuine community of economically and culturally compatible free democracies, which do not always agree with each other but which are nonetheless prepared to work closely with each other in certain areas in their mutual interest.
It cannot work as a crypto-imperial project of someone else – especially when that someone else is located far away on the other side of the ocean and can therefore have little idea of European wants and needs.
It was therefore inevitable that beyond a certain point such a crypto-imperial project would provoke resistance and it is entirely unsurprising that the first expression of that resistance should come in Britain, which has always been the country that was most skeptical of the EU in the first place.
It is clear that despite the well publicised differences between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, Donald Trump’s election has made no difference to the operation of the system.
The result is that the ‘resistance’ I spoke about in my article of 25th June 2016 is now spreading across Europe.
As a result we have seen since the Brexit vote the far better than expected result of the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party in Britain’s 2017 general election, the rise of the AfD in Germany, growing mutinies against the EU leadership in Poland and Hungary, the recent victory of Milos Zeman in the Czech Presidential election, the strong vote for the right in the recent Austrian parliament elections, and now with the victories of the anti-EU parties in Italy.
Even in France and the Netherlands – the two countries where the anti-EU insurgency has made less of an impact than some expected – Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Geert Wilders have won millions of votes.
However instead of analysing and responding to what is happening the European establishment across Europe is retreating into denial.
Thus the parties and leaders who are increasingly winning votes are dismissed as “populists” – a label which is both meaningless and deeply anti-democratic – their voters are dismissed as ‘ultra-right’ and racist, and their electoral successes are explained by sinister Russian meddling which is supposed to occur but of which no evidence is ever found.
On the effect of immigration in triggering these votes, I will hear state my own view.
Whilst there is no doubt that opposition to mass immigration is a factor in the current rise of anti-EU parties, mass immigration to Europe has taken place in the past (especially in the 1960s) without having anything like the same consequences.
That strongly suggests to me at least that immigration should be understood as the issue around which opposition to the EU is crystallising – because it immediately separates pro and anti-EU parties from each other – rather than as the underlying cause of the rise of the anti-EU parties.
This is shown by what happened last year in Britain where Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-immigrant positions did not damage him electorally in the 2017 election because the electorate had already accepted him for entirely different reasons as the ‘anti-system’ candidate.
Unfortunately, as its denialism about its repeated electoral defeats might lead one to expect, the establishment in Europe instead of changing its approach is simply digging in.
Thus we have seen the manipulation of the French electoral process in order to engineer the election of Emmanuel Macron, the cobbling together of the ‘grand coalition’ in Germany, the threats against Poland and Hungary, and the increasingly frantic attempts in Britain to reverse or water down the Brexit vote.
As to Italy, though the hostility of Italian voters to the establishment is clear enough, they have delivered a muddled and uncertain outcome.
The right wing alliance led by Salvini has fallen short of a majority, and I struggle to believe that the Five Star Movement and either of the two parties which make up the right wing alliance – Forza Italia or the Northern League – will be able to forge a coalition with each other. If they do I expect that coalition to be unpopular and unhappy, and to fall apart quickly.
Italy despite having a large population and Europe’s biggest industrial base after Germany has always punched below its own weight, as it is weakened by its perennial political instability, its record breaking levels of indebtedness, and the systemic weaknesses of its financial system.
All these problems are going to be made worse by this electoral result, and I would say that anyone who expects that the election result will result in a government which will take Italy out of the euro or which will veto the EU’s sanctions against Russia is going to find their expectations unfulfilled.
As everywhere else in Europe, the political system looks increasingly discredited and broken, but no viable alternative exists to put in its place.
As Gramsci once said
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
In the current political paralysis – what the Greeks called statis – “standing still” – the chaotic electoral result in Italy is just one more of the “great variety of morbid symptoms” which are bound to appear.
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