Italy: why the EU is panicked by populism

EU officials’ fear of ‘populism’, such as that expressed in the Italian election, is really a fear of the populace.

Dominic Standish

Topics World

In 1922, Benito Mussolini’s blackshirt fascists marched on Rome and took command of Italy’s government, 11 years before Adolf Hitler took over in Germany. Europe’s political elites were in crisis. Now, following Italy’s general election last weekend, this nation is once again at the forefront of a new spectre haunting Europe’s political establishment: not fascism this time, but populism.

On 19 February, Beppe Grillo, comedian turned de facto leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), was cheered by a crowd of 30,000 people in central Milan on the first of his ‘Tsunami Tour’ rallies in Italian squares. In the election at the end of February, M5S won 25.55 per cent of the vote for Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and 23.79 per cent for the upper house, the Senate. It won more votes than any political party, creating deadlock in the formation of a new Italian government and sending shudders down the spines of Europe’s political and business classes.

These fearful reactions are partly driven by uncertainty over whether Italy will be able to form a stable government. For an Italian government to rule effectively, one party or coalition of parties must have a majority in both the lower and upper houses. Otherwise, proposed legislation will not receive the endorsement of both houses, and there is the permanent risk of a vote of no confidence in the government, leading to its downfall. The coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party won a majority of seats in the lower house, but it failed to win a majority in the Senate. Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, led by his People of Freedom Party, came second in both houses. But Bersani has ruled out forming a government with Berlusconi. Instead, he’s been trying to woo elected senators from Grillo’s M5S in an attempt to form a majority in the Senate. But Grillo has turned him down, describing Bersani as ‘a political stalker who has been bothering the M5S… with indecent proposals’.

But Europe’s anxious reaction to the rise of the M5S also goes beyond the practical problem of forming an Italian government. The M5S panic reveals a deeper fear of voters among the political elites in Italy and Europe more broadly. Established European politicians who have been suffering stunning declines in popularity and authority are struggling to understand how a movement formed in 2009 came to hold the balance of power in Italy by 2013. Yet while M5S has undoubtedly shaken the established political order in Italy, like Mussolini did, it would be a mistake to compare M5S to the fascist movement, as some have done. Because the truth is, M5S is less a political movement than a loose grouping of various anti-political sentiments.

It is interesting to look at the reasons some Italians give for voting for M5S. A colleague of mine said she was undecided even on the morning of the election. Despite following politics closely, she couldn’t bring herself to vote for one of the established parties, so she opted for M5S. Undoubtedly, many voted for M5S to send a signal that they want change, or to show that they simply don’t trust any of the main parties. A friend told me she attended one of Grillo’s Tsunami Tour rallies in Treviso and later voted for him, despite being unfamiliar with his political programme; a survey of 2,500 Italian voters found that only one-fifth of M5S voters were ‘convinced of [its] ideas’.

Some commentators have tried to cast M5S as an adrenalin shot for radical left-wing politics. John Hooper, writing in the UK Guardian, claimed ‘most of the movement’s activists lean leftwards’. In truth, there is no left or right political thread in M5S. On the one hand, the movement says it wants to provide unemployment benefits (which Italy currently does not have) and calls for more investment in renewable energy, which some people view as leftish demands. But on the other hand, it wants to stop the children of immigrants from automatically being granted Italian citizenship, which is far from a progressive policy.

Some critics say M5S is more interested in appealing to populist sentiment than to traditional left or right constituencies. In the words of Euronews magazine: ‘Grillo became the star of the election, stealing fire from the traditional parties. Here was a new populist, not a candidate himself but the frontman for [a movement] that challenged Italy’s established political order…’ The idea that M5S is populist, that it taps into apparently unformed popular public sentiment, is of great concern to stiff EU officials, especially those keen for Italy to adopt tougher Brussels-authored austerity measures that are, of course, unpopular.

Mario Monti, the technocratic prime minister of Italy over the past year, oversaw the implementation of budgetary restrictions and new taxes in return for Italy’s right to stay in the Euro. He is widely regarded as being an ‘anti-populist’, and is seen as having suffered as a result of that: his alliance won just 10.56 per cent of the vote in the lower house and 9.13 per cent in the Senate in last weekend’s election. He responded by warning that populism could jeopardise European policies: ‘There has to be a strategy… if we don’t want to allow the more simplistic forces, some would say populist ones… to derail European policies’.

Berlusconi, like Grillo, stands accused of courting ‘anti-establishment populism’, in the words of the International Herald Tribune. Observers were particularly taken aback by his criticisms of Monti and German chancellor Angela Merkel over their endorsement of austerity budgets. When Berlusconi promised to overthrow a property tax introduced by Monti, his coalition was referred to as a ‘populist… centre-right force’.

Proposals that are popular with the electorate, but which go against the policies drawn up by established political parties and the EU, are unacceptable, it seems. Some political observers are so frightened of populist measures that they see Italy’s election result, and Italy’s broader political debate, as potentially unleashing instability across Europe – unless, that is, we all agree to clamp down on populism now. In the words of Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission: ‘I hope we are not going to follow the temptation to give in to populism because of the results in one specific member state.’ Behind these attacks on populist politics there lurks a fear of the populace itself, and the fact that it often refuses to go along with the narratives drawn up by unelected suits in Brussels.

Unfortunately for Europe’s political elites, the rejection of their austerity measures is not confined to Italy. In many parts of Europe, anti-EU parties of both left and right are making some gains. This isn’t because these parties necessarily offer any vision for how to get out of the current Euro crisis, but rather because around Europe there is a widespread – and yes, popular – disgruntlement with the EU, and people are expressing it by giving their votes to parties that appear, at least on the surface, to challenge the outlook of Brussels. Writing off this political trend as ‘populism’ is a way for aloof officials to delegitimise it, to depict it as ill-informed and vulgar in comparison with the apparently enlightened policymaking of our betters in Brussels.

Dominic Standish lectures for the University of Iowa at its CIMBA campuses in the Veneto region of Italy, and is the author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality published by University Press of America. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Visit Dominic’s website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today