Italians have dealt another blow to the establishment
Giorgia Meloni isn’t a threat to Italian democracy – the European Union is.
Here I was thinking the populist revolt was over. After all, the neoliberal elites said it was. They pronounce populism dead every six months or so – seemingly convinced that one election result or external event has finally finished it off for good. Covid was supposed to kill populism, by reminding the supposedly ignorant oiks of the importance of experts. Then Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was supposed to kill populism, by reminding ‘nativist’ voters of the importance of international cooperation and the folly of authoritarian strongmen – something they are supposedly enamoured of. And yet those pesky voters just keep on electing the ‘wrong’ governments. If the triumph of the Sweden Democrats in supposedly sensible Sweden earlier this month wasn’t symbolic enough, Italy has just made the right-wing, anti-immigration Brothers of Italy the largest party, paving the way for what the media breathlessly call the ‘most right-wing government since Mussolini’.
After the elections yesterday, Meloni’s party is projected to win 26 per cent of the vote. The right-wing coalition she leads, along with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, looks primed to take control of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, with around 44 per cent of the vote. The centre-left coalition, led by Enrico Letta’s establishment Democratic Party, came a distant second. The surge in support for Meloni’s party specifically was stunning, securing its position as the anti-establishment choice. At the 2018 election, Brothers of Italy won just four per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Five Star Movement (M5S), which came top at the last election, has had its support cut in half this time around. And even then that was a better-than-expected result. The League – Meloni’s populist-right coalition partner, which formed a government with M5S after the 2018 election – was polling in the high 30s a few years ago, but got less than nine per cent of the vote yesterday.
The supposedly unthinkable rise of Meloni really isn’t that difficult to understand. And no, it has nothing to do with a resurgent fascism among the Italian electorate. Brothers of Italy does indeed trace its roots back to Mussolini, but those roots go a fair way back at this point – it is the successor of the successor of a post-fascist party, and self-consciously styles itself as conservative rather than radical. Meloni, for her part, has slammed the ‘imbecilic nostalgia’ of the Brothers of Italy supporters who were spotted making fascist salutes at rallies. She cites Roger Scruton and JRR Tolkien as her intellectual lodestars. You don’t have to be a fan of her anti-immigration stance and her line in Christian conservative identity politics – we at spiked certainly aren’t – to see that a new March on Rome is not what is going on here.
Meloni has benefitted from two things. The ongoing fury with an undemocratic, pro-EU establishment – imposing punishing Brussels diktat on restive Italians – and the abject failure of the previous populist upstarts to pose any serious challenge to this failing status quo. After the populist coalition of 2018 fell apart, the Five Star Movement threw its lot in with the Democratic Party. Later, it joined the ‘government of national unity’ led by unelected technocrat Mario Draghi. As did the League. As Draghi set about implementing reforms demanded by Brussels in exchange for EU Covid recovery funds, Brothers of Italy was the only major party to keep its hands clean. And so Meloni will now become Italy’s first elected prime minister in 14 years – a testament to the undemocratic dysfunction Italy has been mired in since the EU engineered the ousting of Berlusconi in 2011.
Whereas the Five Star Movement and the League briefly threatened to rattle Brussels’ cage – trying and failing to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister and trying and failing to pass a budget that mildly defied EU deficit edicts – Meloni appears even more pliable. She has distanced herself from her previous anti-euro comments. What’s more, the joint programme, agreed by the right-wing coalition ahead of the elections, commits her to ‘full adherence to the European integration process’, while seeking some reforms. To the extent she poses a threat to Brussels orthodoxy it is over immigration – she has called for a naval blockade in the Med – and cultural issues – she is against gay marriage and abortion and has inveighed against the ‘LGBT lobby’. But it seems the EU will now brook as little dissent on these matters as it will on finance policy. Ahead of the elections, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen issued a veiled threat, reminding Italy that the EU had the ‘tools’ to deal with wayward member states.
Meloni is not the populist saviour Italy has been longing for. She isn’t spoiling to pick a huge fight with the Eurozone. On economic matters, certainly, she is largely a creature of the centre-right European mainstream. On Sunday, turnout was down by nine points from the last election, suggesting Meloni has benefitted from the collapse of other parties rather than galvanising people across Italian society. But her triumph certainly shows that populist voters, desperate to land a blow against Brussels and its quislings in Rome, haven’t gone anywhere. Meanwhile, the response from Brussels shows that the EU, having beaten the populist government of 2018 into submission, is becoming even more intolerant of dissent. Giorgia Meloni poses no threat to Italian democracy, but the EU certainly does. So long as Brussels denies sovereignty to the people of Europe, the people of Europe will continue to defy it. The populist revolt isn’t dead yet. And that’s a good thing, too.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by: Getty.
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