EU shaken as 'Italy First' message prevails in general election
Just as the EU's federalist ambitions seemed to be back on track, Italy has delivered a jolt to the system. Andrew Lynch reports
Matteo Salvini might best be described as Italy's answer to Donald Trump. The leader of La Lega (The League) has a policy platform called "Italians first", loves to provoke opponents through social media, wants Roma camps "razed to the ground" and insists that the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini actually did a lot of good things. He says the European Union cannot survive in its present form and condemns the euro as "a crime against humanity".
Not surprisingly, then, many senior figures in Brussels are openly dismayed at the prospect of Salvini becoming Italy's next prime minister. After last weekend's chaotic general election result, however, this now looks like a distinct possibility. Over half of Italian voters supported hard-right, openly racist or Eurosceptic parties that until recently would have been described as 'fringe' - creating a stalemate that casts grave doubts over the EU's plans for further fiscal and political integration.
"The populists have won," was one government senator's gloomy summary when the outcome became clear on Sunday. Five Star Movement (M5S), the anti-establishment organisation founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, were the biggest winners of all with 32pc of the vote. The ruling centre-left Democratic Party slumped to 19pc, prompting the immediate resignation of their leader and former prime minister Matteo Renzi.
La Lega (which was formerly known as The Northern League), meanwhile, surprised almost everybody by taking 17pc and emerging as the largest party in a putative right-wing coalition that finished with a combined total of 37pc. Matteo Salvini has therefore overtaken his political ally Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time prime minister who is currently barred from holding office due to a tax conviction. Although the media tycoon's sleazy business practices and sex-fuelled 'bunga bunga' parties have made him an international laughing stock, in the context of modern Italian politics, he is now regarded as a moderate.
For one Irish woman in particular, this was disappointing news. If Berlusconi's Forza Italia had been the biggest conservative party as expected, he would have nominated the European Parliament President Antonio Tajani to lead a new government. As the parliament's first vice president, Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness would then have almost certainly succeeded to the top job - although she is at least now free to potentially run for the presidency of Ireland later this year.
Other non-Italian voices are delighted to see the country heading in a markedly anti-EU direction. The former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, French National Front President Marine Le Pen and Russian President Vladimir Putin all regard Matteo Salvini as their natural ally. Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who visited Rome to observe the election, has said: "Italy is the leader. The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump."
Before the 2008 financial crash, Italy was regarded as one of the EU's strongest supporters. Now opinion polls show that almost 60pc of Italians hold a negative view of the union. They blame it for decades of weak economic growth, the 33pc unemployment rate among under-25s and above all, the arrival of 600,000 undocumented migrants since 2014. Nobody has been better at stirring up xenophobic sentiment than Salvini, who told one election rally: "Italy needs a mass cleansing, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood."
Racism also gave rise to the campaign's ugliest moment. On February 3, a former La Lega candidate who called the party leader "my captain" shot and wounded six Africans in the city of Macerata, allegedly as an act of revenge for the murder of an Italian teenage girl by a Nigerian immigrant. Afterwards, he delivered a fascist salute with the national flag draped over his shoulders and shouted "Italy for Italians".
All this has serious implications for any EU leader who hoped that the rise of populism had finally started to subside. In 2017, the Dutch, French, German and Austrian elections all saw mainstream politicians prevailing over challengers from the radical right. Some powerbrokers in Brussels argued that Brexit might turn out to be a blessing in disguise since it would finally rid the union of its most troublesome member.
Last September, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared: "The wind is back in Europe's sails," and suggested more federalist reforms such as the creation of a single EU finance minister. Shortly afterwards he was enthusiastically backed by the new French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants Britain's 73 MEPs to be replaced from a pan-European list of candidates spread across the continent. In December, Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament and until recently leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party, called for the creation of a United States of Europe by 2025.
Now the Italian electorate has poured cold water over all these ambitions. As well as being a founder member of the EU, Italy is its third-biggest economy and would be almost impossible to exclude from any further moves towards integration. In a post-election press conference last week, Salvini made his feelings on the matter clear. "We have taken a step forwards towards freedom from Brussels' cages and constraints that have brought hunger, precariousness and insecurity to Europe," he said. "They won't fool us any more. In Italy, Italians will decide from now on - not Berlin, not Paris, not Brussels."
The formation of a new Italian government will not begin in earnest until parliament meets on March 23. Several combinations are possible and some commentators have even speculated about a grand Eurosceptic alliance between La Lega and M5S, which Steve Bannon calls "the ultimate dream… they would pierce through Brussels' heart and scare the EU to death."
Nigel Farage has also displayed his usual gift for understatement by announcing that Italy's electoral earthquake means, "the end of the EU is nigh. Why are they rebelling against the establishment? Primarily because migration has become the fault line in European politics and all the social democrat, socialist parties are seen to be just simply too soft on this issue."
"Everything will change," is how one Italian newspaper summed up the country's new political reality. Right now, this is exactly what the EU's top brass are afraid of.
The new faces of Italian politics
Position: Leader of La Lega (The League)
Background: A native of Milan, he abandoned a history degree at the age of 20 and began his political career as a communist. He took over the Northern League in 2013 when it had just 3pc support and has transformed it from a regional party into a national one, despite his apparent contempt for southerners. "What a stink," he once said at a party rally. "Even the dogs are running away, here come the Neapolitans."
Policy demands: Introduce a parallel Italian currency to run alongside the euro. Abolish the EU's fiscal compact which imposes restraints on public spending. Create a flat tax rate of 15pc. Expel 100,000 illegal immigrants a year. Reopen Italy's brothels.
Luigi Di Maio
Position: Leader of the Five Star Movement
Background: A former lawyer, journalist and steward at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, he became deputy speaker of the Italian parliament when aged just 26. Unlike the movement's demagogic founder Beppe Grillo, he wears smart suits and has held out the possibility of joining a coalition government. This has alarmed Grillo, who says: "It would be like saying that a panda can eat raw meat. We only eat bamboo."
Policy demands: Introduce a minimum monthly wage of €780. Abolish 400 "useless" laws to allow earlier retirement and increase job security. Improve Italy's diplomatic relations with Russia. Oppose EU integration but treat a referendum on leaving as "an extreme last resort".