Sunday 16 December 2018

'Earthquake' result coupled with rise of populism is urgent lesson for the rest of Europe

Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni. Photo: Reuters
Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni. Photo: Reuters

Shona Murray

Steve Bannon says the Italian election was an "earthquake" for Europe.

The former Trump strategist and leader of the populist movement in the US said the victory "should send a massive signal to the permanent political class in Rome and more importantly to the permanent political class in Brussels that people want change".

Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon

He was speaking to a Swiss newspaper in Italy at the sidelines of the election.

While the results may indeed shake the Italian political establishment, not least the party of current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whose Democratic Party scored less than 20pc, it's not clear whether the EU will recognise this as such.

If the British can be accused of wilful ignorance over the realities of Brexit (and they can), then perhaps the European leadership can be accused of the same regarding the continued growth of Eurosceptic, populist parties across EU member states.

When President Macron of France was elected, the European establishment rejoiced in victory.

It hailed it as a French riposte to populist, far-right forces like the National Front.

President Macron indeed received 66pc of the vote. But conversely, the National Front's candidate, Marine Le Pen, received 33pc.

Moreover, Macron's vote in the first round - 23pc - was only slightly ahead of Le Pen's 21pc.

It was the lowest first round vote of any candidate who went on to be president.

His plan to position the EU at the centre of policy to reform France did not convince as many people as he'd hoped.

Similar events happened in Germany and Austria.

"It was a protest vote saying to eurocrats that they don't represent our interests," said Ian Bremmer, world affairs expert and president and founder of Eurasia Group, of the Italian poll.

At the baseline "it is repudiation of the liberal democratic order," he told the Irish Independent.

At the heart of the election, was the intense disapproval by Italians over the lack of a solution to deal with more than 600,000 refugees landing at its borders from sub-Saharan Africa.

Italy and Greece have been at the frontier of the refugee crisis and have for a long time been demanding greater support from the EU in dealing with absorbing so many immigrants at a time when their own economies are in crisis.

"There's definitely a racist piece to the election," but again people are saying "that the institutions haven't protected us" so what's the point in believing in the EU, says Mr Bremmer. "It's not racist but can express itself in a racist way," he says.

Nonetheless the message from Italy - a founding member of the EU - is that immigration will destroy your country.

The overwhelming popularity of groups that are anti-establishment to varying degrees and hues have one common denominator.

They use jingoism and anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric to whip up support; deflecting the fact that they don't have any other ideas to solve their economic woes.

"Here in Ireland we look aghast or askew at people who are concerned at immigration, but some of those countries at the frontier of Europe have seen a huge amount of mass migration and we need to understand their concerns about that", said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

"We need to support Africa and show solidarity in terms of sharing the burden," he said at a press conference last night.

It's easy for him to say when Ireland's response to the refugee crisis has been minuscule in comparison to countries like Germany and Sweden. But it is of huge concern that any government supporting a liberal approach to immigration - in tune with the very principles on which the EU was founded - could likely find itself in confrontation with European citizens.

The EU is right when it says that it takes the flack for many issues which can most definitely be regarded as domestic.

However, it is perilous for EU leaders to rely on this as a reason not to act when there is a groundswell of support for populist parties whose target is the fragmentation of the union.

Irish Independent

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