Italy has never shied away from political profligacy. Since the end of World War II, the Italian President has ushered in 66 governments and, with Giuseppe Conte’s ascension to the Premiership in June, there have been 5 Italian prime ministers in just as many years. From Italy’s fascist government before the war to its flirtation with communism in the 1980s, Italian politics has been so fluid that radical political change is almost traditional.
The rule proved true once again during the general election of March, 2018, when the Five Star Movement (M5s) and the League (La Lega) became the largest political parties in the Italian parliament. While each party’s manifesto differed on economic and some social matters, they shared anti-immigrant and eurosceptic positions concerning European financial rules, the single currency and, crucially, the status of Italy’s refugees. These were to be the basis of the coalition deal reached three months later when, under the premiership of law professor Giuseppe Conte, the first populist government in Western Europe was formed.
Luigi Di Maio, the leader of M5s, declared on the night of the election that his party’s victory was “inevitabilmente,” inevitable, for they promised to bring change to Italy’s forgotten men and women. Throughout the election he, like La Lega’s Matteo Salvini, capitalized on the fact that the conditions of the Italian working population have stagnated during the last forty years, leaving many no choice but to look to anti-immigrant extremes in a futile effort to protect themselves.
Following the pattern of populists throughout the western world, Di Maio and Salvini won the support of white, working-class men and women. They capitalized on the popular sentiment amongst the working population that previous governments had failed to provide for them. Just as other populist victories have done, the election was a harsh lesson for politicians internationally that lower class people need to be cared for properly. If we want to create a more tolerant and open society, those in positions of power must start to care for the poorest and most vulnerable. Otherwise, populism in Europe will start to boil over before anyone is able to turn off the stove.
A Long Time Coming
As far as Italy is concerned, the flood warnings came long before the rain. Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy, resigned in 2016 following the defeat of a constitutional reform package for which he had advocated. During the referendum campaign, Renzi promised that he would resign as prime minister if the reforms were didn’t pass, giving voters who were disappointed with his government a reason to reject the proposals. It was another example of populism in a year that had already witnessed Brexit and the unlikely rise of then-candidate Donald Trump.
When one looks at the financial position of many Italians, the country’s anti-establishment sentiment is easily understandable. The GDP per Capita has remained largely unchanged since the introduction of the Euro (bucking the trend of many European countries), unemployment has failed to return to pre-2008 levels, and the wealth of the top 1% of Italians has almost surpassed that of the bottom 90%. Renzi’s Democratic Party, just like the Olive Tree Coalition before it, had failed to protect the jobs and uphold the standard of living of its citizens. It is therefore surprising that during the most recent general election, Renzi vied for the premiership once more, deluding himself that he would somehow inspire the people of Italy to re-elect his party. A party that had not helped the working people who, for 30 years, had elected it consistently.
Yet although the Italian left failed to offer a radical divergence from the past, the Italian right, under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership, became complicit with the fascism brewing in Italy’s northern regions. His right wing election pact with La Lega, and his promise to deport 600,000 immigrants was a heinous promise reminiscent of the 1930s. For this he is guilty of two crimes. To begin with, he failed the working class people of Italy during his three premierships, and then he contributed to the anti-immigrant sentiments that he helped produce. The Italian journalist Rula Jebreal, following the violence against immigrants shortly before the 2018 election, offered one theory for Berlusconi’s behaviour. She said that although Luca Traini, the perpetrator of the Macerata gun attacks, “may have pulled the trigger, the shooting spree was inspired by the mainstream politicians of the right, led by Berlusconi, who try to cover for their failure to offer Italians decent economic prospects by stirring up hate.”
The Immigration Question
The recent influx of immigrants to the European continent has given populists a scapegoat, allowing them to ignore the true reasons for the poor economic prospects of Italians. This was exacerbated by the European Union’s failure to organize an effective international solution to the migrant crisis. Even with the combined influence of its westernmost states, the EU struggled to encourage an even distribution of refugees across the continent. This was chiefly because the least welcoming of Europe’s states: Hungary, Poland, and Czechia, rejected the EU’s refugee quotas and left more benevolent governments to pick up the slack.
The founding principles of the Union, as laid out in the Treaty of Rome and the Treaty of Maastricht, give for the peace, security and cooperation between everyone within its borders. In so far as these principles are concerned, Eastern European states had failed in their duty to protect the migrants who sought refuge in the continent, and therefore these nations have no place in the largest peace project the world has ever known. If Europe can’t take care of the most vulnerable people, then it doesn’t deserve to exist.
For exactly this reason, the Eastern states should have faced greater political pressure from the European Commission and members of the European Council. Instead we find ourselves in a situation where Germany, France, and the Mediterranean states, including Italy, have taken the greatest burden of migrants. A fairer distribution could have reduced working class concerns that migrants would worsen the economic prospects of the native population. This would have better preserved social cohesion and avoided, or at the very least subdued, the backlash we saw in the election.
Ironically, the hope that greater economic equality and social cohesion can be achieved might lie with Di Maio and the Five Star Movement. Their anti-austerity policies of investment may offer native Italians the economic security they need, ending the country’s dangerous flirtation with anti-immigrant populism. This is a lesson for the rest of Europe as well. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen last year was celebrated as a victory for progressives, but others worried about the coming risk to France’s liberal democracy. To them, Macron, an economic centrist, would not alleviate the economic situation of Le Pen’s core voting block: the white working class. Without mending the economic wounds of the past, the populist right will become a more favourable option for those who have been left behind in the modern day economy. So, while the 2017 presidential election was a victory for Europe’s faithful, the absence of radical economic thinking risks a Le Pen victory in 2022.
In reality, immigrants offer no greater threat to society than the average person, economically or otherwise, yet they can become an easy scapegoat if politicians do not start to care for the woes of the existing population. A man worried that an immigrant will take his job may vote for La Lega in an apparently racist act, but in reality his anxiety is a fundamentally economic one. It is this consternation that must be mended and, in order to preserve liberalism internationally, greater economic equality must become the preeminent goal for politicians throughout the world.
If Italy’s election has given any warning to the rest of Europe, it is that political complacency will not be tolerated any longer. Working people must be cared for properly, in times of prosperity and recession alike. Otherwise, the death of European liberalism, just like Italy’s populist government, will be “inevitabilmente.”