Europe is no antidote to Italy's populism problem


Picture of Matteo Villa
Matteo Villa

Matteo Villa is Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Milan

While the tide of support for western European populist parties appears to be subsiding, Italy’s anti-establishment and Eurosceptic sentiment is in full swing.

Last December the centre-left government was resoundingly defeated in a constitutional referendum as populist and moderate conservative forces coalesced against it, forcing then prime minister Matteo Renzi to resign. Populist parties – led by the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the anti-migrant, anti-euro Northern League – have been gaining ground since at least 2012, and today enjoy popular support of between 40% and 50% in most polls.

Their popularity is mostly rooted in domestic developments. First, over the past thirty years Italians have been looking for a ‘strong leader’ to steer the country out of a political quagmire caused by too many actors wielding veto powers. But when such leaders emerged (like Matteo Renzi, or Silvio Berlusconi), Italians were wary of giving them too much leeway, fearing a return to ‘fascist practices’. So encumbered, governments have often proven too slow in their response to crises.

Second, a double-dip recession has sliced almost ten per cent from the country’s GDP, and the recovery is still years from achieving its pre-2007 prosperity. As inequality increases, Italy is left with unemployment rates exceeding 11% and the highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the euro area after Greece. Austerity policies, while inevitable, have increasingly been perceived as counterproductive, bolstering populist parties’ appeal. And since 2013 annual irregular migratory flows have increased almost ten-fold, allowing these parties to further stir nationalistic and jingoistic sentiments.

Unfortunately, as populist parties have successfully shifted blame onto the menacing European bureaucrats, domestic pressures have not been effectively defused by Europe-wide responses.

The European Commission and Parliament are not to blame. Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission has been more than keen to help Italy, carving out more fiscal room each year to avert sudden cliff-edges during Rome’s deficit reduction efforts. On irregular migration the Commission has actually led the way, pushing EU member states to agree upon an exceptional relocation mechanism for asylum-seekers.

The problem, then, is the lack of intra-EU solidarity. As the current migrant relocation scheme comes to an underwhelming end, no long-term solution is in sight. And as Mario Draghi’s European Central Bank will start its own ‘tapering’ of quantitative easing in early 2018, economic problems may return to the fore, giving populists one more reason to blame ‘rich northern Europe’.

This poses a real challenge to Italy’s (lukewarm) pro-European parties. Without an effective, rapid surge in solidarity among member states, Europe won’t be the anti-populist antidote that Italy urgently needs.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35.

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