The transformation of Italian populists: just a trompe l'oeil?


Picture of Lia Quartapelle
Lia Quartapelle

Member of the Italian parliament, Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and 2018 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Lia Quartapelle is Democratic Party Leader in the Italian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee and European Young Leader

The so-called populist, anti-establishment parties were ‒ perhaps unsurprisingly ‒ the winners of the Italian parliamentary election held in March this year, bagging 50% of all votes cast.

While the right-wing coalition consisting of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the national-conservative (post-fascist) party Fratelli d’Italia and the anti-immigration Lega Nord ‒ recently rechristened as just “the Lega” ‒ headed by Matteo Salvini came in first with 37% of the vote, the biggest single winner of the election was the populist Five Star Movement and its “political chief” Luigi Di Maio with over 32%. For the centre-left, the mainstream Democratic Party (PD) picked up its worst result of the post-war period. While it received almost six million votes, the party has lost five million voters since the 2014 European election, when the party scored its best-ever result with over 40% of the votes.

The outcome of the election is worrying, and yet it should not be considered as a vote against Europe. As opposed to Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France in particular, the question of European integration did not play a key role in the Italian electoral debate. This is because party heads Di Maio and Salvini managed to bring in more moderate positions at the very last minute, denying some of their previous maximalist approaches, such as the referendum on the euro and a possible “ItalExit”.

The outcome of the election is worrying, and yet it should not be considered as a vote against Europe

The short- and mid-term consequences of the vote are still unclear, however, and the long-term ones are completely unpredictable. Even if the vote by the Italians has not been directly against Europe, we cannot underestimate the potential, major risks that the result might cause.

Despite the electoral agreement of the members in both chambers, there is still no solid indication that the two biggest vote-getters, the Five Stars and the right-wing coalition, are any closer to forming a government. For the European Union, this means dealing with temporary political instability in Italy. While the country lacks a fully operational government, some important decisions must still be taken in Brussels in the coming weeks, culminating with the European Council in June.

If the political stalemate in Italy should continue, it would not only be bad news for European integration and reforms. Even worse, the EU might see a Eurosceptic government established in one of its founding States.

Lega Nord’s Salvini loves freedom as much as President Putin and free trade as much as President Trump. And yet, he is the new leader of the centre-right who must deal with his moderate allies of Forza Italia, members of the European People’s Party. The latter are not favoured by Di Maio, who also covers a very intricate path.

However, the Five Star Movement has lately been overturning its European and foreign policy, with the aim of gaining more credibility among European and international partners, as we recently witnessed after the horrendous acts in Douma, Syria. The traditional pro-Assad positions of the Five Star representatives were first replaced with an embarrassing silence, and then with some brief statements in support of Italy’s traditional allies.

The declaration by the Five Star delegation after President Macron’s speech in the European Parliament has been equally astonishing: the Five Star Movement belongs to the most Eurosceptic parliamentary group in Strasbourg but this did not prevent them to plead “ready to contribute to Macron’s European agenda and relaunch the European integration that has been weakened by years of selfishness”. It is likely that this shift in position comes with the aim of gaining credibility to form a government in Italy, but also with the purpose of seeking allies in the European political framework ahead of the 2019 European elections.

From the ranks of the Democratic Party and the European Socialist Party, we should probably welcome this political evolution. However, we have been working for years on the most urgent topics on the European agenda, such as the completion of economic and monetary union and the reform of the Dublin system, without forgetting the need of strengthening our international development and commercial policies or our European foreign policy. At national and European level, the Five Star Movement has always fought against these goals ‒ the sincerity and long-term sustainability of their current metamorphosis can thus be doubted.

A serious thought on the functioning of the EU may not be neglected

Despite their weakened state, the progressives should be responsible for countering the drifts of sovereigntism, protectionism as well as pro-Russian and anti-European forces. But we will also have to stand for change, trust in the future, opportunities, rights and development.

A serious thought on the functioning of the EU may not be neglected. The lack of cohesion between member states ends up in a feeling of mistrust among European citizens, when it jeopardises our ability to effectively handle some major challenges of the present, such as migration management and the relaunch of economic growth.

The debate about Europe’s future strongly encouraged by President Macron is an opportunity to gather those who have always recognised in Europe the best way to protect citizens from the old and new threats of globalisation.

We have only one year to build a strong proposal and arrive prepared for the 2019 European elections. To not take this opportunity is a risk that the progressives cannot afford.

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