Illustration by Shenuka Corea

On the Brink in Brussels

With the upcoming Italian general election, the European Union faces yet another threat to its stability. Will a reinvigorated appreciation for populism lead to the death of the EU in our lifetime?

Feb 4, 2018

Amid Brexit negotiations and Germany’s post election instability, Europe is called to face the umpteenth challenge that could bring back the old bugbear of populism: the general election in Italy. Often ridiculed for its unstable governments and goofy leadership, Italy is now a matter of great preoccupation for Brussels’ most inner circle.
Even though Italy is still suffering the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, with youth unemployment going up by 33 percent, and even though it is home to a densely threaded social fabric, with daily clashes between gangs of illegal migrants, Italy holds a symbolic meaning as one of the founding fathers of the European Union. Consequently, EU elitists are worried, and rightly so, about having the Italian peninsula under the orders of a populist Eurosceptic leader because it could potentially jeopardize the future of the EU. The enigma currently plaguing Brussels is whether the moderate voices of the center left and center right will prevail over the extremisms of the far-right and the Five Stars Movement.
The last time Italy held a general election was in 2013 and no single coalition received more than 30 percent of the final vote. The main surprise was the 26 percent received by comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement founded in 2009. This party has been defined by journalists as Eurosceptic, anti-establishment, and protectionist. In an attempt to counter the uprise of the Five Stars Movement, the center right coalition headed by Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà unified with the center left Democratic Party to form a temporary government.
Five years down the line, the center left and the center right are still trying to counter the Five Stars Movement phenomena which, based on the latest polls, holds 30 percent of national preferences. The moderate center left and center right parties were not able to deal with the fears and needs of the middle-class and this clearly shows in the latest polls: Berlusconi’s center right polls at 16 percent while Renzi’s Democratic Party secures only 23 percent of preferences.
In order for a party or coalition to form a government, at least 40 percent of the vote is required. Berlusconi, recognizing that his party has no chance of reaching 40 percent before March, chose to form a coalition with the Northern League headed by Salvini. The Northern League is currently polled at 14 percent, way up from the 4 percent it obtained in the 2013 general elections. The sudden 10 percent increase was obtained due to Salvini’s populist approach to Italian politics. Following in the footsteps of U.S. President Donald Trump, Salvini implemented an ultra-patriotic vision at the core of the party and increased his presence on national television by flooding people’s homes with anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric.
By incorporating the Northern League in the center right coalition, Berlusconi was able to slightly placate Salvini’s anti-EU rhetoric. In fact, since the alliance was made official, the Northern League stopped talking about an “Italexit” from the EU and became open to dialogue with members of the European parliament. Salvini’s coalition with Berlusconi tranquilizes Brussels’ inner circle, but leaves a window of doubt on what will actually happen after the election.
Italian politics are infamous for forming new party alliances after the votes are in. If the center right coalition, even with Salvini’s help, does not reach the required 40 percent mark, new scenarios could unfold. The EU’s most feared alliance is one between the Five Stars Movement and the Northern League which, based on the latest polls, could easily surpass the 40 percent mark and form a truly populist government. This sort of alliance would not only obliterate Italian moderate parties, but would also pose a threat to the future of the European Union.
Whether or not this alliance materializes, populism will continue its invasion of the EU. The Northern League should strike a 10 percent increase in preferences while the Five Stars Movement should stabilize at around 30 percent. At the end of the day, both the center right and the center left will fall in preferences.
Andrea Arletti is Opinion Deputy. Email him at
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