All European eyes are on the UK as inter-party talks resume to find a way out of the current Brexit mess. But perhaps one eye should be on Italy. The three fissures splitting Europe – economic sluggishness, migration and populism – all meet there and nowhere else.
Brexit and Italy are of course connected. The EU-UK negotiations were supposed to demonstrate the folly of exit to anyone else contemplating it. But since Brexit didn’t happen when it was supposed to, the first result of the UK’s mess is (as polls currently stand) to hand Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party a staggering lead in the polls for the European Parliament elections.
If that holds up to election day, Farage will be free to make mischief in the EP in alliance with the other European nationalists who, under the informal leadership of Matteo Salvini, also seem on course to win seats.
An economically messy no-deal Brexit will not necessarily take the wind out of the populists’ sails. On the contrary. It will likely hit the European economy too, it will not be easy to manage, and no prizes for guessing whom the populists will blame.
There is no irony to right-wing nationalists using Europe as a platform. What we are seeing today has parallels with aspects of Europe in the 1930s.
One aspect is demography. There was a wide European concern about declining birth rates in the 1930s, as well as dark musings about ‘foreigners’ who did not integrate – although at the time it was Jews, not Muslims, and the spurious excuse was ‘race’ not ‘culture’.
Another aspect was the economy. In the 1920s, an English idea that never took off was a bankers’ Europe, based on the sterling and free trade. Any backing for that was discredited by the 1930s.
But in several countries there was the conviction that a European ‘living space’ was needed for economic takeoff. Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, thought this Europe would be ideal for industrial and R&D projects under German leadership. The British fascist, Oswald Mosley, continued to insist on it after WWII while the UK hesitated over membership of the new economic community. Mosley wasn’t being prophetic. He was nostalgic.
The EEC, and then EU, that did emerge after WWII was built on a third vision: free trade plus social solidarity. Jacques Delors – a Christian Democrat who joined a Socialist Party – embodied not just the vision but also its joint ownership by the European centre, centre-left and centre-right.
The populists, of course, don’t do solidarity. They do alliances until they’re no longer convenient (as the Five Star Movement is finding out in Italy).
But right-wing nationalists perform a very good show of solidarity based on national bonds. Don’t expect them to say they want to tear the EU down. They’ll say they will want to reform it – to make it a European area of economic cooperation, with incentives to raise the birth rates, and celebration of national cultures narrowly defined.
As Brexit shows, never under estimate the chutzpah of populists
Italy shows how the politics will be played out. Even if irregular migration is actually in decline, that won’t matter. Real grievances (some involving migrant Mafias) will be exploited to demonise a wider group.
Alliances will be built with socially conservative Catholics and Protestants concerned about family values. It does not matter that Salvini is divorced, with one child born out of wedlock, and notoriously photographed in post-amorous slumber by a celebrity girlfriend.
He can still appear in a T-shirt saying Benedict XVI is his pope and be the patron of a family-values network. Donald Trump has been there before him.
And before Trump, there were authoritarian European governments. It was only the Communist threat that pulled conservative Catholics, as a force, towards the centre in post-WWII Europe (and in countries like Spain and Portugal, the shift came even later). Up until then, Christian democratic parties had minority followings.
A new model of the economy will be proposed, in defiance of the belt-tightening doctrines of Brussels. The fact that the new model has as many defects won’t matter in the short run. Italy saw its national debt rise last year, its economy is flatlining, but its government is still forecasting growth based on new initiatives. If it fails, rest assured it will know who to blame.
So it should be no surprise that Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and an alt-right strategist, has chosen Italy as his base while scheming to take a right-wing populist coalition to victory at next month’s European elections. Italy has all the right qualities for leadership.
It is a founder-member of the EU. Unlike Hungary, it is one of the largest member states. Unlike Poland, it does not have principled objections to cooperation with Russia (Silvio Berlusconi had a friendly relationship with Putin too).
It also has the trifecta of problems. It’s a border state being exploited by the rest of Europe on the issue of irregular migration. It has economic problems that can be blamed both on the Italian establishment and on the eurozone. All establishment attempts to manage Italy better – from governments run by mainstream political parties to unelected technocrats – have been tried.
It might look like a recipe for massive populist failure in Italy. But a major crisis in Italy would be a major one for Europe, where other populist movements might arise in the wake of an Italy crisis. As Brexit shows, never underestimate the chutzpah of populists.
They’ll drive the country straight into a concrete wall, scream that they were betrayed by those who built the wall, and then claim they’re the only ones who can get you home safely. And they will be believed, unless the rest of us have a more compelling politics to offer.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece