On March 5th, Europe awoke to the fallout of the legislative elections in Italy. It was a night which saw a general degree of continuity when comparing to recent European elections. Fresh from pummelling’s in France, Germany and the Netherlands, social democracy was on the end of another blow with Matteo Renzi’s Social Democrats being punished at the polls. Although the Social Democrats were the second largest party with almost 19% of the vote, it was a change of minus 6.5% compared to their performance in the 2013 legislative elections.
Italian politics features a system of alliances: centre-right, centre-left and Movement Five Star. The centre-right coalition features Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi. For football fans out there, Berlusconi was the owner of AC Milan – before Chinese investors bought the Italian giants for €740 million in April 2017. The other parties in this coalition include Lega Nord – an anti-immigration, Eurosceptic populist party as well as fringe parties such as the Brothers of Italy. Within the centre-left, the only prominent party is the aforementioned Social Democrats, compounding their electoral failure. Then, we have Movement Five Star (M5S) who were founded by a comedian – no joke – Beppe Grillo. To be fair, no one knows where they sit on the political spectrum since they are a Eurosceptic party but advocate liberal proposals such as e-democracy. I would assume centre-right but one thing that’s for certain is that 5 Star are not part of the political establishment.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EU Commission is the common enemy of most Eurosceptics including the likes of Nigel Farage, Peter Bone and, who could forget, Comrade Rees-Mogg (as referred to by George Galloway on the February 22nd edition of BBC’s This Week). In the State of the Union speech back in September, Juncker reassured the EU Parliamentarians that the ‘wind was back in Europe’s sail’. Apparently, two election results miraculously rebuilt the destruction of the earthquake in Brussels which occurred at about 4:39am on June 24th 2016. Admittedly, it was September 13th 2017 – before the German elections – and Jean-Claude, like many who have an interest in European politics, did not envisage the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland, (a party which attained less than 5% of the vote in 2013) becoming the official opposition.
Rather than the wind being in Europe’s sail, the Italian results reinforce the fact that the wind is in the sail of populists. It cannot be denied that populists came second in the aforementioned examples and the recent legislative elections in Austria saw the Freedom Party – a hard right Eurosceptic party – enter coalition with the centre-right People’s Party. In Italy: populists were emphatic victors with 5 Star putting in a 5-star performance, polling over 30% of the vote and, Lega polling over 17.5, improving by over 13% compared to the previous election. Lega, arguably, the real winners of this election.
As it seems to be the norm in elections which use a form of proportional representation, coalition governments are inevitable. If we add percentages of the individual parties within the coalitions then the Centre-Right would be the largest group with approximately 38% of the vote. Movement 5 Star would be second with 32% and the Centre-Left would be lagging 10 points behind.
Whereas, in the centre-right coalition, Lega Nord were the largest party ahead of the likes of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia so their leader, Salvini, has had his hand strengthened in government negotiations. Movement Five Star were the largest party but it is possible that the party will not form part of the government.
There are so many permutations – M5S and Lega ; M5S, Forza Italia and Lega, or even Forza Italia, Lega and the Democrats. But all have their stumbling blocs as a M5S/Lega coalition could alienate the somewhat leftist voters who voted for Five Star. In the second scenario, coalition pacts weren’t on the table before the election and in the third, the Democrats wouldn’t aid 5 Star in forming the next government. Like Germany, a period of political paralysis could be in store for a short period of time, folks.
What does it mean for the Brexit and the future of Juncker’s and Schulz’s beloved European project? At the moment, in all honesty, not much. The fact that approximately 50% of the electorate voted for either Movement Five Star or Lega emphasises that there is clear disillusionment with the Establishment parties due to mismanagement regarding the economy and the consequences of the refugee crisis.
Social Democracy got another kick in the balls too and it is two-fingers up to more European political integration. Former EU Parliament president, Martin Schulz, aspired for a United States of Europe by 2025. There’s probably more chance of the EU fracturing to the point of no return than the idealist prospect of a fully federalist superstate, especially when the Commission is on the verge of sanctioning Poland under Article 7 for passing legislation which is deemed to undermine the judiciary. So, Martin, if I were you, I would be looking for that “cash-out” option; I think William Hill can return your stake.
The portmanteau hasn’t yet been created but going off the examples of Brexit, Eirexit, Dexit, Nexit, Swexit, Grexit, it is likely that potential Italian withdrawal would be Italiaexit. This idea was flirted by Lega. During the campaign, Lega advocated withdrawal should Brussels not renegotiate fiscal and immigration legislation. 27 to 26 member states isn’t inevitable by any stretch of the imagination but Brussels would be worried, facing a staunchly Eurosceptic alliance should a Lega/M5S coalition materialise. A euro-exit could be on the cards as Five Star did propose to find alternatives to the single currency. It would certainly create prospective ramifications as it is unlikely Brussels will take measures to address the consequences of the single currency.
A Eurosceptic coalition in Italy would widen the divisions present in Europe, in particular the attitude to the Brexit deal. Countries such as Poland and Hungary as well as the Scandinavian countries are in favour of not punishing Britain whereas the Franco-German axis, who drive the negotiations politically, are more punitive. Divisions caused by Brexit on the Continent could take a very long time to be repaired indeed, that is if it is even possible. Whilst we cannot speculate too much on the future of the twenty-seven once March 29th 2019 passes, one thing is for certain, Euroscepticism and disillusionment towards domestic and European elites is rife.