Rafael Behr: Populist gains in Italy show the scale of Europe’s anger epidemic

Other EU countries won’t imitate Brexit but the forces that created it are pan-European

It is testimony to how low expectations in Brussels have fallen that before the vote, Silvio Berlusconi was seen as the least worst available option. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

It is testimony to how low expectations in Brussels have fallen that before the vote, Silvio Berlusconi was seen as the least worst available option. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

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There is no comfort for British pro-Europeans in the knowledge that the EU has worse problems than Brexit. In recent months, more sleep has been lost in Brussels over Italian politics than anything Theresa May’s government might do. That alarm was vindicated by Sunday’s election.

The biggest winners were the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right League (formerly known as the Northern League). Both are Eurosceptic by continental standards, but neither made that the centrepiece of their campaign. They mined general frustration at the failure of the incumbent government to turn economic growth into public prosperity, made pungent in many areas by deep resentment of mass immigration.

The ruling centre-left Democratic party (PD) was punished even more aggressively than was widely anticipated. Forza Italia, the party of Silvio Berlusconi, also did worse than forecast. The octogenarian former prime minister and impresario of sleaze had tried to bridge the gap between flagrant racism and pragmatism by offering a kind of populism-lite – anti-immigration but also pro-European; the reassuringly familiar face of casual patrician prejudice from a less volatile age. But he has been eclipsed by his junior coalition partner, the League’s Matteo Salvini , a dispenser of undiluted, racially charged vitriol. “There has been a tide of delinquents and I want to send them home, from first to last,” Salvini said of Italy’s migrant population at one election rally.

It is testimony to how low expectations in Brussels have fallen that before the vote, Berlusconi was seen as the least worst available option. The hope was that he might sand the Eurosceptic edges from Italian nationalism. Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone and a founder nation of the EU. Rome cannot be excluded from debates about vital structural reforms, but that conversation is politically tricky with a country that can’t form a stable government. It is also morally compromised if that country ends up governed to the beat of a quasi-fascist drum.

The EU has already come to terms with the inclusion of the far-right Freedom party in a ruling coalition in Austria. But Heinz-Christian Strache, Freedom’s leader, has shrewdly bottled his nationalist poison in a pro-European vessel, pitching himself as an upholder of the union’s values – which he interprets through a lens of religious and ethnic exclusion.

World View podcast, italy/slovak murder

Vienna has also benefited from a lack of political bandwidth in Brussels when it comes to censuring governments that contravene the tolerant spirit of its treaties. The European commission is already tangled in a dispute with Poland over what it sees as authoritarian infringements of the rule of law. That friction expresses suspicion among eastern European members that the western side views their accession after the cold war as an act of charity, and expects too much deference in return. There are only so many fronts on which the guardians of EU cohesion can fight internal culture wars. The last thing any of them needs is for Italy to succumb to political paralysis, or worse.

There is a tendency among Brexiteers to greet signs of EU dysfunction with glee. One of the pillars of British Euroscepticism is a belief that the whole project is misguided; conceived with the utopian ambition to erase national identities. In that view, every effort at European integration inevitably provokes a popular backlash and hastens the day when centrifugal forces tear the union apart. Some leavers openly hoped the UK’s departure would trigger the great unravelling.

That didn’t happen. And since any material benefits to the UK from Brexit now look remote at best, it is doubly important that the EU should appear to be struggling. Unable to fulfil any of their campaign promises, Brexiteers hope to fall back on a claim to have presciently evacuated the nation from an institution that was doomed to fail.

The election of Donald Trump within months of the UK’s shock referendum result caused anxiety in continental capitals that an unstoppable populist hurricane was ripping through the west. Then, the far right underperformed expectations in the Dutch elections in March 2017 and Emmanuel Macron led a spectacular centre-ground insurgency in France a few months later.

So the story changed. Brexit and Trump looked more like a nasty Anglo-Saxon virus that had been contained at the Channel. The sight of their hideous symptoms was inoculation enough for continental European electorates.

There was truth and complacency in that account. Brexit has not been an advertisement for the practical applications of Eurosceptic ideology in government. But the underlying drivers of Britain’s rejection of EU membership are not unique to the UK: economic insecurity, disconnection of citizens from ruling elites, fear of immigration as a force that corrodes national identity. Those have been the most potent cultural dynamics in every ballot in every established democracy of the past two years. In some countries these forces have been hemmed back in opposition; in some they have been co-opted to into government. In Italy they have produced a hopelessly hung parliament, stuffed with agents of racism and misrule.

That is bad news for those on either side of the Channel impatient to see the EU regain its lost momentum and function in the spirit of its foundational values. Pro-Europeans, appalled by the referendum result, are sometimes too quick to see Brexit as a singular misfortune to befall the most Eurosceptic member of the club. While the British experience doesn’t invite imitation, the forces that created it are part of a crisis that is truly, enduringly pan-European. – Guardian service

Rafael Behr is a political columnist for the Guardian

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