The EU election result has gone to the heads of far-right leaders across the old continent. And they have gone straight to the playbook of right-wing populism and fascism to start mixing propaganda with demagoguery. The results have been exalted as evidence they are the “chosen ones” representing the will of an absolute majority.
After topping polls, and in a paradoxical new bid for power, Marine Le Pen said that it was now necessary to dissolve France’s National Assembly. The strong victory for the Fidesz party led Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban to claim that Hungarians have given his movement the task of “stopping immigration all across Europe”, along with protecting “Christian culture”.
Meanwhile in Rome, the like-minded hard-right politician, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, echoed that statement while clutching a crucifix in his hands. He suggested that, given the strong gains of his party, League, and other, similar groups in France and Britain, Europe is “changing”. Italians, apparently, also gave him a mandate to change the EU budgetary rules.
Is all this real? Will the EU and its member states look different in the years to come?
Well, first, Britain’s Brexit Party will (probably) soon leave the EU. Fidesz has been around a while but is close to a pariah as it falls under scrutiny of human rights and democracy watchdogs. Le Pen, meanwhile, is not in power in France and it will likely stay that way. Italy’s far-right and anti-establishment government, however, is the troubling nightmare for eurocrats and progressive forces.
League’s 34.3 per cent share of the vote in the EU election was coupled with a spike in some regional and local ballots across the country.
Following victory in the important region of Piedmont, Salvini’s party – in coalition with its traditional allies (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia) – is now running all Italy’s northern regions. Moreover, they also saw tremendous gains in left-wing strongholds such as the Emilia Romagna region.
More surprisingly, League became a top party in the South – which is astonishing for an originally regionalist and anti-southern movement. What it is clear now is that Salvini has replaced Berlusconi in leading the so-called “moderate centre right”. He is now the pre-eminent example of demagoguery and post-truth on Italian soil.
This opens up an uncertain future for a country which is economically struggling and facing poor growth under the current government. There remains a chance of a new general election after the summer, perhaps in 2020, with Salvini potentially even running with a far-right bloc (and keeping out the declining Berlusconi). What is certain is an immediate “takeover” by League of the coalition agenda – further sidelining its bruised 5 Star partners. This would mean new measures on taxes and, in particular, anti-migrant “security” policies.
In sum, Italy will face another season of political radicalisation and scapegoating (against the EU and refugees). This will come along with an even more polarised, irrational and messianic vision of politics and society.
In the press conference following the first exit polls, Salvini kissed the crucifix and once again invoked religion to reinforce his message, to make it untouchable; close to the people: “I thank who is up there [God]”.
For him, voters legitimised his party, and the divine will likely protect them and the politician leading them. He has implored the Virgin Mary to help “Italy and Europe to find again hope, pride, roots, jobs [and] security”. It is not quite clear how she, and God, are supposed to help with “security”, but in any case, this is a direct challenge to secularism and Enlightenment values. It is an attempt to play with fears and hijack Christianity.
It is easy to get wrapped up in this kind of far-right rhetoric, whether you agree with it or not. In truth though, there is some hope for the future.
The far-right parties have delighted in portraying themselves as the only election winners, but they will have a limited impact in Brussels. The EU parliament will be more fragmented now, but other, pro-European voices, have emerged. Even if nationalists are (worryingly) well represented in the mainstream a majority bloc will be created against such overtly anti-EU extremist forces. It is, once more, up to liberal and moderate forces to legitimise or de-legitimise the far right, its themes and its nationalism.
Equally, the vote in Italy was more complex than Salvini would have you believe. League won the EU election, but local ballots are a different story. The centre-left kept a number of important city councils in the north. Given the failure of 5 Star, the League’s performances in the South – where they have no established political and social roots nor any relevant party militancy – look, at least partially, to be a protest vote.
Also, League’s share in the EU vote does not necessarily translate into a majority in city councils. In relevant cities such as Bari and Lecce, the centre-left gained considerably in the local vote compared to the European one (respectively +36 per cent and +20 per cent).
It is not irrelevant, after all, that 44 per cent of Italians abstained from the election. League has not therefore captured the “will” of the people, but only that of 9,000,000 citizens out of 60,000,000. As we have said, many of them did not even replicate their vote locally.
Rhetoric and some of the media headlines have also hidden the growing signs of opposition in society – the civic engagement, the reborn anti-fascist activism, the protests against the police’s excessive involvement as Salvini’s personal guards, and the discomfort of Pope Francis with the xenophobic policies implemented by the far-right party.
In 2014, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi gained roughly the 40 per cent in the EU election only to fall shortly afterwards. Exactly like Salvini, he was convinced he was unstoppable and could count on all Italians supporting and loving him. Will history now repeat itself?
Andrea Mammone is a visiting fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute, and a historian of Modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.
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