Beyond the gates of Rome: why you should care about the Italian election

March 4th is coming. If this otherwise innocuous date doesn’t sound troubling to you, think again.

On that bright day of early spring, more than 51.000.000 Italians will be called to the urns to cast a vote that will determine the country’s political equilibrium for the next five years. And the consequence of their choice will certainly not stop at the Alps.

The election at a glance

The latest polls have seen the centre-right coalition leading with 36% of the vote. This numerous group is a melting pot of various parties, which includes Berlusconi’s apparently immortal Forza Italia (FI), Matteo Salvini’s freshly-repackaged Lega Nord (LN), the conservatives of Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Christian-democratic Noi con l’Italia (NCL).

In second place with 28% of the projected vote is the centre-left governing party, Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD), which features a number of smaller parties, ranging from greens to socialists and Emma Bonino’s brand new, pro-EU “+ Europa”.

In third place is the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which now counts 88 MPs in the Italian lower chamber and 35 representatives in the Senate, and is currently projected to gain 27% of the vote.

Liberi e Uguali, freshly created by two prominent ex-members of the Democratic Party, currently stands at 6%.

The remaining 9% is contended by a number of predominantly extremist parties – including the growing neo-fascist movement Casa Pound, which derives its name from the poet Ezra Pound, paying tribute to his Cantons, in which the American poet harshly criticises both capitalism and Marxism.

So what does this all mean for the European Union?

While just 34% of Italians believe their country should leave the European union, up to 57% would support holding a national referendum on Italy’s membership.

Italy has been strongly tied to the EU since its foundation, and remains the third biggest economy of the eurozone, despite ongoing economic difficulties and slow growth.

On the other hand, discontent around the EU’s insufficient help with an unprecedented migration wave, coupled with ceaseless economic insecurity have taken a toll on Italian’s positions towards the Union.

In its post-Brexit report on member countries’ disposition towards the EU, Pew Research Center showed that, while just 34% of Italians believe their country should leave the European union, up to 57% would support holding a national referendum on Italy’s membership.

The prospect of an “Italeave” is unlikely, but where do the main parties that are fighting for a slice of sweet Parliamentary cake stand on Europe?  

A confused right-wing bloc

If the big FI-LN-FdI-NCL team might make sense on paper, it would be an understatement to say that the parties’ programs tend to clash in practise. And they definitely need to come up with a catchier name.

It’s no secret that the new Italian President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani – who has held increasingly prestigious positions in Brussels and Strasbourg in the past 10 years– has been a prominent member of Berlusconi’s party since its early years. But even though Berlusconi once threatened to exit the Eurozone, he never actually considered a divorce between Rome and Brussels, instead pointing out that diplomacy and moderation is the only way to have your voice heard within the rooms of the European institutions.

That’s more the case now than ever. Berlusconi, who ruled Italy for 20 years and actually served as European MP between 1999 and 2001, is working hard to rebrand himself as a moderate, centrist alternative to the populist M5S.

For Forza Italia, therefore, leaving the EU – or even the Eurozone – is out of the question. At most, an FI-lead government would work to safeguard Italian interests on a European level, fighting for less constraints on Italian businesses and “passing from the Europe of bureaucrats to the Europe of the peoples.

Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord (LN), on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Salvini has attempted to broaden his appeal by toning down his anti-European rhetoric.

Since becoming party leader in 2013, Salvini has worked hard to align himself to other right-wing European parties in harshly critiquing the European Union’s every step, in any possible field, and promising multiple times to do the best he could to get the country out of the Eurozone, if not of the Union entirely.

However, since allying with Berlusconi, LN has toned down its more Eurosceptic edges. That the majority of Salvini’s support base remains anti-European is not lost on him, but with the elections looming he has attempted to broaden his appeal by toning down his anti-European rhetoric, even publicly stating that returning to the previous currency is not a viable option.

A recent article published about Berlusconi’s recent visit to Brussels on Italian national newspaper Repubblica casts a dark shadow on the agreement. While LN explicitly aims to renegotiate the infamous deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3% (which hinders public investment), Repubblica stated that Berlusconi, visiting several European institutions,  assured that his government would respect the 3% limit.

The article also implies that Berlusconi might have struck a deal with the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, promising that – were his coalition to win – both Lega Nord and Movimento Cinque Stelle would not be awarded any relevant position in the future government. Salvini immediately called it fake news.

Fratelli d’Italia, led by self-proclaimed patriot Giorgia Meloni, is less extreme but still highly critical of the European project. “We believe in a Europe that works for its people, not for oligarchies and finance,” reads their program, which alludes to the scarce democracy behind European law and excessive German influence. Noi con l’Italia programme regarding the future of Italy’s role in the EU mostly mirrors that of Forza Italia.

The left asks for more Europe

Five gruelling years in power and three different prime ministers later, the Italian Democratic Party (PD) is probably going to be punished at the polls for its unbroken Europeism and for its consistent trust in the European system. Although the past 5 years have seen an improvement in the country’s economy and employment, many feel they have not benefited from such betterment and the refugee issue has slowly polarized the country’s public opinion.

PD knows this, and its answer is…more Europe. More Europe when it comes to the issue of immigration, as Italy is incapable of controlling its southern sea, fighting human trafficking and improving the reception and welcome system on its own. More Europe and more involvement in Africa as a strategic and long-term foreign policy focus. More Europe for a greater dialogue between institutions to develop a political project that sometimes seems to have been forgotten in favour of a merely financial one.

“More Europe” is actually the name of one of the parties in Renzi’s bloc. Both economically and socially liberal, it was created by Emma Bonino – best known as the leader of the Italian Radicals and former Minister of Foreign Affairs – to channel the voices of those who believe it’s time for the United States of Europe.

Its programme includes the creation of a European border police and a European army, as well as the direct election of the president of the European Commission. Some accuse Bonino’s party of bending too much to the EU, particularly because of its promises to continue austerity measures. Although an official government pact with the Democratic Party hasn’t been announced yet, Bonino herself called it “a civic duty” to fight together against the populist and racist front.

Movimento Cinque Stelle feeds on chaos

Debuting on the political scene in 2009, the self-proclaimed “rabid populist” Movimento Cinque Stelle – the lovechild of comedian Beppe Grillo and web businessman Gianroberto Casaleggio’s – has never been able, or willing, to formulate a coherent stance on foreign policy issues.

Between confusing appeals to an Italian referendum on EU membership to embarrassing videos on the necessity of leaving the Eurozone and last-minute denials, the movement just can’t keep a clear head on the matter.

Comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo

The fact that in 2014 M5S formed a parliamentary group alongside Ukip – the two parties share 27.1% of their political ideas, according to VoteWatch Europe – points to the fact that Grillo’s movement, that has now been handed down to young leader Luigi di Maio, is far from being pro-European.

Instead, its program calls for a retreat from the 2012 Fiscal Compact pact (and the aforementioned 3% rule), a referendum on the euro, and a warmer approach to Vladimir Putin – with the stated aim of lifting the sanctions on Russia.

Second in the polls even if running alone, Movimento 5 Stelle is beloved by its supporters for its strong and often controversial opinions. In the run-up to March 4th, its candidates have voiced several critical views of the EU, especially on the dangers of “EU anti-Russian propaganda” and the possibility of Italy soon becoming “Europe’s refugee camp”. On the possibility of a common defence policy, they warned against  such a project becoming “an instrument for military operations that only pursue the interests of some member states”.

The Italian menace

Since the Brexit referendum, national elections in major EU states have felt like a game of Russian roulette with the future of the Union. This time in Italy, it feels like the stakes are higher than ever. With a minority government in Spain struggling with the Catalan crisis, a fractious and uncertain coalition in Germany, and a new Austrian chancellor tempting the German minority in the Italian Sudtirol, it’s easy to see how different parliamentary majorities would transform the way in which the Italian government collaborates and communicates with the EU – and vice-versa.

Whatever the outcome of this election, growing Eurosceptic parties like Lega Nord and Movimento 5 Stelle are highly likely to play a more prominent role in the Italian parliament.

As is always the case with Italian elections, it feels like the right moment to dig out Dante’s good old VI canto, from the Purgatorio:

Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows,

you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas,

no queen of provinces but of brothels!


By Viola Serena Stefanello