Toni Iwobi, Italy's first black senator elected from The League, arrives at an event at Palazzo delle Stelline, in Milan, Italy, on March 9, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.A tidal wave of Euroscepticism has swept the continent. Online platforms have helped. No doubt. Social media as well, quite naturally. Prominent old media are certainly behind it, supported by billionaires whose interests are in marked contrast with those of Brussels, especially over anti-money-laundering policy.
Even so, you can't escape the impression that Euroscepticism is rising from below, from masses of individuals with no hidden agendas. The losers of an eleven-year global crisis triggered by unfettered international markets and unregulated banking speculations the EU had hardly anything to do with.
Their lives are on hold. They see many more foreigners in their neighbourhoods today, speaking unfathomable languages, allowed in by EU-made porous borders. The former can't find work and when they do it is badly paid; the latter stoically endure, take up to three jobs and get blamed by right-wing politicians for diluting the national blood and left-wing opinion makers for not voting and supinely accepting low pay.
Albanian, Romanian and Polish couldn't be any more different from one another, yet they all sound the same to the vast majority in western Europe. This unfortunate perception can produce the political effect of compact, hungry hordes invading. With more joining in from Africa and the war-torn Middle East. Agitators say the EU invites them in, despite evidence to the contrary, like the billions spent on a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of incomers.
The ever more agile far right
Stirring up xenophobic feelings is some politicians' favourite tool; but it's not as if they know nothing else. They're strategically rather astute. The far right – the most Eurosceptic across any nation's respective spectrum – has become rhetorically very agile.
Whereas Italy's first black minister Cécile Kyenge had bananas thrown at her and was likened to a monkey by a Northern League party leading figure, this very same outfit – now rebranded The League to whitewash abusive language against southern Italians accused of being benefit scroungers – has now had one of its 4 March general election candidates, 62-year-old Nigerian-born Toni Iwobi, elected as no less than Italy's first black senator.
The party, in a bombastic effort to normalize its image and get votes from the centre, is now claiming it's not a racist organization, it is only against illegal immigration. The far right is upping their game: the language is suddenly a notch or two less crude and the tactics shrewder. “Our policies are intended to bring peace and order to the nation,” Iwobi told the Guardian the day after being elected.
Controversial EU funds
That being said, it is hard to ignore how the EU has actually worked to improve “left behind” areas all over the continent, from Ireland to Cyprus, puzzlingly causing nonetheless very mixed reactions. Wales, one of the regions to benefit the most from EU subsidies to boost infrastructure, unexpectedly voted to leave in the 2016 referendum.
The list of contradictory examples is long indeed. Rzeszów (Poland) and Crotone (Italy) represent two very divergent cases of how well or badly you can manage EU funds. The former has had its airport completely redone and a very depressed area – south-east Poland – has been put back on its feet; it's indeed performing better than ever having become an aeronautical hub. The latter had to give back 600 million euro to the EU in 2015 for not having spent it on time.
In between 2007 and 2013 Poland received and invested 67.3 billion euro, becoming the biggest user of EU funds. Yet, its government's gag laws openly contravene commonly agreed EU treaties. Understandable warnings from Brussels were acrimoniously thrown back by Warsaw to the sender.
Meanwhile, Italy's organised crime now enjoys business opportunities in Slovakia and elsewhere in eastern Europe by successfully attracting EU funds with bogus agricultural projects, which a Bratislava-based investigative young journalist was trying to expose. The very brave Ján Kuciak recently paid for the affront with his life.
Turning chaos into opportunity
Old and new international dynamics are simultaneously at play in Europe. Many voters don't know what to make of this chaos and tend to revert to more reassuring domestic matters. Others stick to the idea of Europe as a post-war – post-totalitarianism – project for the common good (a United States of Europe sort of thing), and their insistence has forced up-and-coming extremist parties to change their tack slightly.
Not just The League, but also Five Star – Italy's recent election winners – have pledged to withdraw their proposal for a referendum on the euro. Unthinkable a few months ago. Further evidence that anything can still happen in Europe, and not necessarily for the worse.