Can Europe Make It?

Europe’s vote and Italy’s right-wing bloc

The space for a populist policy that denies the ‘right-left’ divide has shrunk, confirming that such a project is nothing but the preparation of a shift to the right.

Mario Pianta
Mario Pianta
29 May 2019, 4.50pm
Salvini press conference, February 2019
Zucchi/PA. All rights reserved.

Flat tax, privileges to rich regions, restrictions on migrants, emphasis on "security". This is Matteo Salvini's agenda for the Italian government in the aftermath of the European elections. The ‘Lega’ (League), the party he leads, now running the country in coalition with the Five Star Movement, has won big on May 26 obtaining 34.3% of the votes; five years ago the Lega had 6.2%, and in last year’s political vote it reached 17%. With Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 8.8% and the post-fascists of ‘Brothers of Italy’ at 6.5%, the right-wing bloc in Italy has half of the votes.

The Five Star Movement collapsed to 17.1%, losing half of the votes compared to the political elections of 2018 and is down compared to the 21.2% of the European elections of 2014. The Democratic Party (PD) has reached 22.7%, a modest recovery after the fall to 18.7% in 2018, against the 40.8% of the European elections five years ago, at the beginning of the short-lived era of Matteo Renzi.

In absolute terms, with voters falling from 73% in 2018 to 56% last Sunday, the shifts are more contained. The right-wing bloc has received 13 million votes against 12 million in 2018, with the Lega increasing from 5.7 to 9.1 million votes, absorbing voters from Forza Italia, while ‘Brothers of Italy’ increased their absolute votes. The Democratic Party has kept its 6 million votes. The Five Stars have lost half of the votes obtained last year, with voters choosing the Lega or abstention.

Consolidated right-wing reality

Two facts now dominate Italian politics in the European context. The first is the consolidation of a right-wing bloc under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. This is a real social bloc rooted in the combination of 'fear and poverty', the mix that was already visible in the 2018 elections: the fear of losing ground, identity and future, and the impoverishment that has affected 90% of Italians.

Italy’s right-wing bloc has found in Salvini a leader capable of dominating the political discourse, occupying the media, fueling racism, building a real political hegemony both within the center-right coalition, that he has managed to keep intact, and within the government with the Five Stars Movement who, concerned about staying in power a few more months, will be unable to break the alliance with Salvini and choose another route.

In terms of policies, the right-wing bloc shapes the 'lib-pop' agenda of the current government, a mix of liberalism – flat tax, deregulation, tax amnesties – and populism in social policies – easier retirement terms and a start for the ‘citizenship income’ – an agenda that finds approval well beyond the core supporters of the right, among business and among many 'losers' in the peripheral areas of the country.

What about the European picture? Europe’s vote has shown the strength of the right-wing, nationalist and populist vote, but we are very far from the consolidation of a right-wing bloc on a European scale, capable of affecting EU policies. The right-wing bloc rules Italy, Poland and Hungary; it came out first in the election results in France with Marine Le Pen and in the United Kingdom with the Brexit Party, but has no impact on the balance of power and on the government of such countries.

We are very far from the consolidation of a right-wing bloc on a European scale, capable of affecting EU policies.

It has a significant weight in Austria (where the extreme right has been pushed out of government) and Belgium, and appears to have stabilized in a political niche in Germany, Greece, Spain and Northern Europe; in no country does it express its hegemony over the political system and society that we find in Italy, Poland and Hungary.

Within the European Council – where governments sit – these three countries have no weight in European decisions; Poland and Hungary have been repeatedly put under scrutiny and Italy will continue to stay on the sidelines.

In the European Parliament, the success of the right is very limited, moving from 20 to 23% of the seats, with its deputies likely to divide into two or three political groups with an uneasy cooperation among them. The influence of the right on European politics is therefore likely to be limited, given the consistent emphasis on national politics that drives these political formations. Without an ability to influence Parliament and the appointments at the top posts in the Commission and European Central Bank, let alone change European rules, the right – especially in Italy – has moderated the anti-Brussels tones that a year ago characterized the national elections and the formation of the government.

Italy’s right-wing bloc will only try to get more leeway in economic terms, and we may expect that the new Commission will not want to clash with Rome on this. European politics could thus prolong its immobility and persist in its neoliberal agenda, adding occasional social concessions.

Populist bubble bursts

The second result of Europe’s elections is the bursting of the populist bubble. In Italy the collapse of the Five Star vote reflects the inconsistency of their political project and their inability to run the government. The space for a populist policy that denies the ‘right-left’ divide has shrunk, confirming that such a project is nothing but the preparation of a shift to the right.

The results of the European vote dismantle the illusions of building a left-wing variant of populism. In Spain Unidas Podemos halves its seats in the European Parliament, caught between the recovery of the Socialist party at the national scale and the strength of independentists in Barcelona. In Paris, France Insoumise led by Jean Luc Mélenchon is stuck at 6.3% of the votes. The other radical left forces in Greece, Portugal, Germany and Northern Europe have maintained their clear left-wing profile, obtaining mixed results: Alexis Tsipras has been defeated in Greece, and has called for new elections; in Portugal the left-wing parties have given external support to the Socialist government and have consolidated their consensus; the Linke in Germany has lost votes. If we consider the strong fall of almost all Socialdemocratic parties (with the exceptions of Spain, Holland, Denmark and some other countries), the political void that opens on the left is evident, in a context where the ‘right-left’ divide returns to dominate politics.

The space for a populist policy that denies the ‘right-left’ divide has shrunk, confirming that such a project is nothing but the preparation of a shift to the right.

What is then left of the opposition between élites and populism, between the ‘top’ and the 'bottom’' in politics that attracted so much attention in recent years? The right-wing bloc has been able to integrate the 'top' of national economic élites with the ‘bottom’ of the popular vote. At the ‘top’, the political representation of pro-European élites takes on new forms; in the European Parliament the rise of some forces in the Liberal group partly compensates for the losses of the Popular and Socialist parties, as in the case of Emmanuel Macron in France taking votes away from Gaullists and Socialists.

The Socialdemocrats are paralyzed – as they have been for two decades – before the choice between positioning themselves at the 'top', as ​​a party of the pro-European, neoliberal elites, close to the Macron model, or returning to their ‘left’ roots, to their class base, taking away space and voters from the populism of the right. The radical left is currently too fragmented and fragile to occupy such a space. The success of the Greens in some countries, Germany first of all, with a large youth vote, escapes a clear position, but has the potential to renew the horizon and agenda of what we still call the ‘left’.

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