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Italy’s Upcoming Elections and the Outlook on the Future of Europe

Vittoria Zanellati

2017 has been a crucial year for Europe with several key elections marking a showdown between the political establishment and populist opportunists riding a wave of popular discontent. The results of this election odyssey and, therefore, the new composition of many EU member states’ governments have had and will have a direct impact on the battle that is currently taking place within the Union, one that might potentially reshape the nature of the EU. Now Italy’s turn to tip the scale has finally arrived as it heads to the polls on March 4. 

After a decade of crisis, Europe is indeed more divided than at any time in the post-war era. On the one hand, there are the Europeanists governments aiming at creating “an ever closer union” (as written in the preamble of the Treaty of the EU). Many different visions are being advanced with regards to the institutional model as well as to the policies to be pursued, the foremost being the institutional perspective put forward by Emmanuel Macron in his proposal of re-founding a “sovereign, united and democratic Union”, as well as the policy perspective embodied by the German position with its emphasis on fiscal stability and more centralized control of national budgetary policies. The reform of the Eurozone is clearly the starting point for pushing towards closer integration and the French and German leaderships have clearly taken the reforming lead. Right after having put a show of unity over reforms to bolster the euro area, a joint resolution has been approved on the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty, which stresses the need for more cooperation as a precondition for strengthening Europe. However the decision about the future nature of Europe cannot be simply entrusted to these two actors, the consequence being that all Europeanist governments currently face the challenge of opening up and engaging in an internal debate to devise a common perspective on the institutions and policies that will characterize the Union of the future. This challenge is clearly inherently linked to another crucial one, that is, that of strengthening the Europeanist coalition to contain the influence of those anti-EU governments countering the creation of “an ever closer union”. On the other hand - or side of the ‘battlefield’ – there are indeed the East and Central-European governments concerned with their national sovereignty, which have recently adapted their anti-EU strategy to the post-Brexit scenario – i.e. hindering the EU from within but without leaving the Union. Even though the British experience has shown the potential difficulties faced by a member state willing to become again a national state in an integrated Europe, these members did not divert from their overall objective of depriving the integration project of its finalité politique, thus turning the EU into a sort of economic union within which both liberal and illiberal democracies would coexist.  

The Italian government has definitely a role to play in this internal battle that will define the nature of the EU. The Italian coalitional power is crucial for aggregating the Europeanist governments, while its federalist vision might be critical in bridging the divisions between members sharing a more intergovernmental vision of Europe, such as Germany and France. However, the Italian prospects for playing this role is yet to be defined by the outcome of the March 2018 political elections, which will have historical consequences for Europe itself. The vote will not so much determine power relationships between the different Italian parties. Rather, two strategic options are at stake and the will of the Italian voters will define Italy’s collocation in the European system. Will Germany and France be able to count on the Italian leadership for the Eurozone reform? Eventually, a fresh push towards closer integration could be imperiled by political instability or worse a populist takeover in Italy – which is the 3rd largest economy in the Eurozone. 

Taking a closer look at the Italian electoral offer, one might conclude that despite the apparent ideological and programmatic fragmentation,1  the fundamental dividing line between the Italian political forces is straightforward and has clearly something to do with the two political ‘camps’ aforementioned. On the one hand, there are the Europeanists, i.e. a coalition of political forces that inherently recognizes the condition of interdependence to which Italy is subject. The parties sharing the vision of a ‘European Italy’ are the successors of the three coalitional governments (Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni) that have been leading the XVII legislature (2013-2017) – the foremost being Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) – but some of the opposition parties might also be labelled as Europeanists, such as Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI), Democratic and progressive Movement (MDP). Despite their programmatic and ideological differences, all these forces perceive Italy’s relationship with Europe as matter of domestic politics and frame policies accordingly with the final objective of upholding the Italian interests in the European interdependent system. On the other hand, there are the independentists, i.e. an informal coalition of introvert forces whose programs are informed by an ideal conception of Italy as an independent state – the foremost being the Norther League (LN), Brothers of Italy (FdI) and the 5Star Movement (M5S). These forces systematically fail to grasp the complexities arising from interdependence, the consequence being that they often put forward policy proposals without questioning their feasibility – especially as far as monetary and budgetary policies are concerned. For these parties, Europe is a topic of electoral competition, as well as a matter of foreign policy.  

The victory of an Europeanist Italian coalition will strengthen the coalition of EU member states currently committed to the creation of a political union based on liberal democracy and the single market. To the contrary, the success of the independentist coalition’s members will irreversibly relegate the Italian peninsula to the European periphery and exclude its government from strengthening and democratizing the Eurozone. However, in a country highly dissatisfied with its current leaders, with the state of the economy and with the benefits originating from EU membership – as just the 39 per cent of the population believes it has benefitted on balance from being in the Union – polls do not look promising for the pro-(deeper)integration political forces. Worse still, none of the three major political groupings – PD-led center-left coalition, FI-led right coalition, and the M5S – is expected to win enough votes to form a government, the consequence being a potential round of negotiations following the elections or the drama of another hung parliament. 

The largest pro-EU force, Renzi’s PD, is significantly shedding support in opinion polls (20.7%), reflecting a withering dynamic that is currently confronting many other Social Democratic parties in Europe, i.e. losing voters and breaking apart. Even if the weakened PD will benefit from the votes of small liberal formations otherwise unable to pass the threshold, it will likely guarantee around 30 per cent of the vote to the PD-led center-left coalition – still not enough to form a majority (40%). The largest single vote-winning party is expected to be the anti-establishment M5S (28.1%) – a populist post-crash formation that largely benefitted from both the collapse of the Left and the economic crisis to emerge as the voice of the excluded and against the caste – which seems unlikely to be able to form a coalition because of its in-principle refusal to do so. A more plausible scenario is the return to prominence of Silvio Berlusconi, whose FI party is at the head of a right-wing coalition (to which opinion polls currently attribute between 35 and 40 per cent of the vote). Nevertheless, few in Brussels will take comfort, as Berlusconi’s largest partner is the far-right LN, a once-separatist force now turned into an all-Italian hard-right movement attempting to create a party like France’s Front National – including its hostility towards immigrants and multiculturalism. The center-right momentum has been facilitated by a wave of discontent over the migration crisis, which on the eve of elections seems to have the potential to upend the vote. Migration remains indeed the second greatest concern for the public – after unemployment – which perceives the government’s record in reducing migration to be poor, even though many controversial deals with Libya succeeded in reducing by a third the number of arrivals by sea in 2017. The center-right has also benefited from a growing perception that other EU member-states have abandoned Italy over the course of the migration and euro crises. According to the latest Eurobarometer, only 37 per cent of Italians have a positive view of the EU and 80 per cent disapprove of its handling of migration. 

Surprisingly enough, in the run-up to the elections both the LN and the M5S have softened their positions on the EU and their anti-EU rhetoric, giving up their past calls for a referendum on Italy’s use of the euro. Withdrawing from the Eurozone might not be a priority anymore for the members of the indipendentist coalition but the logic behind their criticism to the euro is still vibrant and twofold. Firstly, criticism is meant as a bargaining chip that the parties can use to try to accomplish their true goal: revising the EU's fiscal rules. Most Italian parties, including the Europeanist, see the rules on deficit and debt as a legal obstacle that prevents Italy from introducing growth-oriented reforms, the major element of criticism being the Fiscal Compact Treaty – an agreement that introduced stricter controls on EU members' fiscal policies, including the requirement to keep a balanced budget.2  Therefore, whatever government Italy's next election brings into power will doubtless take on the challenge of trying to revise these rules and to uphold this interest in the negotiations for the Eurozone reform. Secondly, criticism is still meant to ignite nationalism and gain the support of that large portion of the electorate that is dissatisfied with the political and economic status quo in Italy. 

Unsurprisingly though, these independentist forces can largely count on the Kremlin’s support in their battle against the EU. Indeed, the recent phase of the populist and anti-establishment surge in Italy has been accompanied by a rise in popularity of Vladimir Putin, who became a powerful symbol of ‘sovereigntism’ in his battle with globalism and, therefore, a potential ally in Italy’s efforts to regain its sovereignty. This perception has been influenced by the Kremlin’s efforts in cultivating political allies in Western European countries, a strategy that is aimed at undermining European consensus, sowing divisions in societies, and engendering mistrust in democratic institutions. In the Italian case, Moscow began to actively engage the emerging anti-establishment forces since 2012, encouraging them to embrace a pro-Russian stance and to exert influence over political debates. Even though every major Italian party has a soft spot for Russia – the long standing friendship between Berlusconi and Putin being the most visible expression of this link – just the LN and the M5S can be labelled as veritable “pro-Russian” forces. According to “The Kremlin Trojan Horses 2.0”, a study by the American think tank Atlantic Council, both of them have received political support from Moscow, as evidenced by meetings between representatives of these parties and senior Russian government and United Russia officials - LN and United Russia even signed a cooperation agreement in March 2017. These parties also receive media support, primarily in the form of visibility in Kremlin-controlled international media as well as Russian media campaigns hostile to the Italian government. The report also documented a set of pro-Russian activities of LN and M5S that fostered the establishment of a Russian network of influence, including the launch of campaigns against anti-Russian sanctions, as well as the foundation of associations aimed at supporting the development of the Italian parties’ political contacts in Russia and facilitating business relationships - which can be defined as centers of Russian soft power relaying the Kremlin’s strategic narratives to the Italian public. Russian influence in Italy is therefore bound to increase if the M5S or the LN accede to power, as they are likely to continue to spread the Kremlin’s anti-Western narratives among the Italian public and to forge some kind of strategic alliance with Moscow, thus engendering Italy’s Europeanist policy. 

Contrary to what one might have thought, Italian elections do not simply matter for Italians. Italy has a role in the battle on the future of EU and the outcome of the vote is going to have historical consequences for the Europe in which we will live.

1On the 4th of March Italy will head to the polls to elect a new parliament under a new electoral law – a mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post voting – and a wide variety of distinct lists and organizations has emerged, all encouraged by the new system’s proportional section.

Italy signed the treaty at the height of a financial crisis in 2012 under significant pressure from Germany. Although the EU has been flexible in enforcing the treaty, Italian politician are skeptical of a legal framework that reduces their government’s room to maneuver on fiscal policies.