The European far right-wing is becoming increasingly organized and powerful, and Italian politician Matteo Salvini plays an important role. Ahead of the European Parliament Elections, we need to be more aware of transnational right-wing cooperation in Europe, argues Eleonora Fasan, graduate student at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies.
“The Franco-German axis is showing its limits, I will do everything I can to renew a new Rome-Berlin axis.”
If you got the chills, I assure you that you were not the only one. This quote was not taken from a history book but from the Twitter-feed of Matteo Salvini, Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister. He repeated a statement from an interview in December while gearing up for the European Parliamentary Elections, which will take place between May 23 and 26.
The European Parliamentary Elections, where Europeans elect members to the parliament of the European Union (EU), are the largest transnational elections in the world but you could be forgiven for not having heard of them. In recent months, media coverage has been disconcertingly low, causing Europeans to underestimate this pivotal event. This is a shame, because the far-right populists and Eurosceptics like Mr. Salvini have seized the chance to organize across borders and potentially influence the election outcome.
The appeal of populism
The seemingly unstoppable spread of far-right movements throughout Europe is disturbing to those of us who want to see Europe united rather than divided. The populist and far-right parties of Europe push a common anti-European and Eurosceptic agenda. They argue that European countries are too diverse to benefit from unified policies. Europeans’ lack of a common language, they say, means that they also lack a common European sentiment.
The concept of the EU as a supranational institution is relatively new, and many people still do not comprehend the “Primacy of European Union law” principle. The idea behind the principle was to foster a community that shares the same rights and duties, meaning that, in some cases, European laws take precedence over those of an individual country.
Many Europeans do not care much for abstract notions of “rights and duties” however, and see this instead as an infringement of their own country’s sovereignty. It has become the main argument against the EU, put forward by Eurosceptic parties.
In Italy for example, Eurosceptics like Mr. Salvini believe that the Euro is not beneficial for the economy and that Italy should regain total sovereignty by not allowing the EU to have any say in Italian domestic policies. Particularly Germany, which is seen by the Italian far-right parties as a pan-European puppet-master, has become a subject of ire.
A tumultuous year
It has been a year since the populist M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle) and Mr. Salivini’s right-conservative League (Lega) formed a governmental coalition, three months after the Italian General Elections in 2018. M5S won the elections by almost 40 percent, while the League positioned third with 17 percent of the vote which was a big increase in comparison to previous elections. Today, the tables have turned and the League has the highest approval rate around 30 percent.
Both parties adhere to an Eurosceptic, anti-European ideology and populist and anti-immigrant sentiments figure heavily in their propaganda. Despite the similarities between the two parties, the political dynamics in Italy are very unstable as the cannot seem to find common ground on many issues, such the construction of the TAV, a planned high speed-way railway that if finished will connect Lyon and Turin. They also have both been accused of affiliation to criminal organisations, as well as involvement in other financial and political scandals.
Plainly, the coalition is not doing a great job of governing Italy. The economy is stagnating, the public debt is rising, and the rate of youth unemployment is still the second worst in Europe. The problems have reached the point where the government officially had to declare that the country is in recession, and recently took “urgent measures” in order to improve the situation.
Italy’s dire economic position has soured the relationship between the new government and the EU. According to the European Commission, the new Italian Draft Budgetary Plan would increase the country’s deficit and negatively impact future growth, which is already at 0.2 percent, worst in the EU. This could potentially put the economic stability of the entire European Union in danger. Spats over economic issues like these have widened the chasm between Italy and the EU, and provided popular support for Eurosceptics like Mr. Salvini.
The Salvini agenda
Mr. Salvini (or “the Capitan”, as he is known by his supporters) has also expressed his dissatisfaction with the EU’s alleged failure in not assisting Italy with the “immigrant emergency.”
In the last few years, Italy has seen a large increase of refugees, arriving either on foot from Eastern Europe or by boat through the Mediterranean. The way in which the Italian government and the EU have handled the situation has created discontent among the Italian population mostly due to fear of the so-called “Islamisation,” much preached by far-right parties. Salvini has taken advantage of the people’s discontent, making it one of his main propaganda points, only focusing on blocking refugees from entering the country, instead of tackling major problems that Italy has, like youth unemployment and organized crime.
Ironically, the Eurosceptic Salvini has recently decided to create a European party, the “European Alliance of People and Nations” (AEPN). After the European elections, he wants to create a “sovereignist” alliance of Eurosceptics, with the intention of creating a “new Europe”, challenging the European sovereignty over the national constitution, and tightening immigration policies. He has said that he wants “a different Europe that will defend its security, relaunch the economy, the family and the Christian identity of our continent.”
Maybe second time’s the charm for Mr. Salivini. He initially wanted to create an alliance with the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right and biggest party in the Parliament, but EPP group leader, the german Manfred Weber, categorically shut down this possibility saying that “all extremists and nationalists are my enemies.”
However, Salvini is keeping close ties with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is a controversial member of the EPP who was almost kicked out due to his extremely nationalist policies. The Italian and Hungarian prime ministers have similar ideals and political agendas, especially with regards to anti-immigration laws. The two recently met in Budapest to discuss their plans post-European Elections, and visited “the Wall” at the border with Serbia, a barbed-wire fence constructed to stop refugees from entering Hungary “through the Balkan route.”
In addition to his close relationship to Mr. Orban, Salvini is trying to create alliances with other populist right-wing parties around Europe. He has always been close with Marine Le Pen, leader of the French right-wing party Rassemblement National (former Front National), but now he has also received support from Alternative for Germany (AfD-EFDD), Finns Party (PS-ECR), and the Danish People’s Party (O-ECR), These parties are likely to join Salivini’s European Alliance.
At home, he is also likely to receive support from the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), a far-right party where Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, grandnephew of World War Two-era fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, is candidate to become a member of the European Parliament. If elected, he would actually not be the first Mussolini in Brussels; Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra has already served one term, is listed with Forza Italia, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party, and the EPP.
The question that comes to mind however is: how will sovereign nationalist parties be able to form alliances when their main commitment is to their own national interest with few common ideas except tough anti-immigration policies?.
Pro-Europeans still the all-too silent majority
It is obvious that this new wave of populism was influenced by the discontent created by European governance that did not help the sluggish economic growth of many Mediterranean countries, but instead aggravated the situation with its inflexible monetary policy. Similarly, the way that the EU handled the refugee crisis sparked discontent. Countries along the EU’s borders have denied entrance to refugees in violation of the Dublin Regulation, which holds that asylum seekers must present their request in the first EU member country they arrive in, and consequently must stay in said country.
Pro-European parties are also to blame due to their passivity. By only answering to the anti-European parties accusation and not taking actual measure to improve the EU burden sharing, on the refugee policies for example, they have lost credibility and support. This is evident in the Italian case, where according to the polls the League will receive most of the votes for the European elections.
Just as national elections across Europe have tested the resolve of traditional (and more pro-EU) parties for the last decade, the European Parliamentary Elections will be a test of their own durability and the strength in the face new far-right and populist fueled parties.
Looking at the polls, it seems that EPP will remain the biggest group, followed by the Socialist and Democrats (S&D), but will both lose around 25 percent of their seats each that are going to be divided among other parties. If on one side we are living an increase in the supporters of Euroscepticism and far-right ideals, gaining almost 25 percent, on the other the European sentiment and support for pro European parties is getting larger as well. The liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), lead by former Belgian Prime Minister and pro-European Guy Verhofstadt, is going to increase its seats becoming the third most represented party.
This is actually a good news for those who believe in a democratic and sustainable EU, as ALDE promotes a common economic zone, and a more transparent and democratic Union. They will have an important role in countering the Eurosceptic parties in the Parliament.
Even if Mr. Salvini’s goal of renewing the “Rome-Berlin axis” remains distant, it is clear that the campaigns of him and his European, Eurosceptic friends have influenced Europe’s political landscape. On May 26 we will see exactly how much.
In my opinion the answer is already too much, whatever the result.
Eleonora Fasan is a graduate student at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. She to came to Korea all the way from Italy and she is a proud European.