Italy after the European Parliament Elections: the Populists prevail

Italy after the European Parliament Elections: the Populists prevail

Despite gains in France, the UK and other nations, Italy remains the sole EU member state to have a populist governing coalition after the EU Parliament elections. What does this mean for the future of Italy-Brussels relations and key policy debates likely to emerge in the next session?

Election results in Italy

The European Parliament elections saw gains for the new Brexit Party in the UK and National Rally in France, while in Italy, the League and 5-Star Movement remain on top. The League further cemented its grip on power by winning more seats than the 5-Star Movement, making Matteo Salvini, the current Deputy Prime Minister, the likely kingmaker in Italian politics. The former separatist party from the north is now the largest party in Italy and the second largest national party in the European Parliament, with 28 seats. This places the League at the same level with Angela Merkel’s CDU, and only behind Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party with 29 seats.

Salvini may choose to discontinue the alliance with 5-Star, or he may choose to align more closely with the center-right parties Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy. A right-wing alliance with established political parties could be more ideologically aligned, as well as respected in Brussels and other capitals. The reduced vote share is a remarkable reversal for the 5-Star Movement, which received 17.1% of the vote (14 seats), essentially swapping places with the League, compared to last year’s elections. 5-Star does maintain a strong base of support in the south of the country and their direct democracy and grassroots movement is unlikely to go away at this time.

Italy’s Future With Brussels

Salvini has not hidden his disdain for Brussels in the past and he has been willing to buck the trend on immigration policy and relations with Russia, tying Italy more closely to the Visegrad Four (Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia) than the EU’s founding members such as France and the Benelux states. The rift between Salvini and the EU is likely to continue now that he is in a position of greater power and arguably the most influential populist leader in Europe.

Populists such as Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen in France are increasingly viewing the EU as a means to advance their respective agendas as opposed to holding referendums on membership in the bloc. Salvini, for instance, is keen to reform the EU’s budgetary rules as well as its migration policy, and he is now in a far greater position to do so. While the EU leadership does not yet reflect the views of Salvini and Le Pen, their messages are much more amplified from within, especially now that the League and Brexit Party are two of the largest contingents in parliament. As a founding member of the EU, Italy under Salvini will likely continue to play a dominant role, but one that goes against some of its founding principles.

Italian political parties usually align with either of the two largest European Parliament groupings, the European Popular Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The League and most Italian MEPs will not belong to either group, which risks limiting their influence in Parliament. However, Salvini may not view this as an obstacle. His views may not be popular in Brussels, but they are popular with the voters, where it matters most.

What lies ahead for Salvini’s government?

Italian politics are often fractious and the nation has seen many short-lived governments in recent years. It is hard to estimate how long the coalition government between the League and 5 Star will last, but it will likely be personality and ideologically driven with Salvini at the helm. The key policy areas of finance and immigration will remain front and center for both the purpose of maintaining a coalition government, and the coalition government’s approach on these topics will determine how it is received in Brussels. Salvini is under no pressure to alter his stance on these issues after the election, and Italy will once again face strong rebukes from France and Germany on sensitive areas that threaten European stability. In true populist form, however, Salvini embraces being viewed as a spoiler and troublemaker in the halls of the European Parliament.

In this sense, Salvini is similar to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Both leaders accept their exclusion from mainstream European ideologies and take comfort in the fact that their political and ideological movements will likely outlast them as individual leaders. As the populist in power, not in opposition, Salvini is in a unique position to influence policy in Brussels while simultaneously playing the outsider card and silently influencing smaller political parties across the continent. Whether or not the coalition between the League and 5 Star stands, the cross-pollination of non-ideological populism will likely survive and continue to affect other member states.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.