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Vadim Trukhachev: Parliamentary elections in Italy were a shock for the EU

Vadim Trukhachev

The results of the past parliamentary elections in Italy have become a shock for the European Union: the 5-Star Movement, Lega (the League) and Fratelli d'Italia (the Brothers of Italy) have together collected over 50% of the votes and now may form a government. For Russia, this outcome is more than excellent.

Results were the same for both the 630-seat lower house and the 315-seat Senate. Among the favorites was a center-right coalition of conservatives and Eurosceptics and its key rival was a center-left union of social-democrats, liberals and greens.

Today, Italy is not in its best economic shape. Its debt accounts for 132% of its GDP, its economic growth is the lowest in the EU, its unemployment rate is as high as 12% (among youths it is 20%, which is more than average in Europe). Many Italians prefer seeking jobs in Germany and other better-off states.

The problem of the poor south and the rich north is still acute: people in the south continue living due to funds from the richer north. For the EU, the Italian south is also a heavy burden or, to be more precise, a black hole for its money.

The second biggest problem in Italy is the inflow of refugees. Several dozens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa have entered the country annually since 2011. Many of them used Italy as a transit country and moved to France or Austria, but over 200,000 people stayed there. The island of Lampedusa has become a sad symbol of immigration in Italy: there you can see thousands of refugees living in insanitary conditions.

You can find similar camps near Naples or even in the north, near the borders of France and Austria. A country where crime has always been a big problem is now faced with a huge wave of knife rampage, drug trafficking and prostitution. Once a respectable place, the railway station of Milan has become a symbol of insanitation and crime.

Italy is not the best place for immigrants to assimilate: people in the south are very religious and are reluctant to tolerate the newcomers.

Responsible for all these problems since 2013 has been the center-left coalition led by the Democratic Party and comprising social-democrats, Christian socialists, liberals and greens. Its leader, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost in a referendum in Dec 2016 and was forced to resign. His successor Paolo Gentiloni brought no improvement either.

The Democratic Party was an advocate of European integration and was regarded as a pro-Brussels force but it had low chances during the elections. As a result, it polled just 19%, while its coalition received 23%. Its ally, the leftist liberal More Europe, polled just 3% would have not entered into the Italian parliament, had it run alone.

In Toscana, the Democratic Party was the favorite. In Florence, the birthplace of Renzi, the Democrats received over 40% of the votes. In Bologna and Torino, they were also the first, but in Milano, their coalition lost to the rights. Their hope was the intellectual north. But the rest of Italy was not their voter.

One more region where the Democrat-led coalition won was Trentino (South Tyrol, a home to a German-speaking minority). The key force of the region, the South Tyrolean People's Party, was the Democrats’ ally during the elections. The party’s goal is wider autonomy for its region but the key motive of its alliance with the center-left coalition was the South Tyrolese’s fear of growing Italian nationalism.

The Free and Equal party was one more leftist runner. Its leader, President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, and his supporters were even more leftist than the Democrats were and insisted on a more socially-oriented policy with high allowances and high taxes. They polled just 3.4% of the votes and now Grasso will hardly stay in his office.

The triumphant of the elections was the 5-Star Movement, established by comedian Beppe Grillo and now led by Luigi Di Maio. It took 32.7% of the votes. The only problem is that it had no allies during the elections and now may lose the post of prime minister. In any case, it will have a decisive say in the new Cabinet.

The ideology of the 5-Star Movement is a mixture of Euroscepticism and populism. The party advocates return from euro to lira, promises to lower taxes and to raise wages, to fight corruption, to improve the transport system, to clean the streets, to toughen immigrant policies. It also supports legalization of same-sex marriages, but that task was not on the top of the list, so, it did not scare the voters off.

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In Naples, a city suffering from garbage and refugees, the movement polled over 50% of the voters. As a coalition, it was the first in Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Marche, Molise, Sicily, Sardinia, Bari, Palermo, with more than 1/3 of the votes.

As a party, it was the first almost everywhere. In Lazio, Liguria, Piedmont, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, it was the first as a party and the second as a coalition. The same picture could be seen in Rome, where the mayor is the party’s member Virginia Raggi, and in Genova. It was the strongest party in the mostly French Valle d’Aosta but lost to a local coalition of autonomy supporters.

The center-right coalition was the 5-Star Movement’s key rival. It polled 37%. Had the movement polled 3% more, it would have been able to form the new cabinet on its own. Now it will have to negotiate with the rightists. The core of the latter is Forza Italia. This party is less radical than its coalition partners. It advocates tougher migration policy, criticize the EU but are not going to exit.

Its goals are low taxes, freer business, stronger traditions. Its leader is former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But he has no chances to come back into the prime minister office as there is a court verdict prohibiting him for holding public offices till 2019. As a result, the most probable candidate from Forza Italia is Antonio Tajani. But there is a big problem here.

The conservatives have polled just 14% against 17.4% received by Lega, the strongest party of the center-right coalition. Its leader Matteo Salvini (who has repeatedly visited Crimea just like Berlusconi) has specified his party’s program: “We are going to rebuild Italy after Renzi and we have a specific plan for this: to lower taxes, to stop immigration and to oppose Brussels.” The latter means exit from the EU.

Initially, the party embodied the wish of the rich North to be economically autonomous and to keep more money for its own needs. Some members even advocated division of Italy. But under Salvini, the party turned into a typical radical right-wing party, anti-immigrant, similar to the National Front of France and the Freedom Party of Austria. As a result, it prevailed in the north and polled as much as 5% in the south.

It received 1/3 of the votes in Venice, a province that last year voted on whether to stay within Italy or not. In Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, it was the first among parties due to its anti-European, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric.

The key partner of Berlusconi and Salvini was Fratelli d'Italia, who has polled 4%. That force was called the National Alliance in the past and is the direct heir of the Italian Fascists. Some of its slogans quote Mussolini – national traditions, social solidarity – the others advocate Euroscepticism and tough anti-immigrant policies.

For Russia, any outcome would be good. Even the Democratic Party advocates lifting of the sanctions. The same is true for the 5-Star Movement and especially for Forza Italia and Lega. So, we can say that the supporters of good relations with Russia have become even stronger in Italy and now their voice will be lauder in the EU.

For the EU, the outcome of the Italian elections was a shock. The European politicians preferred to keep silence. Only Macron suggested that the Italians were just fed up with immigrants… In reality, they have expressed their extreme displeasure with the EU’s policy: its insufficient economic support and inefficiency in fighting illegal migration. As a result, the Italian Eurosceptics – the 5-Star Movement, Lega and Fratelli d'Italia – have received more than half of their votes. The only time a similar result was ever registered in the EU was in Hungary four years ago…

Now Italy will be watching long coalition talks and the most probable ending will be Di Maio as prime minister and Salvini as foreign minister.

The Italian elections were not the first signal for the EU. In Austria, a radical right-wing Freedom Party has entered the government. In Germany, Eurosceptics have won seats in the Bundestag, in the Netherlands they have received 30% of the votes, in the Czech Republic as much as 70%. None of them are as radical as their Italian counterparts. In Italy, people are more emotional and this is why their Eurosceptics are much tougher. In any case, the EU will have to change something if it wants to avoid the worse.

Vadim Trukhachev, Candidate of Science (History)

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31.05.2018

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