Italy’s election should be a wake up call for the EU

The EU can turn the victory of the populist Five Star Movement into an opportunity for dialogue and transformation.

Italy election 5-star reuters
Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio speaks to supporters in Pomigliano D'Arco, Italy, March 6, 2018 [Ciro De Luca/Reuters]

March 4, 2018, is a date that will go down in European history books. The results of the Italian general elections seem to have marked the absolute victory of nationalist, anti-Europeanist, and anti-establishment parties. Together, they won over 50 percent of the vote. Are we witnessing the definitive end of the European dream? Or is this result of a final wake-up call for the European Union, one of the last opportunities it should not miss?

Certainly, the results, especially seen in a European context, are not reassuring. We are witnessing the gradual spread (in geographical and numerical terms) of nationalist, xenophobic political parties. In the 2016 elections in the Netherlands, the nationalist party of Geert Wilders won 13 percent of the votes, a year later Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front rose to nearly 21 percent in France. Last October, Germany’s AfD won more than 12 percent of the votes, and in Austria, the leader of the conservative-populist party OVP formed an alliance with the far-right FPO. Due to the electoral system in France, Le Pen’s results were put in check by the victory of Emmanuel Macron. In Germany, the grand coalition of CDU, CSU and SPD provided a solution, albeit temporary. But in Italy, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to find such remedies.

In Italy, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) suffered a landmark defeat (exacerbating the overall decrease of social-democrat adherence in Europe); former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi‘s party, which is classified as moderate (oh, beautiful irony!) also ended up losing. The undisputed winners of the election were the so-called populists.

The Five Star Movement received 32 percent of the votes all by itself. The political movement, which was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, is seen as a hodgepodge of different, uncontrollable voices brought together only by anger towards institutions and the dominant system.

Meanwhile, the Lega of Matteo Salvini, a xenophobic and anti-Europeanist party, received over 17 percent of the vote. Salvini entered the election in coalition with Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia as well as the neofascist Fratelli d’Italia, and the three parties together got nearly 36 percent of the vote. While this was a considerable achievement, it was not enough to reach the 40 percent threshold required to govern, set by the new Italian electoral law.

The Lega and the Five Star Movement both boast anti-establishment resentment and aim to “give a voice to the people”. Moreover, certain parts of the Five Star Movement expressed support for exiting the European Union and have shared the anti-immigration stance of the Lega. But, despite these similarities, these two political forces should not be hastily classified along the same lines. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that they will unite to govern together. It is important to emphasise the differences between them, because within these differences there lies a new path, albeit a narrow and risky one, but nonetheless a path that could lead to a constructive shift in Italy, and even in Europe as a whole.

It’s raining, blame Europe!

Looking at the geographical distribution of the seats assigned to each region, one immediately notes that Italy is divided between the north and south. This is an ancient division, even older than the unification of Italy in 1861. As is often lamented of the EU, the process of Italian national unification was also seen as an imposition from above by the powerful elite that did not take popular will into account. From that moment, a certain mistrust has persisted in Italy to this day towards the state and its institutions. They are seen as a corrupt machine driven only by a desire for power, estranged from the interests of the public. In this respect, the ancient popular expression “Piove, governo ladro!” [It’s raining, blame the government!] seems symptomatic. The expression pokes fun at the Italian tendency to blame the government for anything and everything – even rain. Never before has this irony been taken as seriously as it is today, both by the Lega and the Five Star Movement, though in different ways.

The Lega, in fact, was born as a regional movement pushing for the separation of the northern regions of Italy, among the most “industrious” and rich in Europe, from the less developed regions of the south, in which unemployment, mafia, and corruption were, if not more present, at least more visible. The state (“Rome, thief”) was seen as an external element, depriving the north and passing its riches on to the south. To reach its objectives, however, the Lega had to “broaden its horizons”, and instead of looking for independence from the south of Italy, it pointed its finger towards immigrants and refugees. For this reason, the Lega goes hand in hand with its nationalist and xenophobic European cousins, like Le Pen and Wilders. Now the Lega does not blame Rome any more for the rain, but the EU.

The young Five Star Movement was born in 2009 as a party of protest. Its founder, the comic Beppe Grillo, has always pointed his finger at what – for him – are the true parasites of the general population: corrupt politicians and the apparatus of the state. To bridge the gap between institutions and people, the Movement has relied on a form of so-called direct democracy that is, in a sense, visionary and revolutionary – using the web as a means for the expression of the popular will. But, over the years, this presumed form of direct democracy has revealed itself to be far from immune to power games. Despite its leaders’ lack of political experience, the movement has, in the recent elections, conquered nearly all the seats in southern Italy. In doing so, it merged a great portion of formerly left-wing votes with those of other disappointed voters. A big part of the electorate chose to cast a “vote of protest”, devoting themselves to what has become the catalysing force of a hybrid, multiform political category, thirsty for hope and radical change.

Luigi di Maio himself, the 31-year-old leading the Movement, described Five Star as “neither right-wing nor left-wing”. Because of the impossibility of interpreting it using typical political categories, and the accusations against it of political dilettantism, the movement has been a source of fear and worry for both the EU and global financial markets.

Yet it is clear to all that the election results show a need for change. This outcry comes from all sides of the Italian population, reinforced by currents that have come together from all directions and have no intention of being reined in by external dams, constructed hurriedly by political institutions and forces defending the status quo of the reigning system.

European stars and Italian stars

In Italy, distrust in institutions, economic depression, and certainly also the crisis of identity brought by globalisation have come together, and not only in a populist, xenophobic party of the right wing like the Lega. The Italian case has also given birth to the Five Star Movement. Beyond its specific proposals and its highly debatable results, it is destabilising, and appropriately so: its postmodern, post-ideological being, the contradictions of contrasting forces that feed it, joined to the bitter experience and anger of its crude condition, make it a time bomb, capable of exploding at the wrong moment and destroying itself and everything around it. It is up to the institutions, and especially the political parties who will work with them, to try and (finally) enter into a dialogue with those who have felt marginalised and excluded for too long.

An opportunity has been given, not only to Italy but to Europe, to respond promptly to this call. To do so, it will have to put into question and change the system in which it so fiercely believes. But this would allow it not only to remain afloat, but also to stay faithful to the ideal of democracy and, at the same time, to be the guardian of the differences of which it claims to be the proud herald of.

A European answer, a show of openness, has to come, and quickly. Because, as it is important to remember, beyond the Italian exception, in other countries there are no guiding stars, and if discontent will find expression only in far-right, nationalistic forces, the night risks becoming increasingly and tragically darker.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.