23 April 2019

Last year’s Italian parliamentary elections resulted in a governing coalition between the right-wing anti-immigration League (Lega) Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

This new government has taken a confrontational stance towards the EU on a number of issues, including migration, finance and foreign policy, although in most cases its actions did not go as far as its threats and rhetoric.

It has also made clear that Italy – the EU’s third largest economy if the UK leaves – is not interested in aligning with French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for the future of the EU and the Eurozone. The serious damage in Italo-French relations following a series of conflicts which included France recalling its ambassador to Italy suggests that two of the major European economies will clash in implementing their visions for the post-Brexit EU.

The European Parliament (EP) elections in Italy will partly be seen as a survey of Italians’ attitudes towards the EU. They will also be interpreted as an opportunity for voters to evaluate the work of the government, following a series of regional elections in the last few months – with another three following later this year. The EP elections are likely to mostly mobilise strong supporters and strong critics of the government and the predicted low turnout (around 49%) should be interpreted in this light.

While these elections are also seen as an opportunity for Lega leader, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to pursue his wider domestic and European ambitions, his success in creating a wide Eurosceptic coalition should not be taken for granted.


Salvini’s Lega likely to come out as the main winner

At this stage of the campaign, polls are in favour of Lega, which is set to get at least 31% of the vote (depending on polls), whereas in the last national elections, it won 17.4%. Thanks to the large number of Italian seats, it could even become the second largest individual party in the entire EP, after Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU). In recent months, Lega has been able to reinforce its success and gain a foothold in regional elections in Abruzzo, Sardinia and Basilicata – all previously presided by centre-left coalitions. It also doing well in regional polls in traditionally leftist parts of the country, such as Emilia-Romagna.

Many of Lega’s policies are associated with the political right. They support reinforcing the EU’s external borders and want to “highlight common Christian roots, defend national identity and the supremacy of the Italian constitution over EU law.” The party also opposes EU austerity policies and is sceptical towards the Eurozone and a common EU foreign policy.

In contrast to their coalition partners, support for the M5S has been declining recently. While they won 32.7% of the vote in the 2018 general election, they are currently polling at around 21.5%. Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s party has for now decided not to be affiliated with any existing pan-EU political grouping. Its manifesto is based on policies such as a stronger European Parliament, a new model to manage migration flows, ending austerity and reforming the Dublin Regulation in order to force a uniform distribution of asylum seekers.

The Democratic Party (PD), now led by Nicola Zingaretti, is on track to lose 15 seats with 20% of votes, although it has gained some support since national elections, where it received 18.8%. Its manifesto includes a minimum of 18% company tax in all EU member states, quality majority voting in tax affairs, a EU-wide digital tax and common unemployment benefits.

Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, part of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group, is predicted to lose 5 seats. Running with the slogan “A new Europe,” the party advocates a more united foreign and defence policy, a reform of the Dublin Regulation,  the completion of the Banking Union and a reform of the European Central Bank.

The far-right populist Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), which joined the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in November, is fighting for a “Confederation of Nation States” with greater decision-making at the national level and advocates blocking disembarkation of migrant ships altogether. They are predicted to enter the EP with 4.8% of votes.

Source: Latest European Parliament projections (April 18)

Immigration is not the only issue for Italian voters

Recent surveys and Eurosceptic Lega’s success suggest that Italian voters have relatively negative perceptions of the EU, although a majority still supports continued membership of the euro.

Leaving the EU or the common currency is no longer on the agenda for the major parties, even though some of the Lega’s candidates are anti-euro campaigners. Still, parties will need to address the Italian public’s dissatisfaction with the EU, specifically with economic issues and immigration.

Source: Eurobarometer Autumn 2018

Both governing parties continue to play on these sentiments in their rhetoric, with Lega focusing on immigration and the M5S on economic and financial matters. Each claim to be the real defender of Italians in Europe, which intensifies the tensions within the coalition.

It would be an exaggeration to call either party ‘anti-EU’, as they seek not to withdraw from the EU institutions, but portray themselves as the agents of change in the EU. For now, Salvini seems to be more successful in mobilising the electorate and strengthening his domestic and European platforms.


Will Lega manage to lead a new populist alliance in the EP?

Salvini is seeking to capitalise on his domestic popularity by establishing a new ‘sovereign’ bloc of Eurosceptic parties in the EP, with the ultimate goal of having a common candidate for the position of Commission President.

He launched his campaign on 8 April in Milan, along with leaders of populist parties from Germany (Alternative for Germany or AfD), Denmark (Danish People’s Party) and Finland (Finns Party). The three main points in this group’s manifesto are:

  • Devolution of power from Brussels to member states;
  • Reinforcement of EU external borders and stopping migrants entering the EU from outside Europe;
  • Protection for Europe’s cultural identity.

A larger rally is due to take place in Rome on 18 May, where Salvini plans to “invite all the European movements that are alternatives to the rule of the Socialists [and Democrats group] and the EPP of recent years.”

Whether he will manage to unite these parties under one umbrella remains one of the crucial questions of this year’s EP elections. These parties have diverging opinions on topics including the distribution of asylum seekers, allocation of the EU’s long-term budget, and relations with Russia.

For now, the ruling Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party is sceptical about leaving the ECR group, although it can still decide to change affiliations later. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is staying in the EPP despite being suspended, while Spanish right-wing party Vox is reluctant to join Salvini’s group.

Even the AfD’s spokesman, Joerg Meuthen, admitted there were several divergences among Eurosceptic parties, saying, “We cannot agree on everything. We will talk about it and find compromises.”

Salvini’s plans for the EP might not be a game-changer for the European institutions, but he could certainly use his success in these elections for domestic purposes. There is speculation that Salvini might trigger a national election in the summer, although he denies having plans to bring down the government.

Italy’s own government is a good example of how populist alliances can be fragile. Increasing disagreements and even infighting between the coalition partners on a variety of issues as well as open clashes between Salvini and M5S officials demonstrate how this type of cooperation can be internally weak and not necessarily durable. The consolidation of Lega’s popularity in the EP elections is likely to shift the balance domestically and make those intra-coalition divisions even stronger.