Italy Reboots
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
Italy Reboots
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
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ORVIETO, Italy - The gaggle of journalists seen through the cameras of La7 television on Italy’s election night thought for a minute they might be about to see Matteo Salvini take the podium in Milan. The leader of the Lega, suddenly the country’s largest right-wing party, didn’t make his appearance right then, in the small hours of Monday morning. Instead a veteran of the European Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, read a terse, two-minute statement — the first declaration of intent from a party assured mere moments previous of an electoral victory.

“This is a clear signal to all those powers who thought they could keep European peoples in a cage. This is a clear and decisive response,” Fontana said. “And for us it is just the beginning. We think today we have witnessed the beginning of a revolution of common sense.”

Hyperbole in Italian politics is as eternal as Rome itself. But March 4 made clear that change has come to Southern Europe, and that choice of an opening message by the party that will lead a rechristened, nationalist Italian center-right helps frame the nature of the change - and of the challenge set to emanate to the European Union from a country that once was an enthusiastic core supporter of European integration. 

An era of Italian politics ended this week. That was not unexpected, but it is significant.

The immediate wreckage is clear. The political left collapsed, though it remains as the third force in parliament, and thus as a potential kingmaker. The center-right, wrapped up since the early 1990s in the person of Silvio Berlusconi, likewise showed that it is past its electoral expiration date and will now be overhauled by Salvini’s lot. The biggest triumph goes to the post-ideological Five Stars Movement, who would have been granted an outright majority under Italy’s previous electoral system. As it is, Five Stars competed as a single party in a coalition-based system and won over 30 percent of the vote. Contrary to its professed aversion to parliamentary alliances in its more radical earlier days, the party has declared itself essential to any governing coalition. The rise of 5 Stars in this decade is one of the most important and still-evolving stories in European politics.

A few things are less clear, starting with who will govern. No coalition hit the 40-percent threshold required to form a government. Enough has been written elsewhere about the many ways this could play out. In the meantime, Paolo Gentiloni will remain the prime minister.

The more interesting unknowns regard the future of Italy’s electoral politics and its relationship with Europe. The changes appear profound enough that some commentators talk about a Third Republic, while Corriere della Sera director Luciano Fontana describes a new political bipolarism — of which the nationalist right and Five Stars, which picks up from the traditional left, would be the pillars. The new array of forces raises questions about Italy’s relationship to Europe, and also to itself.

A geographical divide

The electoral map tells a clear story. Five Stars took the south — it especially dominated Sicily — and the right-wing coalition took the north. (The center-left Partito Democratico was left with some of its strongholds in Emilia Romagna, and with Tuscany.) This divide in Italy is more significant than the American division between blue and red states. The country since its founding has been defined by the political and cultural distance between the industrializing north and a mezzogiorno plucked from Bourbon (Spanish) domination. The strong impulse toward regionalism and the support for separatism waxes and wanes, but it never does go away. And as impressive as is the M5S’ rise from a movement founded on Meetup-based gatherings and ‘Vaffanculo’-themed events to the slick, professionalized outfit that now leads the country’s largest political force, equally noteworthy is Matteo Salvini’s reconstruction of a party, Lega Nord, that had fallen off the Italian political radar in a mire of scandal. Salvini recast the Lega as a national party, but it cannot be forgotten that what is now the largest party in the Italian right was founded in the late 1980s as a union of movements for autonomy in Italy’s north. A new political dichotomy between a blue north and a yellow south has implications for the future that go beyond who wields control in Rome.

A shocking loss of confidence

Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it best in a piece published before the election:

 “For decades, Italy played a crucial role in building the European Union. For French and German policymakers Europe was a pragmatic means of avoiding conflict through economic integration. But for Italy the European project was civilizational; a matter not so much of the mind but of the heart and soul.

Brussels was the place to create new governance beyond the limits of domestic politics, trapped in the dualism of Christian Democrats and Communists. Europe was the way out.

ECFR’s report on EU cohesion found a remarkable drop in Italy’s performance from 2007 to 2017. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 was a shock to the European system. But Italy turning its back strikes me as more profound. Janning’s assessment is correct. Italian activists propounded not only a vision for a united Europe, but a vision of an eventually federal union. Italy’s disillusionment has happened over a period of years during which Europe has been able to work with a series of Italian prime ministers, from Mario Monti to Paolo Gentiloni, who are as friendly to the EU in its current form as Brussels is likely to find anytime soon.

As I traveled in recent weeks in Italy’s south, I found that Europe was a topic strangely absent from the conversations among incipient voters. If the spectrum runs from that indifference to the undisguised hostility of the Lega in the north, with a supportive but deeply diminished Partito Democratico as the third wheel, it is easy to say that relations between Rome and Brussels are about to take an unpredictable turn. Britain was always ambivalent about the European Union. Once membership was put to a referendum, the result was not entirely shocking. A wayward Italy, on the other hand, is a sign that Europe’s troubles are deeper and more chronic. 

This is democracy

Whether or not the parvenues of Italian politics prove to have any staying power, the message sent by yet another European electorate is stark. Voters backed two major political blocs, and they supported them with conviction. As was the case with the Brexit vote, immigration became the dominant issue in the campaign’s closing weeks, while dissatisfaction with the economy was a constant throughout. Third parties at the fringes of left and right underperformed across the board despite ample media coverage. The victorious political forces have, for now, the support of the voting public.

The shape of the government in Rome has yet to be determined, and could yet be fudged to favor the status quo. But after a series of elections across Europe, a clear pattern emerges: Whether it is Macron’s dominance in France, the overperformance last year of a Corbyn-led Labour in the United Kingdom, or the Alternative for Germany, new parties and new formulations of old ideas are winning greater consensus everywhere. Brussels might not like what the deputies of Luigi Di Maio or Matteo Salvini have to say, but they would do well to recalibrate their own approach.