The upcoming European Parliament elections in Italy will be a key test for the Five Star Movement and the League as they approach their first year in power. Vincent Della Sala writes that the contest is set to be highly significant not only for Italian domestic politics, but also for Italy’s role in the EU.

For observers of Italian and European politics, the 2014 European Parliament elections must seem like they happened in another lifetime. Even though that Parliament is still sitting, it is easy to forget that Italy’s Partito Democratico (PD) has the largest delegation of MEPs in the Socialist group, thanks to having secured over 40% of the vote five years ago. Matteo Renzi, Prime Minister and party leader at the time, translated that result into claims that Italy was ready to assume a central role in defining the EU’s political and policy future.

As Italians head to the polls for the May 2019 European elections, Renzi is no longer head of the PD and the party is polling at less than half of its 2014 numbers. Italy’s government is a coalition of two parties, one that sits with UKIP in the current European Parliament and the other with Marine Le Pen. Not only is Italy not playing a leading role in EU debates, it is increasingly isolated from other member states and is seen as a part of the problem rather than the solution to the EU’s many challenges.

This major transformation in one of the founding member states and in one of the EU’s largest economies forms the backdrop to the 2019 European elections in Italy. Attention turned to the elections almost immediately after the formation of a new government in June 2018. The two governing parties, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and the Lega, have taken strong positions against not only specific EU policies (such as the single currency and the Fiscal Compact) but many of the core principles of European integration. The elections in Italy are seen as a barometer reading of the state of populist and anti-EU sentiment more broadly throughout the Union; and they are viewed domestically as a test to see whether the coalition can continue to govern. It promises to be, then, both a truly European election but also one that reflects underlying domestic political tensions.

How did we get here?

Even by Italian standards, Italian domestic politics in the last five years has been eventful. Three sets of developments are important to help us understand the 2019 European elections in Italy. First, the centre-left’s collapsing vote, and especially that of the PD, was as unexpected as it was impressive. Its position coming out of the 2014 EP election seemed unassailable. It had run a successful, albeit muted, campaign in support of Italy’s role in the EU, quelling the rising M5S tide. It continued to see the centre-right coalition of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and its junior partner, the Lega, as its principal but severely weakened rival. Berlusconi was sidelined from active participation in politics because of criminal proceedings and the Lega was still primarily a regional party with limited appeal outside of its base in Lombardy and the Veneto.

However, Renzi antagonised a large part of the party base and perhaps had miscalculated the extent to which his own direct appeal to voters could compensate for a deeply divided party. His pursuit of (probably necessary) structural economic reforms in the midst of seemingly endless economic stagnation did not help. He further divided his party and the centre-left by pursuing a major constitutional reform that was defeated in a referendum; and then by remaining as party leader after vowing to leave politics if the reforms were defeated.

Credit: Dmitry Dzhus (CC BY 2.0)

Second, the centre-right coalition that had anchored the other half of the political spectrum for nearly two decades has also gone through major changes since 2014, changes that only became evident in the March 2018 elections. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia has ceased to be the senior partner and the Lega, under Matteo Salvini, has emerged not only as the major party on the right but, if current polls are correct, the largest party in the country. The Lega’s gains have come by appealing to the right, but it still needs what is left of Forza Italia and Berlusconi’s support. Salvini has made much of success in six regional government election results in the last year but the Lega has required Forza Italia’s support in each one of those contests. The confusing picture of the centre-right, then, includes: the Lega governing with the M5S at the national level, with Forza Italia in fierce opposition; the Lega campaigning and governing as part of a centre-right coalition with FI at the regional level; centre-right parties campaigning on their own in the European Parliament elections and likely to end up in different political groups in the new parliament. Moreover, Forza Italia’s electoral decline will also weaken the European People’s Party.

As parties have become consumed by dynamics within the centre-left and centre-right, they have increasingly portrayed the EU as the source of Italy’s major policy and political problems. Both centre-left governments in the last five years, led by Renzi and then Paolo Gentiloni, while supportive of Italy’s traditional position on the EU, consistently attacked the Commission for not being flexible on the question of public finances and the other member states for not providing solidarity in addressing the flow of migrants. The result is that there was, and still is, no major political leader, with the exception of the supra partes President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, that can make a credible case for the EU being central to Italian political life and Italy being a central player in the EU.

Third, the previous EP elections generated a great deal of debate and interest as an upstart anti-establishment party, the M5S had threatened to emerge as the largest Italian party, something it did in national elections in 2018. It represents another important piece of the picture heading into the elections. Its position on the EU is far from clear. It has a history of attacking the single currency and the EU “establishment”. At the same time, its current leader, Luigi Di Maio, has repeatedly said that Europe is Italy’s “home” and that the party simply wants a different Europe. To say that it has no clear position is putting it mildly, and its lack of direction is evidenced by a thus far unsuccessful search for allied parties in other member states. There were reports that it had flirted with the idea of joining a centrist group led by French President Macron’s En Marche, but it has also seen its leaders fly to France to stand besides leaders of the yellow vest protests. The experience in government has led to a decline in support but it continues to be a force to be reckoned with and one that will not only shape electoral results in Italy but also the map of political groups in the new European Parliament.

A European election?

In many ways, the current campaign for the European elections is just a continuation of the national elections from last March and the series of regional elections since, suggesting that this is going to be another second order contest. While there is no doubt that the election results will be of crucial importance for the current government’s future and for party dynamics, it is also an election where the EU and the future direction of European integration will be an important part of the story for a number of reasons.

First, despite drastically reduced numbers of arrivals, immigration will be a major issue in the campaign and it is one on which all parties have been vociferous in highlighting the lack of solidarity by other member states. Both the Lega and M5S have taken to attacking France and French President Macron for criticising the government’s attempts to close ports to ships carrying migrants, pointing out how its own ports and border crossings have been closed. Rightly or wrongly, immigration is also a European issue in Italian political debates. This despite the glaring contradictions in some of the positions, such as the Lega’s attempt to create a populist alliance with governments that have refused to accept the principle that refugees should be distributed throughout the Union. Parties such as the Lega have been all too happy to exploit immigration as a proxy to attack the EU in a country where support for the Union remains strong.

Second, the Italian economy continues to stagnate and the governing parties have every incentive to shift the blame to Brussels. The government delivered on some of the coalition parties’ expensive electoral promises but still managed to get the Commission to sign off on the 2019 budget. But the bills will have to be paid in the 2020 fiscal year and the governing parties are already blaming “Brussels” for what is likely to be a harsh budget or one that smashes through all of the constraints of the Fiscal Compact. They will campaign on the promise to change EU policy with respect to public finances, allowing member states whose economies do not seem to be growing to use fiscal policy as a remedy.

Third, part of the debate about the election has been about where the parties will sit in the new European Parliament. This is an issue that is of importance not only for domestic politics but also for possible majorities in the Parliament and maybe even for choosing the new Commission President. The Lega’s close association with the extreme right has not hurt it electorally at home but its ambition is to be the head of that political group, supplanting the traditional role assumed by Le Pen. Salvini has campaigned on the claim that he will lead the largest group in the EP and that this will allow him to begin to change the EU.

What can we expect?

There are a number of important questions for Italian and EU politics that may come out of the election. Will the balance of power between the two governing parties shift so dramatically that it will lead to government instability? Can the PD rebound and at least emerge as a credible opposition party? Will the M5S emerge so weakened that Salvini will be forced back into an alliance with Forza Italia at the national level? Will the Lega emerge as the largest party at the head of a formidable populist alliance in the new Parliament?

One question that will not be on the agenda is whether Italy is on the path to a possible exit from the EU in the wake of positive results for populist and Eurosceptic parties. Down from record highs in the not so distant past, Italian support for membership of both the EU and the single currency remains strong. Indeed, none of the leading parties, despite their claims of putting national sovereignty above all else, have leaving the EU as a part of their election campaign. This is not to say that a financial or political event leading to Italy crashing out of the EU will not happen. However, none of the major parties will campaign actively for this outcome and risk alienating a part of the electorate.

The final two months of the election campaign promise to be a tense period for the governing parties as they jockey for position in the elections while trying to settle highly divisive issues. It is likely that the Lega and M5S will ratchet up their anti-EU rhetoric in an attempt to deflect attention away from the government’s immobilism and the stagnant economy as well as to claim to be the true “anti-establishment” party. The PD is likely to continue to pursue the line that EU policies do need to change, especially on immigration, but the way to do it is by being credible and gaining the trust of the other member states, not by seeking confrontation. This is a tactic that is more about clawing back some of its lost support than it is about hope of a major electoral breakthrough. The extent to which the fragmented centre-left can rally behind a united and unifying campaign remains to be seen and may determine whether it surpasses the M5S as the second largest party.

The irony may be that in what will be the most European of European Parliament elections in Italy, one where very distinct positions will be spelled out, the most important consequences will be for domestic politics. At the same time, the election results in Italy could have a significant impact on the relative weight of the different political groups in the European Parliament. Perhaps it is a fitting reminder of how domestic and European politics have become so inexorably linked, even for those parties that stake out anti-EU positions.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Vincent Della Sala – University of Trento
Vincent Della Sala is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Sociology and Social Research and is director of the Jean Monnet Centre at the University of Trento.

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