Eurosceptic surge: View from Rome

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The Italian electoral campaign for the May European elections sees more than ten parties competing for seats in the European Parliament: the government’s centre-left Democratic Party (DP), Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI), the New Centre-Right (NCD), the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement (5SM), the eurosceptic Lega Nord (LN), the leftish Tsipras List and other minor parties, which won’t enter the EP. 

According to recent opinion polls on Italians’ voting intentions in the next EP elections by the research institute EMG (as of 7 April), only four parties, DP, FI, 5SM and LN, and one coalition are expected to reach the 4 percent threshold needed to gain seats at the EP. 

The party expected to get the most votes is the DP (33.9 percent of Italians declared their intention to vote for the DP, an increase of 0.4 percent in one week). The DP is the only party that clearly promotes Europeanism (the constitution of the "United States of Europe" is included in its programme) and supports the importance of the EU as an economic and political institution. It has the highest levels of trust in the EU among its constituency (54 percent). The party supports a stronger political union, the direct election of the President of the European Commission, and a common foreign and defence European policy. The new PM, Matteo Renzi, follows his predecessor's support for a “United States of Europe” and for a stronger but different Europe as the answer to the current crisis. He promotes renewing the EU by shifting away from austerity towards growth policies. PM Renzi generally favours extending the ECB’s mandate on the model of US Fed and re-calibrating the 3 percent threshold of Deficit/GDP ratio of the stability and growth pact in order to increase public spending, above all at local levels. On 28 February the DP officially joined the Party of European Socialists (PES), the European party which corresponds to the S&D group in the EP, finally overcoming the historic division between the socialist and catholic souls of the party.

The dramatic loss of Berlusconi's party may be due to the lack of strong leadership and the fact that Berlusconi has been barred from running in the European elections.

With regard to the centre-right, former Prime Minister Berlusconi’s party FI seems to be losing ground. According to the EMG survey, the number of FI’s voters decreased by 1.6 percent in just one week, from 22.4 to 20.8 percent. The dramatic loss may be due to the lack of strong leadership and the fact that Berlusconi has been barred from running in the European elections. Without his charismatic captaincy, the party cannot gain votes. In addition, even though FI is aligned with the European Popular Party (EPP), Europe has always been poorly considered in FI political programmes. During the Italian political campaign Berlusconi went as far as to say that Italy needs “less Europe” and that Germany’s decision-making power within the EU should be trimmed. Indeed it was perceived as an anti-Merkel campaign.

Also in the centre-right is the newly-created NCR, which splintered off the centre-right People of Freedom party led by Berlusconi. This party, headed by Interior Minister and Berlusconi apprentice Angelino Alfanom, registered only 3.3 percent support, which is below the threshold to enter into the parliament. It has created an alliance with two other parties and is expected to reach 5.5 percent with them. Similarly, the leftish Tsipras List is expected to perform poorly at the May EP elections. At the time of the presentation of its candidates, the Tsipras List hoped to gain 7 percent of votes, but so far it’s only polling at 3.2 percent of the votes.

Beyond the drop in Berlusconi’s party’s numbers, the most striking data is that the constituency of the two eurosceptic Italian parties, the 5SM and the LN is growing. The latest opinion polls on Italians’ voting intentions shows that the 5SM is polling higher than centre-right Forza Italia. Almost 22 percent of Italians are expected to vote for the anti-establishment movement. Indeed, since the last electoral dispute, the movement has been spreading discontent over the ways in which the common currency binds the Italian economy. However, the 5SM is a truly heterogeneous movement that does not have a clear-cut position on Europe. In fact, at first 5SM’s leader, Beppe Grillo, called for a referendum on Italy’s membership in the eurozone and the abolition of the fiscal compact. He later took milder positions, calling for an alliance among the Mediterranean countries toward a common economic policy and for the exclusion of investments in innovation and development from the 3 percent threshold of the budget deficit. Hence, the position of 5SM within the European political scenario is unclear.  Doubtless, they stand on the side of those who want to change the current European strategy, but they cannot be considered purely eurosceptic due to the diversity of positions. Therefore, the 5SM, in its first time at the EP, will not enter in any big coalition of the EP and it will not ally with other parties.

The LN, which at the last European elections gained nine seats in the EP, has even redesigned its party logo to include the slogan “Basta Euro”

The LN, on the other hand, has a clear anti-euro strategy. They reject the common currency and promote national immigration and security policies. The LN, which at the last European elections gained nine seats in the EP, has even redesigned its party logo to include the slogan “Basta Euro”. Moreover, since early February it has been running an anti-euro electoral tour called the “No Euro Tour” throughout major Italian cities. Matteo Salvini, the party leader, declared that they campaign throughout the national territory as a whole, surprisingly overcoming the ideological fracture between north and south. Such a strategy aims to capitalize on widespread national dislike for the euro. The polls on voting intentions show that support for LN is at 4.3 percent. Although very low (just half of their national election numbers), it is enough to reach the 4 percent threshold needed to enter the EP and to gain 3 to 5 seats. EMG poll also registered a small increase in LN’s polling numbers last week (0.1 percent). Furthermore, LN’s ruthless fight against the euro finds allies in Brussels as well as in the French eurosceptic party Front National led by Marie Le Pen. Even though there is not an official alliance, the leaders of both parties have declared their willingness to cooperate as they share common views on two issues: the abolition of euro and more restrictive national immigration policies.

Overall though, Italy has been so busy in establishing a new government that Parties' programmes for the European elections have not been given much attention. The debate among the elite is more focused on who goes where, who will be the Italian candidate for the Commissioner position and most importantly for which Directorate-General. The people are more interested in whether Matteo Renzi will eventually start implementing the promises he made to Italians than any upcoming EU elections. This creates fertile soil for those who are not in the government coalition to promote slogans against the euro, Europe, and its hegemons.

It is the time to discuss visions, ideas, and programmes for Europe. To discuss how concretely we want to move the old debate of "more or less Europe" towards a "different Europe" debate. It would be the time to run strong, if perhaps desperate, Europe campaign. Instead there is a sense of surrender to the inevitable anti-Europe Union-wide results that will likely see a third of the EP represented by strong eurosceptics.

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