Few European leaders are as ubiquitous as Italy’s Matteo Salvini. From stand-offs with the European Commission on the Italian budget to closing Italy’s ports to refugees arriving by sea, to helping Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen build a far-right alliance for a Europe of sovereign nations, Salvini is everywhere. And he is almost always at the centre of attention.
Pro-European parties with an international vision must seize the opportunity to create a new narrative.
Yet Salvini is not, technically, the leader of a government. He is deputy prime minister, minister of the interior, and the head of what was, at the outset, the junior partner in a governing coalition. In Italy’s March 2018 national election, Salvini’s League won just 17 per cent of the vote. It was the Five Star Movement that, with 32 percent of the vote, chose the League as its partner in forming a government. However, Salvini has played his cards so well in government that now, three months before the European Parliament election, the League is polling at 33 percent of the vote and the Five Star Movement at 23 percent. As ECFR’s recent report “The 2019 European election: How anti-Europeans plan to wreck Europe and what can be done to stop it” shows, the League is set to become the second-largest national party in the European Parliament (after Germany’s Christian Democratic Union).
And it is not just in the polls that the arrangement benefits Salvini. Judging by the policies and practices of the Italian government that hit the headlines, the League dominates the coalition. This can be seen in the increasing tension between Paris and Rome, with the French ambassador having been withdrawn from Italy earlier this month (he returned after the president of Italy called the French president to emphasise that bilateral relations were important after all). This dispute is rooted in long-standing issues between France and Italy: tensions over their shared border, with the French government preventing migrants travelling northwards through France; and Italy’s of the handling of the intervention in Libya that France instigated in 2011. There is also a personal dimension: French President Emmanuel Macron and Salvini waste no opportunity to publicly criticise each other on their respective approaches to migration management and the EU. However, the simmering row over the French taking less than their fair share of refugee arrivals through EU resettlement schemes was deliberately stoked into a blaze not by Salvini, but by Luigi di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and Italy’s other deputy prime minister, when he publicly blamed French ‘neo-colonialism in Africa’ for heightened migration flows to Europe in recent years.
In the last few weeks, the Franco-Italian row has become distinctly undiplomatic – and far more centred on party politics, with a view to the upcoming European election. And it was again di Maio (with strong support from Salvini) who chose to publicly meet potential candidates from the French gilet jaunes (yellow vests) movement, the French president’s political nemeses. Di Maio portrayed himself as sharing an agenda with the gilet jaunes – who, like the Five Star Movement, claim to speak directly for the people, as grassroots opponents of established politicians. Given that the gilets jaunes have been unable to agree on unifying goals even among themselves, di Maio was taking a huge risk in not only diplomatic but political terms. By aligning himself and his party with the French movement, he effectively aligned his environmentally conscious supporters with the wings of the gilets jaunes that oppose stringent environmental regulations. After all, the movement was sparked by a tax to combat the use of high-emissions fuels. Di Maio appeared to recognise this miscalculation in his subsequent attempts to publicly distance himself from elements of the gilets jaunes, although his comments only explicitly referred the more violent factions of within the movement.
How did we get here? Why would the supposedly senior partner in Italy’s coalition government feel compelled to follow its junior into a confrontation with the president of a large, powerful neighbour? This especially difficult to understand when, in other circumstances, there might have been scope for Macron’s La République En Marche and the Five Star Movement to have focused on their supporters’ common ground – on issues ranging from progressive liberal values to civic engagement.
It is hard not to read this episode as an indicator that di Maio has made a political calculation to go beyond the terms of the coalition agreement, fully jumping into bed with what appears to the ascendant force in European politics: the “anti-” parties. He perhaps sees more advantage in being “against” than being “for” in the current political environment, and is persuaded that it is easier to unite voters by blaming someone else (in this case, Macron and France) than by laying out an effective long-term strategy for tackling national challenges, such as increased levels of migration and high unemployment. Few political leaders are immune to this allure of late – even di Maio’s target, Macron, has partly responded to the gilet jaunes by redirecting their anger towards other enemies, such as large technology companies that do not pay their fair share of taxes. But this is a mistake nevertheless – and a worrying one given the imminent European election. As Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of Go Back to Where You Came from: The Backlash against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, has argued, “the first step in any coherent political project to counter right-wing populists is to reject the fear that fuels their popularity and resist the temptation to adopt their policies.”
In some ways, the instinct to absorb right-wing populism is nothing new for Europe’s leaders. This is the curse of the short-term political cycles in which democracies function: party strategists see only policies that might have a swift impact before the next election as vote-winners. Europe’s political leaders are now staring the European election in the face and panicking. But this is a moment when cool heads are needed: pro-European parties with an international vision must seize the opportunity to create a new narrative. They have to discuss Europe’s long-term interests in a way that makes sense to voters, explaining why the quick victories that anti-parties promise – particularly through turning their backs on international engagement – will cost us all dearly. In doing so, they should focus on the things voters care about most, from collective security to economic growth that works for all. In a deeply interconnected world, these things are only possible through the kind of close inter-state cooperation that is central to the European Union.
There is no doubt that the Franco-Italian row is a sign of things to come after the European Parliament election, in which growing support for domestic anti-European parties, and a larger platform for their views, will affect the behaviour of ministers on the EU Council. Decision-making in intergovernmental areas such as foreign policy will become even tougher in this climate. There may even be some European commissioners of an anti-European persuasion in the next College of Commissioners (due to the fact that the European Parliament must approve the body). Now really is the time to create a new narrative on what a vote for a pro-European party can achieve. By June, it will be too late.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.