With the new Italian coalition, 21st century western Europe will have its first extremist governmentby Steve Bloomfield / May 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Dutch threatened it, the French flirted with it, the Germans might consider it next time. The Italians, though, have taken the plunge: 21st century western Europe has its first extremist government. The deal stuck between the far-right Liga Nord and the screw-them-all populists of the Five Star Movement is a watershed moment for European democracy. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, one of the founding nations of the European Union will be ruled by a coalition that is ideologically opposed to the European project.
The deal, which still needs to be ratified by the parties’ members and signed off by the Italian president, could radically change Italy’s political direction, while also issuing a direct challenge to the way the EU as a whole is run. French president Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are currently at loggerheads over how—or even if—to reform the EU. But at least they are both talking about change because they want the EU to thrive—Italy, meanwhile, will be putting forward proposals that would dramatically limit the union’s strength.
The news will be welcomed in the Kremlin, though. The agreement, finalised today, calls for “openness to Russia” and the end of sanctions. Russia, the parties say, should be perceived not as a threat but as a “significant economic and commercial partner.” The Kremlin, responsible for thousands of deaths in Syria and for propping up a murderous regime, should be “rehabilitated as a strategic interlocutor” in an effort to find a resolution to the Syrian crisis. Europe’s relatively united stance against Russian imperialism is under threat.
Various flavours of right-wing extremism have experienced a dramatic increase in support across western Europe in the decade since the financial crash, from Ukip in Britain to the Front National in France, the Swedish Democrats to Geert Wilders’s party in the Netherlands. In elections elsewhere, traditional mainstream parties have done just about enough to fend them off, even if in the case of the Netherlands and Austria the centre-right parties have aped the language and sometimes the policies of the far-right in order to do so.
In Italy though, they had no such luck. The Five Star Movement, fronted by 31-year-old political newcomer Luigi Di Maio, topped the polls in March, winning almost a third of the vote, a 14-point lead over its nearest rivals. The far-right Liga Nord, which came third, quickly emerged as a potential partner.
We do not have to look far to see the destruction to liberal democracy such a government could wreak—to Italy’s east, Poland and Hungary are already experiencing life as an illiberal democracy. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban has cracked down on independent media organisations and packed the courts with loyalists, while in Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party has taken an axe to the country’s constitution.
The EU has struggled to find a way to deal with the increasingly authoritarian governments in the east, which hardly bodes well for the challenge it will face from Italy. At a time when the EU can no longer rely on its strongest ally, the United States, the very idea of the union is being called into question by a founding member. This is a crisis that will have a far more profound and longer lasting effect on the continent than Brexit.