Published on: 23 June 2019
The #EuElections2019 seem already in a distant past, with the new political groups now finally in place and ready to shape the 9th mandate of the European Parliament. In the past weeks, in Brussels EU officials celebrated the overall increase in turnout and the containment of the nationalist-populist surge. Still, in more than a few countries, right-wing, nationalist and Eurosceptic parties have scored well in the elections, in particularly Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, in Italy.
Salvini aka “The Captain”
With these elections, Salvini has been able to complete the transformation of “Lega Nord” (a party whose original goal had been the secession of the North of Italy from the southern regions) into “Lega”, a nationalist force capable to garner consensus from North to South of the Italian peninsula. Lega confirmed itself as the first party in Italy, with a whopping 34,33% of the vote compared to a meagre 6,15% in 2014 EU elections.
This transformation has been possible also thanks to the media figure of Matteo Salvini himself. On top of regular appearances on national television shows, Salvini is also managing the most successful political campaigning on Social Media in Italy so far. His direct and, more often than not, provocative style of communication has won sympathies across the centrist and conservative political spectrum, with stronger support coming from peripheries and small urban centres rather than big cities –in Milan, Salvini’s city, Lega got 27,4% against 36% for the centre-left Democratic Party.
On Salvini’s social media profile, the leader’s tirades on EU migration policy and his harsh stances as Minister for Interior on matters of security and NGOs operating in the Mediterranean Sea, coexist with posts on Italian food tasting and self-identification with the average Italian citizen, faithful catholic or even football fan. This image of a leader coming from the Italian people, a “father of the 60 million Italians”, together with Salvini’s extensive tour of Italian cities and his name being on top of Lega’s list of candidates in all five Italian electoral districts, allowed him to become the first preference for more than 2,3 million Italian voters.
Euroscepticism, Euro-Ignorance or Euro-Indifference?
Despite the Euroscepticism that underlines Salvini’s political discourse, however, the impression is that this resounding victory has more to do with the Italian national dimension rather than the European one. Notably, Lega did not publish a proper electoral programme for the #EUelections2019 until very few days ahead of the vote – a strategy similar to Farage’s Brexit party – rather entrusting Salvini himself to explain it on social media. In a short video Salvini first went through the main topics in domestic politics and only then started enumerating the enemies in Brussels: bankers and bureaucrats, responsible for the austerity measures hitting families and entrepreneurs; and the “buonisti”, a buzzword in Italian right-wing discourse used to describe rather generally anybody who criticise Salvini’s stance on migration.
The main message by Salvini is to bring back an EU of the “common sense”, where Italy’s action on border protection and migration policy is taken as example, and where fiscal and budget policy are back in the hands of the “people”. What is not clear is how Lega aims to achieve such transformation of the Union, nor what a “common sense” approach would entail. Aside from simply listing the enemies in Brussels, no reference to EU governance or institutional frameworks was mentioned.
Thinking about Italy as one of the original founders of the European project, the lack of a truly European strategy for the future of the Union amongst the main political parties is striking. Of course, the EU elections are still a pretty national affair, but many Italian voters still do not have a clear view on what the Union can actually do: the respective roles and actual powers of the main EU institutions are blurred in an antagonising pro-EU anti-EU discourse that frames supranational political issues in domestic terms.
Importantly, we should not forget that Italy has been one of the few EU countries experiencing a decrease in turnout in the latest EU elections. More than 21 million Italian voters have not cast their ballot on May 26, on one side signalling a growing disaffection with the current domestic political offer and, on the other, confirming the trend of lowering interest in the Union and its forms of democratic participation. If we consider the main parties’ results in absolute terms, we see Lega getting 19%, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) 12% and the 5Star Movement 9,5% of the total voting population. Even putting all three of them together with the two other parties who made it to the Parliament (Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia), more than 50% of Italian voters are not directly represented by the respectively elected MEPs. Distrust in the political system, both at national and EU level as revealed by ECFR in a pre-electoral analysis, remains a crucial challenge to be tackled.
United at home, divided abroad
While Lega’s grassroots activists may be galvanised by the incredible electoral results and ready to “change Europe”, the party leadership had to quickly adapt to the fragmentation of populist and Eurosceptic forces in the new European Parliament. Following the negative replies from both Orban and Farage, Salvini moved ahead with Marine Le Pen and Germany’s AfD to form Identity and Democracy (ID), a new Eurosceptic group reuniting 73 of the most right-wing MEPs, however failing to get into the top four most numerous parliamentary groups.
ID failed to attract the Eurosceptic PiS from Poland who confirmed it will not join Salvini’s group, mainly due to the too overtly friendly relationship towards Putin’s Russia. Spanish right-wing MEPs from Vox will also not join ID, rather opting for the ECR group led by PiS as well as the Italian nationalists of Fratelli d’Italia. At the end of the day, maybe unsurprisingly for some, finding agreement at EU level amongst nationalist political parties is not an easy task. Besides, Lega’s triumphs at home alone cannot avoid the increasing risk of Italy’s isolation in Brussels.
Back to what we do best
It should not come as a surprise that, right after the electoral celebrations, Salvini shifted back to domestic politics, where the heavy losses of the Five Stars allowed him to strengthen even more his control on the governing coalition. Despite increasing tensions in Rome, Salvini has been able to walk the fine line of pressuring the 5Stars while avoiding a breakdown of the governing coalition. Besides, the timing of the latest EU Commission’s European Semester recommendations on Italy’s budget could not have been better.
Sticking to a well oiled strategy, Salvini can now revamp his Eurosceptic narrative against the bureaucrats in Brussels and the austerity measures implemented in the past, defending the right of the Italian government to implement its own preferred economic recipe. Nothing better than a warning from the EU Commission to downplay hot political issues at home. Sadly, what will happen in the European Parliament will likely remain a relatively uninteresting topic for most of Lega’s electorate across Italy.