Editor’s Note: Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, who writes and comments on European politics and the far right. The opinions in this article belong to the author. Follow @Andrea_Mammone on Twitter.
As Italy’s election creeps ever closer, it looks increasingly unlikely that any resulting government will be able to slow down the rise of hard-right, anti-EU forces in Italian politics.
This might be why the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said last week that Brussels must prepare for a “non-operative” government to run Italy after the elections – which he described as being the “worst scenario.”
And while he is right that Italy’s election could cause instability that would have a damaging effect on the rest of the eurozone, Juncker is, unfortunately, missing the bigger picture and ignoring the widespread anger directed toward elites in Belgium.
Europe’s problems go far deeper than election results making it difficult to form governments. Rather, they go straight to the state of democracy in some European nations.
Italy is currently experiencing its most alarming election campaign in decades. Recent days have reminded us how hatred, xenophobia and right-wing extremism are on the rise.
Almost every day, we see stories of ethnic abuse, gatherings of far-right groups and journalists being targeted by fascist groups such as CasaPound or Forza Nuova. And hard-left activists are being physically attacked by their opponents.
This is naturally generating a response from the more antagonistic movements on the left.
Didn’t fascism end in 1945? The truth is that in Europe – and not just in Italy – fascist ideologies never fully disappeared. They have also been able to survive because of post-war public amnesia.
Since the 1980s, the fascists have adapted to a changing world. They are now able to exploit Europe’s immigration crisis and use it as a flag to rally around. And some of their rhetoric has been legitimized by mainstream politicians, worried about being outflanked on the issue of immigration.
This has led to the rejection of multiculturalism, the expulsion of migrants and the dismantling of supranational institutions being considered reasonable, mainstream policies by some.
Xenophobia and anti-Europeanism have been growing nearly everywhere on the continent. Protests against Muslims, refugees and gays are taking place regularly in multiple European countries, while new laws in Poland have made it illegal to accuse the country of complicity in the Holocaust.
Strange ideas about freedom of speech have combined with social media and spread the appeal of angry identity politics. Italy as a result – along with other European countries – is becoming a polarized nation: us vs them; fascists versus anti-fascists; anti-refugees versus pro-immigrants; euroskeptics versus europhiles.
Italy’s postwar efforts to rewrite its fascist history have created the perfect conditions for its return in 2018.
And the situation today is even worse than in the early 1990s. Decades of “moderate” center-right politics led to Silvio Berlusconi.
His lurches to the right led to the legitimization of the far right and a misinterpretation of its policies. Now, even progressive institutions such as the Fondazione Feltrinelli (named after an anti-fascist activist) find it acceptable to invite French right-wingers like Florian Philippot, a former leading member of the National Front, and Alain De Benoist, a famed ideologue who promotes ideas about identity and ethno-pluralism that are being borrowed by the American alt-right leader Richard Spencer, and many other Western and Eastern European white nationalists to lecture on what the modern right is.
CasaPound and Forza Nuova are invited to TV studios to discuss their ideas on why Italians should come first and how the European Union is a disgrace.
Two of Berlusconi’s present allies – the far-right Brothers of Italy and the Northern League – are using slogans such as “Italy first” and talking about rejecting Islam and refugees.
The electoral manifesto of his center-right coalition clearly states the necessity of a revision of existing EU treaties and aims to give Italy’s constitutional laws pre-eminence over EU legislation. All this is very worrying – these political forces might end up in power after the election.
The great paradox in all of this is that there are still many in Europe’s People Party – the most powerful pan-European political group in Brussels – supporting Berlusconi and considering him a barrier against the rise of populism in Italy.
Do they really believe this is the best way to fight extremism?