Editor’s Note: Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London, who writes on European politics and the far right. Federico Finchelstein is professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. The opinions in this article belong to the authors.
Italy is set to create its most anti-establishment government since the end of fascism in 1945.
The Five Star Movement’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League met with Italy’s President, Sergio Mattarella, and put forward Giuseppe Conte – a law professor with no political experience – as their proposed candidate for prime minister.
The formation of a new cabinet under Conte’s leadership could take a while yet, but one thing is sure: Italy – and the rest of Europe – is a long way from stemming the anti-establishment surge that’s been plaguing the continent in recent years.
Some pundits believe that the “modern barbarians” are literally at the gate of Rome.
What they probably mean is that a new coalition, composed of xenophobic populists, demagogues and the far right, could damage the European Union – or worse, blow up Europe at large.
A leaked document suggested that the new government was considering Italy’s potential exit from the eurozone, requesting that the European Central Bank cancel 250 billion euros in Italian public debt and softening sanctions on Russia.
The ramifications of Trump-like politics coming from Italy are now obvious to everyone.
EU officials and the French economic minister have expressed concern about this new government, which, ironically, only strengthens the populists’ message that what Italy really needs is a government that stands up for national sovereignty in the face of declarations from supranational institutions.
For many pundits, this new government represents a radical break with the past.
But, for Italians, none of this is new.
Since the rise of Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s, Italy has been considered a troublesome European state – especially in political and economic terms. Yet, it is still one of the largest economies in the eurozone.
The electoral success of parties like Lega is great news for the anti-EU nationalists.
“I have worked with both of these parties in the European Parliament,” declared an excited Nigel Farage, one of the leading EU doubters in the United Kingdom. “Let me tell you, it will be a much more Euroskeptic government.”
Gerard Batten, the leader of Farage’s old party, the UK Independence Party, echoed: “Let’s hope Italy follows suit with Britain and decides to leave the EU.”
Why is this coalition causing so much concern? First, despite Berlusconi being out of the game, some Five Star activists fear that he is still pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Second, Five Star, a populist movement, would take the leading role in the Government. More so than other anti-establishment movements in Europe, Five Star is an amalgamation of the left and the right.
Over the years, it has tilted to the right, taking on some of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant positions of the League and other far-right parties.
The main question is this: Once in government, will Five Star turn further to the right?
While this new Italy is unlikely to become as illiberal and authoritarian as other EU member states (think Hungary and Poland), it will probably start to look something like Austria: This will probably mean implementing tough anti-immigrant policies while maintaining a façade of democratic normality.
History shows that once in power, populists do not leave their authoritarian ideas behind them. Instead, once in office, they take everything up a gear, leading to further polarization. If this happens, Italy and Europe will start to look increasingly like Trump’s America.
Whatever direction the new Italian government takes, it is evident that this new alliance will be another burden for the EU.
To date, no one has proposed a solution to the current of anti-EU nationalism among the populations of its member states. When European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber warns Italians about the dangers of populism, he forgets that his Brussels-based group hosts Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Polish nationalists.
In Italy, many people feel betrayed by an EU of political elites that treats citizens as variables and objects.
Southern Europeans feel alone when it comes to dealing with unemployment and the refugees crisis.
“The days of the European Union are limited: It will take five or 10 years, but they are limited,” Farage claimed.
If the EU refuses to change, if it refuses to listen to the concerns of its citizens, Farage could be proved correct.