EU quakes as populists sweep through Italy

Beppe Grillo: The biggest winner was the 5-Star Movement with a third of all votes. © Getty

Now what for the European Union? Italians rejected the EU political establishment yesterday, voting for hard-right and populist forces that ran a campaign fuelled by anti-immigrant anger.

After the migrant crisis of 2015, the Brexit vote of 2016 and success of populist parties in Germany and France in 2017, the technocrats of the European Union could be forgiven for dreading what 2018 had in store for their project.

They were proved right last night as the Italian general election produced a result to send shock waves through the modernist halls of Brussels and Strasbourg.

A rightist alliance including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!) emerged with the biggest bloc of votes, ahead of the anti-system Five Star Movement, which saw its support soar to became Italy’s largest single party.

The Five Star Movement, a party founded by a comedian that crowdsourced its policies on the internet, has a message that is essentially nihilist, capitalising on seething anger among ordinary Italians.

Five Star, however, is unlikely to form a government. That job will probably go to Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance that looks like taking around 37 percent in the upper house Senate, but in a bitter personal defeat for the billionaire media magnate, his Forza Italia party was overtaken by its ally, the far-right, anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League).

Lega Nord is the country’s most eurosceptic party, and speaks out against the mass immigration that Italy has witnessed in the last few years.

“My first words: THANK YOU,” League leader Matteo Salvini tweeted early this morning.

So the familiar reactions begin: the populists have dealt another blow to EU solidarity. Lorenzo Codogno, an Italian EU politician, admitted Brussels is “terrified” of the likely coalition and the inevitable demands for reform.

Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on populism, believes that the elections tell us more about Italy than about the EU. Five Star, for example, is “more a result of political corruption and incompetence in Italy than the representative of a new pan-European phenomenon”, Mudde writes in The Guardian.

Is this really another nail in the EU coffin?

Clowns running the circus

This is a disaster for the EU, say some. Explicitly eurosceptic parties now hold sway. Opinion polls have found that under 60% of Italians supported the retention of the EU status quo. Now those voters have made their voices heard, and there is still no evidence that the EU can adequately address their concerns.

Others argue that Italy’s importance is overrated. The country is far less integral to the bloc than France and Germany. And the eurosceptic parties are already softening their stances: Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio no longer believes it’s the right time to leave the euro. If the EU can survive Brexit, it can survive this minor quake.

You Decide

  1. Will the EU exist in 20 years’ time?
  2. What has caused the surge in support for populist parties in recent years?


  1. Write down your own definition for the term “populist”. Do you think it is a useful word?
  2. Draw a map of Italy illustrating the country’s political and economic divisions.

Some People Say...

“The amateurs are conquering the world because the ‘experts’ destroyed it.”

Beppe Grillo

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The anti-establishment Five Star movement has won the most seats at the Italian election, with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia coming in second. In third were Lega Nord, another anti-EU party, while the centre-left Democratic Party came a poor fourth, echoing similar trends for social democratic parties across Europe.
What do we not know?
What happens next. Without a clear winner, the parties will have to try to cobble together a workable parliamentary majority, although each refused to work with one another in the days leading up to the vote. It is likely, however, that a coalition of Forza Italia and Lega Nord will be formed. The differences between the parties are vast, however, and it remains to be seen how long it could survive.

Word Watch

Beppe Grillo initially studied as an accountant but did not finish university, instead failing into comedy. This — along with his influential blog where he railed against corruption — helped him establish his political views and communicate them to a wide audience.
Crowdsourced its policies on the internet
As an essentially online creation that believes in direct democracy, Five Star first allowed people to vote on its policies in late 2016. This has been copied by several other European parties, including Iceland’s Pirate Party.
Believing in nothing, from Latin nihil.
Lega Nord
As its name suggests, LN was originally formed to advocate the policy of regions in the country’s north having more autonomy. The north of Italy is much richer than the south. Under its current leader Matteo Salvini the party has embraced nationalism and Euroscepticism.
Mass immigration
Italy has been at the front line of Europe’s ongoing migration crisis. The foreign-born population of the country rose to over 5 million in 2016. Berlusconi has pledged to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants.

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