Italy versus the EU as populists take power

In the Italian corner: Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio and the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini.

Are the EU’s days numbered? Italy’s new eurosceptic coalition government has been sworn in, ending months of deadlock. But some are saying that Italy is just the start of the EU’s problems.

Three months ago today, Italians voted in a general election that sent shockwaves across Europe.The results were a rejection of the European Union, and of the austerity economics and liberal internationalism it represents.

The winners were both similar and different. In first was the hard-right, anti-immigration Northern League, while in second was the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

The two parties attempted to cobble together a coalition. Early last week it seemed their agreement had been scuppered.

The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, rejected the appointment of Paolo Savona, a eurosceptic, as finance minister. It is almost certain that his decision was made under pressure from the EU’s top brass.

One of them, Gunther Oettinger, predicted that “developments in Italy’s markets, bonds and economy will become so far-reaching that it might become a signal to voters after all to not vote for populists on the right and left.”

To eurosceptics, this was proof that the EU only respects democracy when the public vote “the right way” — i.e. in favour of the EU. Even Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, tweeted: “To all EU institutions: please respect the voters.”

Finally, at the weekend, the deadlock was broken and a new pro-euro finance minister was appointed.

The EU is facing its greatest existential crisis since 2012 when financial meltdown threatened the eurozone’s collapse.

The challenges are different, but they have common roots in a growing disenchantment with the mainstream politics.

This weekend, Spain experienced a political earthquake as its prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, resigned. Anti-establishment parties there are on the rise.

Then there are Poland and Hungary, whose economies are in better shape than Italy’s and Spain’s, but who are at war with the EU over a much deeper values divide. Hungary’s prime minister promotes what he calls “illiberal democracy”, and both countries rejected plans for quotas of migrants, prompting the European Commission to bring legal action.

Can the EU survive?

See EU later

The EU’s days are numbered, say some. People in Europe are continually voting against more power for the EU, while Brussels’s only response is to press ahead with more integration and more internationalist values. That cannot be sustainable. Britain has already voted to leave. Italy may well be next. Then the whole thing will come crashing down.

Calm down, reply others. The EU has been through this before. Italian politics has always been volatile. Italy is far less integral to the EU’s survival than France or Germany. The EU is built to survive, and the more power it accrues, the harder it will become to destroy.

You Decide

  1. Will the EU exist in 20 years’ time?
  2. Do you want the EU to exist in 20 years’ time?


  1. Write down your own definition for the term “populist”. Do you think it is a useful word?
  2. Design a timeline of the rise of populist parties in Europe over the last decade.

Some People Say...

“Political amateurs are conquering the world.”

Beppe Grillo, founder of the Five Star Movement

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
After months of negotiations following an inconclusive general election, Italy has finally formed its new government. The prime minister is Giuseppe Conte, but the men with the real power are the leaders of the two biggest parties and now the two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini. The government is the most eurosceptic ever seen in a major Western European country.
What do we not know?
How long this new government will last. The country’s politics are unstable. It has had 10 prime ministers since the turn of the millennium with only Silvio Berlusconi lasting for more than two years. We also do not know whether the EU could survive if important members like Italy were to leave, or whether Italy’s eurosceptic parties would ever follow through on their plans.

Word Watch

Northern League
The Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, is now Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister. He has immediately begun plans to curb immigration to the country. At the weekend he told illegal immigrants that “the good times are over” and that it is time to “pack your bags”.
Five Star Movement
Founded by comedian turned political activist Beppe Grillo, Five Star famously crowdsourced its policies on the internet at one time.
Italian president
The role is largely ceremonial. The Italian president’s main job is to ensure that the country’s constitution is not violated. The constitution states that nearly all presidential acts must also be signed by a member of the government (usually the prime minister).
Paolo Savona
Savona once suggested that Italy should find a way to leave the eurozone. He has now been given the job of minister to the European Union.
Eurozone’s collapse
In 2012, four countries, known as the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece), all found themselves in enormous debt with failing banks and massive budget deficits.


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