Italy and the EP elections

Opinion piece (Clingendael)
26 April 2019

The European Parliament elections will be a crucial test for all political forces in Italy, and could accelerate the end of the uncomfortable coalition between the right-wing anti-immigration League, and the populist Five Star Movement (5S). Italian political parties are campaigning on the upcoming European election in large part by emphasizing domestic issues: the economy, austerity, and immigration. However, a European dimension is also clearly visible: all parties are using European themes to appeal to voters and reinforce their domestic political agendas. All political forces are critical of the EU’s current governance, especially of Eurozone rules, and call for an EU that shows Italy greater solidarity, prioritizes growth, and is less technocratic. The key split is between parties who are in favor of further integration, and parties who emphasize rolling back integration.

The League is at the head of the second camp, and the elections are a chance to affirm its new dominance of Italian politics. To broaden its appeal, the League has replaced sharp criticism of the EU and the Euro with calls for reform of both from within, while at the same time maintaining a strongly critical stance towards the Union’s existing structure and policies. This stance is more attuned to Italian public opinion, which remains broadly supportive of the EU itself. The League’s campaign has been defined by its trademark issues: opposition to immigration, law and order, and lower taxes. At the European level this agenda merges with opposition to Brussels bureaucracy, to increasing supranationalism, and to austerity policies. Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, has also emphasized his links to the broader European right-wing populist wave that aims to defend ‘traditional European values’ and roll back supranational integration. This strategy aims to present him as the leader of an incipient pan-European alliance that has a genuine chance of performing well enough in the election to trigger fundamental change in the way the EU is run.

Whereas the League campaigns from a position of strength, polls suggest that the 5S has lost much support. Its campaign aims largely at regaining lost voters, especially by addressing the discontent of its left-leaning base. In domestic terms, the 5S has highlighted its success in implementing electoral promises such as a universal citizens’ income, and to distance itself from the League’s anti-migrant stance by portraying itself as more humane. It has also sought to portray itself as more pro-European than the League, and openly criticized its attempt to strike alliances with right-wing nationalist forces across the EU. The 5S has also toned down its criticism of mainstream European leaders such as Merkel, and especially Macron. And its campaign has emphasized themes close to its traditional agenda, such as greater powers for the European Parliament, the green economy, and workers’ rights.

Even though they are in coalition, the League and the Five Star are campaigning against each other. The two parties are at loggerheads over a range of issues, from fiscal and economic priorities to their stance towards migration, foreign policy, and major infrastructure projects such as the planned Turin-Lyon high speed rail link.

The main opposition is the centre -left Democratic Party, leading an alliance of smaller left and centrist parties on a pro-European, but not uncritical manifesto. The Democrats need to win back former voters after their very poor performance in the 2018 election. They have run a campaign focused on interlinked domestic and EU-wide themes designed to appeal to traditional supporters and convinced pro-Europeans. They have strongly criticized the government’s management of the economy, which is now in recession, and have condemned its stance toward migration and integration, particularly its efforts to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean by denying boats permission to dock in Italy. The Democrats have also drawn on broader European themes to position themselves as the defenders of pro-EU sentiment in Italy. The need for a shift away from austerity towards more growth and solidarity in the Eurozone is perhaps the most prominent theme. But the Democrats have also sought to frame the election as a pan-European contest between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptic nationalists, referring to the need of halting the spread of nationalist-populism in Europe by cooperating with all pro-EU parties from Tsipras to Macron. 

The centre-right opposition Forza Italia, with Silvio Berlusconi as lead candidate, is also running on a moderately pro-European platform. Since the 2018 election, the party has been highly critical of the Five Star, but generally abstained from criticizing the League, as it aims to ideally govern with it. The party has lost much support, and the European elections present a chance to arrest this decline. Its manifesto includes a smattering of proposals such as increasing the powers of the European Parliament and moving towards a common foreign and security policy. The party has sought to place the European dimension at the centre of its campaign, giving outgoing European Parliament President Tajani a prominent role. Forza Italia has emphasized its EPP affiliation, arguing that only it can guarantee a strong Italian voice in Europe’s most powerful political family.

The elections are likely to redefine the internal balance within the government. The League’s share of the vote is projected to increase from 17 per cent at the last election to well over 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the vote share of the Five Star is expected to decrease from 32 to around 20 per cent. This outcome would undermine the coalition. The Five Star will be faced with the choice of giving the League the role of senior partner in the coalition, and risk losing further support, or returning to the opposition to regroup. In many ways, the coalition suits the League well, as it can blame the Five Star whenever it wants to. However, if the League affirms itself as Italy’s leading political force, it is likely that Salvini will be increasingly tempted to pull the plug on the government, and try to secure a majority with centre-right allies in new elections.


Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.