Far right’s victory in Italy the latest blow to EU’s legacy of tolerance and liberalism

September 30, 2022 GMT

Europe’s political elites think they knows best, much to the anger of their own populace. For decades, leaders across the European Union have not been listening.

As ordinary citizens suffer the consequences of leaders’ failures to address people’s basic needs, an old and ominous element has been waiting to profit ” Europe’s far right. Frighteningly for anyone familiar with Europe’s fascist past, the far right’s time might have come again.

Far-right parties have consistently maintained modest support across the continent for decades, garnering 5 to 10 per cent of the national vote even during times of stability and prosperity. But, as social and economic conditions have complicated and worsened, their stock has grown. And now Italy ” where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once ruled ” has returned power to the far right in the guise of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

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EU leaders have not heeded numerous warnings. They have continued to push for EU federalism ” profound political, economic and even military unity ” despite opinion polls showing significant public opposition and it being one of the key reasons behind Brexit.

They have failed to address the Schengen agreement ” which guarantees free and borderless movement within the EU ” more than a decade after the migration crisis began. They ignored the warning from Greece in 2012 when, following national economic collapse, voters turned against the establishment.

French citizens have also been voting in large numbers for anyone but the staid, usual suspects. This resulted in the election of an independent in Emmanuel Macron as president in 2017, and he has the far right hot on his heels.

In Britain, where the national electoral system makes it impossible for smaller parties to make significant breakthroughs, xenophobia and anti-Brussels sentiment were instead channelled into successfully pushing for Brexit.

A politics of intolerance is now the norm across the EU, but how far to the right is this far right? Some of these parties are more pseudo-fascist than neo-fascist ” moderate on some issues but extreme right on one or two others ” while others have fascist pasts they claim to reject.

European voters know their history and most shy away from the openly fascist, but they also want new politicians who will take new stances to deal with old yet unresolved problems. Italian experts I have spoken to say Meloni is a political pragmatist determined to separate her party from its fascist roots, thus explaining how she came from the political wilderness to be Italy’s next leader.

But while Meloni is keeping Italy in the EU, she is a devout Eurosceptic. She will join Hungary and Poland in wishing to profoundly change the EU’s stance on pressing issues such as migration. However, her EU stance is likely to be careful and strategic, acutely aware of the importance of EU money to the ailing Italian economy, especially the tens of billions in pandemic recovery funds Italy is expected to receive.

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Yet the EU preaches fiscal discipline, which could be an early test of relations between the bloc and the new Italian government. Her tax policies will result in a fall in state revenue, thus putting even more pressure on public finances ” an approach that this week has proved a nightmare to implement for the new British government.

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What is in no doubt is that Meloni’s election represents a profound political and ideological challenge for the EU. Italy is the EU’s third-largest economy and one of its founding members, and the immediate concern is the impact on Italian support for the EU sanctions imposed on Russia.

EU leaders feel short-term economic pain is an acceptable price to pay to defend Ukraine and, by extension, the wider European continent. They believe public sentiment supports this, but the reality is that individual voters will punish politicians who make their lives worse, no matter what the cause.

In the medium term, EU leaders fear the populations of other European states will now believe far-right parties are an acceptable electoral choice again. It is hard to ignore the feeling that this Pandora’s box has been opened.

Meloni’s victory, hot on the heels of the vote in Sweden, which itself followed the strong showing of the far right in France last summer, will only further embolden far-right elements across Europe. The presidential election in Austria ” a country with a shameful Nazi past ” takes place next week amid reports of a large number of “irregular migrants”. Migration has been a key election issue, with many of the leading candidates on the far right.

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Next year, there will be national polls in the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Spain and Switzerland, as well as regional polls across Germany. These will now be watched with bated breath across the rest of Europe.

Since its rise in the 1930s, the European far right has targeted working-class voters, pushing a narrative that liberal democratic institutions are inherently incapable of providing solutions to working people’s day-to-day needs. Europe’s political elite have failed to learn from this, and again it is the political extremes that will benefit from this.

As the Ukraine war rumbles on and its economic effects further harm the financial standing of Europe’s population, many voters could turn to the right of the right. The future of the EU as a bastion of post-World-War-II liberal democracy and tolerance is now in serious jeopardy.

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Hagai M. Segal is a leading authority on geopolitical issues, counterterrorism and the Middle East

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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