Europe (and immigration) among the new Eurosceptics in the 2018 Italian elections

Populist ‘elites vs the people’ narratives are playing upon rising Euroscepticism and concerns about immigration

Recent comment pieces and public opinion data address the increasing dissatisfaction with the European Union (EU) among Italian citizens. Although Italy has always been presented and is well known as one of the most Euro-enthusiast countries, levels of public Euroscepticism have started to increase since the first wave of the economic crisis. This contribution examines the rise of public Euroscepticism and addresses the most salient issues among Italian voters, how these are being addressed by some political parties and to what extent they can also explain current attitudes both towards the domestic situation and the EU.

In an analysis on the European Parliament (EP) elections Fabio Serricchio observes that, in Italy, enthusiasm towards the EU has been smoothly declining. Although participation at the European Parliament (EP) elections is still high (65 per cent) compared to the EU average turnout is high only within a synchronic perspective, whilst a comparison to the first EP elections in 1979 shows a drop in turnout of about 20 per cent. This overlaps with more political and social domestic controversial debates, and the emergence of soft Euroscepticism at the elite level, where extreme positions have been taken to support withdrawal from the Eurozone and hard opposition towards the main policy pillars of the EU.

Domestic contestation has increased the salience of Europe, with political actors pointing to the ‘total failure’ of the EU. Withdrawal from the EU is not an option being put forward by any official political party in Italy, and the Movimento 5 stelle (Five Star Movement – M5s) candidate Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio stresses that leaving the EU would be just a ‘last resort’. The party stance reveals a new form of opposition that is becoming more widespread across Europe, not just among civil society, and has been defined by John FitzGibbon as ‘Euroalternativism’. This represents a pro-systemic (critical) opposition to Europe that would suggest alternative policies and institutional reforms, while still supporting EU membership. In the case of the M5s, currently forecast to receive the most votes on March 4th, it generally refers to the social costs of the Eurozone and the much salient issue of immigration from North Africa. Luigi Di Maio’s campaign has identified, similarly to Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, that the most salient issues across the electorate are immigration, disengagement with politics and Euroalternativism.

Although the data in Table 1 is from 2013, an overview of the views of all Italian and M5s voters can still be telling. Italians and M5s voters are no longer particularly positive towards EU membership, while the M5s electorate tends to think that people elected in Parliament quickly lose touch and parties tend to be interested in people’s votes, not their opinions, possibly showing higher levels of distrust towards the Parliament and political elites.

Further, both M5s voters and average Italian voters tend to see immigration as a resource. Overall, a descriptive overview of the positioning of the Italian voter vs. the M5s electorate does not see much variation on environmentalism and both electorates are not likely to take a strong stance on whether immigrants should adapt to the Italian customs. Conversely, economic paternalism and distrust for parties and institutions, with increasingly contested debates about rising employment rates and flows of immigration are currently shifting the political narrative on security, but also on welfare and the job market, and these are likely to represent salient issues, in particular for M5s voters.

Figure 1. Most salient issues (EB88 2017)

Looking at a similar question and addressing the salient issues at both the EU and national levels, data in Figure 1 from 2017 shows that immigration and terrorism are salient issues at the EU level. At the national level, more than immigration, Italians are most concerned with unemployment. Immigration is the second most salient issue, while the overall economic situation and pensions further show the extent of concerns about the economy within Italian public opinion.

Issue of identity and the economy also featured in a previous analysis I conducted with Fabio Serricchio, where we found that support for the EU in Italy is strongly determined by identity. The identity dimension is relative to (i) an individual’s experience of Europe – and answering questions on respecting national law and institutions, mastering one of the official languages, and exercise of citizens’ rights, like being active in the politics of any country – and further determinant factors are represented by (ii) their trust towards Europeans and the idea that (iii) Europe benefits people like them.

To go back to our initial questions, on attitudes towards both the domestic situation and the EU, and how the most salient issues for voters are addressed in the political debates, the analysis demonstrates that a campaign based solely around immigration is not likely to be fully successful, but that attitudes about immigration can be reinforced by an ‘elites vs. the people’ debate, as both the Lega and M5s are currently pursuing. This narrative has also been adopted by Silvio Berlusconi, who points to the relaxed attitude of the centre-left towards immigration, and fuels fears and concerns towards security. He has addressed himself as ‘the most Europeanist leader of all, born in-between two World Wars.’, asserting that ‘Europe has secured 70 years of peace and security’, while he points to an alternative idea of Europe, ‘…[that] needs to become less bureaucratic, and more a demoi’s Europe.’ (Interview at Radio Capital, 8th February 2018)

As Prime Minister, Berlusconi influenced a new emerging Euroalternativist or soft Eurosceptic debate, using a confrontational attitude towards the EU, and whilst today he seems to still maintain this tone he does so with a milder attitude. Europe, as the Italians, seem to be remote in these elections, with the exception of a more pronounced European agenda in +Europa, led by Emma Bonino, currently forecast at 2.6 percent, and presenting the idea of a Federalist Europe as a way to stop the increasing success of radical right populism. This does not seem to matter for Italian citizens, 43 per cent (compared to 29 per cent in the EU) do not feel like a EU citizen. If a strong determinant is likely to be represented by the idea that Europe benefits people like them, cues to political parties seem to come from debates around the challenging relationship with political parties and institutions, immigration and a Euroalternative narrative.

This article is the third in a new SPERI Comment series with the PSA Italian Politics Specialist Group on the 2018 Italian election. Read all of the articles in the series so far here.