EU Takes Beating In Italian Elections: When Will They Ever Learn*?

John Weeks

Sending a Message

In Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, mysterious writing begins to appear on a plaster wall during a feast presided over by the Babylon king Belshazzar.  When none of the king’s wise men can interpret the writing, the Jewish captive Daniel provides its meaning: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end… you have been weighed … and found wanting.”  Since then the phrase “writing on the wall” has become a metaphor for failing to recognize the obvious and suffering the disastrous consequences thereof.

On 4 March Italian voters by a large majority cast their ballots for political parties that are explicitly eurosceptic, some to the point of being aggressively anti-EU.  Even more alarming, over 20% of voters went to their polling stations to support neo-fascist parties, Lega (ex-Northern League) and Fratelli d’Italia.

A Repetitive Message

The outcome represents the latest in a long series of eurosceptic messages from national electorates.  These go back at least to the European Parliamentary elections of 2004 with the election of a wave of anti-EU MEPs (the United Kingdom Independence Party gained ten seats, up from two to 12, then doubling its numbers in 2014).

The centrist parties in the European Parliament treated the growth of the far right as a fringe phenomenon requiring no amendment to their “ever closer union” agenda.  The British vote to leave brought no more than a momentary shock.  Shrugging off Brexit as a uniquely British phenomenon and no threat to the continent, the centre-right (European Peoples’ Party) and centre-left (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) pursued their top-down strategy of deepening through compromise.

But far from a one-off deviation from the path of “closer union”, the Brexit vote was harbinger of more to come in 2017.  In Germany’s September election Europe’s leading politician lost her majority and the neo-fascist and anti-EU Alternative for Germany took 13 percent of the vote (becoming the official opposition five months later).  Three weeks later Austrian voters wiped out the centre-left and brought to power a government of the rightist People’s Party and the far-right and anti-EU Freedom Party.

Mainland European citizens have had no opportunity to explicitly vote for or against EU membership and, given it, it is unlikely that in 2018 a national electorate would vote to exit.  However, in every election a substantial minority of voters has demonstrated dissatisfaction with policies and practices they associate with the Union and its leaders.  The (hand)writing has been on the wall for several years.

Weighed & Found Wanting

 After the British EU referendum, Jean-Claude Juncker, in one of his rare moments of clarity and realism, declared that the Union faced an “existential crisis”, and “never before have I seen such little common ground between our Member States”.  A year and a half later, in the run-up to the Italian election, he returned to his usual habit of speech, venturing the opinion that the “worst scenario…would be no operational government”.

That the European Commission president could make such a statement reveals the bureaucratic myopia of the EU leadership, in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere.  Juncker and other EU leaders face the high probability of needing to work with an Italian government of the right led by the Lega and one which is homophobic, misogynist, opposed to the euro, and dedicated to expelling illegal immigrants.  I would prefer such a government to be weak and non-operational.

What thought process would lead a reasonable person to assess an operationally effective far-right government as preferable to the same government but weak and unlikely to survive?  That assessment must derive from the over-riding judgement that a successful EU requires operationally effective governments no matter what their political orientation.

That in turn fosters a view that national authoritarian governments will come and go, while the Union (and the Commission) will live on.  That sanguine outlook explains the frequently tolerant approach of the EU leadership to the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary and the recent acceptance of the Austrian neo-fascist Freedom Party in government.

It is not appropriate for Brussels to seek to influence the political process in member countries.  Indeed, German pressure via Brussels on Silvio Berlusconi to resign in 2011 is one reason for anti-EU sentiment on the Italian right.  Nor will the long-term consequences of the Commission’s part in undermining the Syriza government during 2015 prove beneficial to Greek democracy or foster respect for the EU.

The sensible principle of non-intervention in domestic politics must be practised in the context of the basic values of the European Union, which the Commission and the Parliament are explicitly instructed to enforce:

The European Union’s fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These values unite all the member states – no country that does not recognise these values can belong to the Union.

The main goal of the European Union is to defend these values in Europe and promote peace and the wellbeing of the citizens.

Suspending membership of a government because it “does not recognise these values” would represent an action of last resort.  Tolerance on the part of Brussels officials and national politicians towards violations of democracy and the rule of law make that last resort more likely.  With the authoritarian right on the rise across Europe, expressing a preference for an “operational” government whether it respects EU fundamental values or not sends a very dangerous message.

At the risk of being accused of blasphemy, I amend the passage from the Book of Daniel, “[Electorates have] numbered the days of your kingdom and [may bring] it to an end… you have been weighed … and found wanting”.

In Brussels and the capitals of Europe, leaders should see the (hand)writing on the wall and loudely declare: “No place in the EU for governments that are racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic”.

*From the Pete Seeger song, “Where have all the flowers gone?”

Image: Belshazzar’s Feast (Rembrandt)

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