Italy's populist victory heralds choppy waters for Europe

5 March 2018, 16:43

Last September, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual State of the Union speech.

"The wind is back in Europe's sails", he declared.

The President of the European Commission was reflecting on the previous 12 months.

But he was talking nonsense.

His words were a clear demonstration of how out of touch the political elite across Europe often prove themselves to be.

:: Italy election: Populist parties claim right to govern

Mr Juncker was speaking towards the end of a year which had begun with nervousness.

In early 2017, the centrist moderates who run the majority of countries that make up the European Union were just getting used to the idea of Brexit, and there were rumblings of trouble elsewhere.

So-called populists were riding high in the up-coming elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria.

Could it happen? Le Pen in France? Wilders in The Netherlands? Hofer in Austria? And what about the AfD in Germany?

:: Italian coalition dealing won't be pretty

No one had even begun to think about Italy, after all, no election was set there.

The Northern League (as the League was then known) was Italy's main offering of a hard-right party but it was predominantly a secessionist campaigner and not a player beyond the north.

A comedian with big hair was running a disruptive movement called 5-Star. It appeared to be growing in popularity - but no one was taking it particularly seriously.

The biggest debate was over whether 5-Star was left wing or right. Could it be both? Neither? It confused the establishment centrists. It didn't conform to the norms of the political spectrum.

What did all this populism and polarisation mean? They didn't know because they didn't take enough notice of what was happening.

Then the elections began and on the face of it, all was tickety boo. Mr Juncker and his ilk sighed relief after each vote.

In The Netherlands, a hard-right Geert Wilders government was never a genuine prospect because of the country’s proportional representation system. The centrists prevailed.

In France, voters chose a European integrationist - the young, dynamic Macron who has quickly established himself as the new driver of an EU with apparently renewed confidence.

In Austria, the race for the presidency was close and rerun. But the liberal green candidate beat the far-right man with a Nazi past.

And in Germany, the continent’s senior stateswoman prevailed, wounded and limping for several months, but with another centrist pro-EU grand coalition now just weeks away.

And so "phew" said the establishment. Mr Juncker made his speech: "The wind is back in Europe’s sails."


The centrist liberals like Macron, Merkel, Rutte, Van Der Bellen did not prevail because the radical populists failed.

On the contrary - they won in spite of significant gains by the populists and they won because they mimicked some of the populists' policies.

Close behind each centrist success was a populist runner-up.

From Athens to Barcelona, Calais to Catania, Rome to Paris, it is so easy to find disenfranchised people looking for something different.

Their gripes are the same: they feel forgotten and not listened to. Their worries are almost always the economy and immigration and whether you call them racist or honest, they are voting with their feet.

In the Netherlands, Mr Wilders' anti-immigration and eurosceptic views were "eloquently" articulated and they resonated.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party is now a central part of a right wing coalition government.

In France, Le Pen lost but still made it to the second round of the election with historic gains.

In Germany, despite all its history, a far-right party will, this month, become the official opposition party.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be boosted by official opposition funding and seats on influential parliamentary committees.

:: Strong results for anti-establishment in Italy

Then came Italy this weekend. Here, the populists didn't just make gains, they won.

Of all the EU establishment's possible nightmare scenarios for Italy, one of the worst materialised.

The League and the 5-Star Movement are euro-sceptic, anti-immigration and led by untested radicals.

Results suggest as many as one in three people voted for the 5-Star Movement. The League could be the largest party in the centre-right coalition, which may get the arithmetic to form a government.

As populists they have both promised their voters the earth but may struggle to deliver. They have been chosen by the voters to fix a broken system but have said little about their alternative.

And if you are looking for a clear demonstration of why people feel they're up against a broken system, glance back to Germany.

In last September's federal election, the German public roundly rejected the centre-left SPD party, giving it a kicking at the polls. It performed worse than it has ever done.

And yet, the messy nature of democracy has put the SPD back in government.

This weekend they agreed to form a coalition with Mrs Merkel’s conservatives. That will only add frustration to those who think their vote doesn't count for much and their view isn't heard.

Politics is polarised and fragmenting in pretty much every EU country. For Mr Juncker to say otherwise is plain wrong.

Reacting to his far-right party's victory in Italy, Matteo Salvini said he needed to thank Mr Juncker. "Every time he speaks, I get more votes," he said, with glee and sarcasm.

In Italy, the wind is in his sails.