‘Election stalemate gives upper hand to populists’ said the FT. ‘Italy Faces Political Paralysis After Populist Jolt’ said the WSJ. ‘Italy rides Europe’s populist wave’ read the Guardian’s headline. On the morning of a political earthquake in Europe’s fourth biggest country, the global media were in sombre agreement*: Europe has been seized by a dangerous epidemic of populism.
There’s no denying it. From Alternative für Deutschland to Poland’s Truth and Justice Party, anti-European movements are gaining traction across the continent. But who decided they were populist? Indeed, what does that word even mean?
The Italian elections offer an explanation. First things first: the result is a disaster for the EU. The anti-EU Movimento 5 Stelle is, almost unbelievably, now Italy’s largest political party. The centre-right bloc (also anti-EU) is the next biggest grouping. In distant third place, the pro-EU centre-left coalition has been dismissed from government in a humiliating defeat. A sea change in Italian politics; but to anyone who follows political sentiment in Italy, the causes are easy to identify and they stem from the daily experience of Italians.
Between 2014 and 2016, an average of 500 African migrants arrived on Italy’s shores every single day. But, facing 40% youth unemployment and crippling economic stagnation, Italy simply doesn’t have the means to look after its own people, let alone an unending stream of desperate outsiders.
Here’s what hurts Italians the most: Europe has not only made it impossible for Italy to solve these problems; it caused them in the first place.
In 2014, Angela Merkel, German Chancellor and de facto empress of Europe, issued a clarion call to the world’s poorest: Come to Europe, we will welcome you with open arms. Politically motivated by her desire to reverse the GDP drag from Germany’s slowing population growth, and using the pretext of ‘global compassion’, Merkel commanded that those borders not already jammed open by Schengen or hopelessly porous (such as most of those on the periphery of the EU) be opened up to welcome the hordes – and hordes there were. Who can forget the images of endless streams of migrants on hazardous journeys at the mercy of people-traffickers? Eventually, under pressure from the people of her own country, Merkel rescinded the message and closed Germany’s borders. But by then it was too late – the routes were open, and Italy and Greece bore the brunt.
From an economic perspective, too, Italy has beef with Brussels and Berlin. Membership of the euro has prevented it from using its traditional mechanism – currency devaluation – to counteract the ravages of the financial crisis. Instead the pain – felt by ordinary Italians – is prolonged indefinitely. And while political and economic risks in Italy and Greece help keep the euro weak in international forex trading by German standards (great for Germany’s export-dominated economy, which is thriving, danke schoen!), for peripheral Europe, the same currency is inappropriately strong, thanks to the stability and economic profile of Germany and its northern neighbours. Throw in a one-size-fits-all monetary policy, decided at the ECB in Frankfurt, and you have an economic strait-jacket that is strangling the countries of Southern Europe.
Can it come as any surprise that Italy’s citizens – and those of other countries across the continent – should vote against an economic and currency union that is crippling their economy, and a political union that is overwhelming their borders and resources?
Rather than trying to understand the plight of ordinary Europeans, the response of the global media has simply been to brand their rational political response ‘xenophobic’. Rejecting globalism? Demanding the sanctity of national borders? You must be a racist!
And it works. Opinion-formers in Europe have learned that the most effective way to undermine political opposition is to discredit not its arguments, but its morals. The quickest way to do that in today’s society is to imply bigotry and racism. And that’s where populism comes in.
Not popul-ar, but popul-ist.
Picture the scene: you’re a well-educated media executive, who leads a comfortable life in one of Europe’s richest cities. A grass-roots political backlash against the policies you patronisingly know are best for the people of Europe is taking hold across the continent. If you describe it as simply ‘popular’, that might suggest democratic legitimacy. Populism is something entirely different. Populists are demagogues who steal power by appealing to the unwashed many with baseless rhetoric, tapping in a calculated way into popular feeling with impracticable policies that are by definition based on lies and confusion. Populist movements are for bigots. They’re the domain of the Far-Right and they are dangerous. Europe’s knowing elites want to dismiss anti-European sentiment with a single word.
And while they’re winning on the websites of the global media outlets, at the ballot boxes, the elite is losing. Monday’s Italian election story may have all but disappeared from the news websites in a matter of hours. But the simmering resentment of Europe’s citizens won’t be white-washed so easily.
* Actually, on the morning of a political earthquake in Europe’s fourth biggest country, the BBC’s news editors decided (quelle coincidence!) that its top 5 news stories should focus exclusively on the Oscars. But when, alas, it could no longer deny that the Italian election was news, the Beeb adopted the same line as the rest of the global media: ‘Populist surge leaves Italy deadlocked’. (But if bad news about Europe upsets you, don’t worry: the story was only on the BBC World News front page for 16 hours before the editors replaced it with a much more important statement from UNICEF about child brides).