For most of the modern era Italy has been treated as something of a lightweight in world affairs despite being one of the world’s largest economies. This has often been on the back of weak and unpredictable government which has stopped Italy taking a wider role.
Within the European Union itself Italy has been treated as something inconsequential despite being a founder member. Northern Europeans and especially German politicians have been openly scathing about the country. More recently Emmanuel Macron trying to win some cheap points tried pushing Italy about by making an open attack on Italy and its government.
All of this comes against a background of a decade where the EU has battered the Italian economy in the name of the Euro and has not been particularly tactful about how it did it. On the sensitive topic of immigration the scorecard is even worse. It is not hard to see why Italian voters are quietly seething with Brussels; it is harder to see how Brussels, Germany and France could let themselves get in to this position.
In “normal” times I would be of no import, but 2018 was a year when the worm started to turn. Firstly the pillars of the EU establishment began to show cracks. German politics took a decidedly “old Italy” turn when the country couldn’t form a sensible government and Frau Merkel had to promise her departure following repeated losses in state elections.
France descended into chaos on the back of street protests as Emmanuel Macron battled to save his failing presidency. In Brussels too the Commission was looking weakened by growing populism across Europe, a steady stream of disaffected members and a sense of drift as the current commission saw its end in sight.
In Italy the situation was reversed Italy appeared to have a strongish government ready to take the fight to its Northern neighbours and ready to stand up for its citizens. In particular Matteo Salvini stepped up on the parapet and started firing.
An expansive budget, a crackdown on illegal immigration, attacks on Brussels for a legacy of creaking infrastructure and perhaps most deliciously of all payback on Macron as he wobbles in the Elysee. The Italian public appear to love it.
The government has an approval rating approaching 60% (Macrons is 22%) and more importantly the Lega has now overtaken 5 Star since the election and stands at 33% in the polls.
If this was all simple tubthumping it would be time to buy popcorn. But Salvini appears to be picking his fights – popular issues that have been ignored are to the fore and this keeps the public on side. On the other hand he’s not afraid to compromise and settle for the good rather than the perfect. The budget fight was a case in point.
While the Eurosceptic blogosphere was predicting an armageddon showdown with Brussels Salvini compromised but still came out better off. This is not dissimilar to the compromise with Matterella. In doing so he keeps the show on the road and moves on to the next issue with his support still growing in background. Likewise he creates a sense of national pride the Italians haven’t seen in years
And so to the European elections.
Perhaps unwisely the EU establishment has demonised Salvini. This not only has ramped up his credibility but has made him the new focus of the Eurosceptic block. Having already been an MEP Salvini understands Brussels as well as any and is now starting to reach out to other parties and countries to establish a stronger sceptical movement. His timing couldn’t be better.
Returns from across Europe show a wave of populist sympathy in just about every member state including the founding members. Furthermore the Commission’s pariah states like Hungary and Poland are already lining up to change the status quo. Salvini currently sits in the centre of this movement in a way sceptics like Nigel Farage never could.
For a start off he has shown he is pragmatic something the ideologues wouldn’t countenance. He is prepared to deal with all ends of the spectrum from the untouchables most mainstream political parties avoid to the direct opposition he in theory should be competing against.
In a much more sceptical EU parliament come May there may just be the chance of a change of regime. At the very least there will be a real opposition. All of this is a nightmare to the federal integrationists as ever closer union comes to a grinding halt. If the UK is still in the EU Parliament in May the chances of this happening become much greater.
Like a lot of continental sceptics Salvini does not wish to leave the EU but to remake it at the service of the nation states. If he succeeds – and it’s a big ask – the European Union will be a very different place 10 years from now. Time to burn some more midnight oil in The Berlaymont.