Italian voters send an unmistakable message

“Italians registered their dismay with the European political establishment on Sunday, handing a majority of votes in a national election to hard-right and populist forces that ran a campaign fueled by anti-immigrant anger. The election. . .was widely seen as a bellwether of the strength of populists on the continent and how far they might advance into the mainstream. The answer was far, very far.” So reports the New York Times.

The Times has it right. The European political establishment has let Europeans down to a far greater extent than the U.S. establishment has let Americans down. Americans “registered their dismay” by electing Donald Trump. We should not be surprised when Europeans register theirs in even less uncertain terms.

Italy is ground zero for one significant aspect of the European immigration problem. Africans are streaming into the country. The political establishment seems indifferent to this unsettling phenomenon.

The election results are the Italians response to the indifference, along with their discontent with the EU. According to the Times, “far-right and populist forces appeared to gain more than 50 percent of the vote in Italy.”

As is so often the case in Europe these days, though, no party or coalition appears to have won enough support to form a government. Thus, it may take weeks of bargaining to determine who will lead the next government and who will be in it.

Often these muddles produce a coalition that freezes out right-wing and populist parties that have performed well in the election. However, that doesn’t seem likely in Italy. As the Times says, it will be difficult to form a government “without the insurgent Five Star Movement, a web-based, populist party less than a decade old.”

That’s as it should be. The Five Star Movement obtained almost one-third of votes cast, more than any other party. Its focus is on “anti-corruption,” but opposition to immigration played a major role in its campaign rhetoric and party leaders have at times called for the immediate expulsion of immigrants.

Moreover, a coalition of other anti-immigration parties — the League party, the Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi (considered by some to be Trump before there was Trump), and the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy — collected close to 40 percent. Significantly, the League, which is considered further to the right than Belusconi’s party and makes immigration its overriding issue, was the leading vote-getter within this coalition, at about 18 percent.

Combine the League’s vote with Five Star’s and you’re very close to 50 percent.

European populist parties are a mixed bag. However, few of them are conservative in the American sense and most are unsavory to one degree or another. (the Five Star Movement, for example, is said to be sympathetic to Putin; other populists parties are clearly neo-fascist). That’s why it is so disappointing that more mainstream European parties throughout much of Europe have created major opportunities for the populists by not taking a harder line on immigration.

In France, the clever Emmanuel Macron has learned this lesson. He’s become an immigration hardliner in word and, to some extent, in deed.

Ironically, France’s harder line has come at Italy’s detriment, at least according to the Times. France has basically locked its doors to the African immigrants, leaving them stranded in Italy, where the government has been loath to send them back to Africa and slow to prevent illegal entry.

Italians have now sent a clear message that the new government, whatever its composition, must not be as loath.


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