Getting Italy wrong

“The real challenge that the populist coalition in Italy poses to the EU is one of policy, not of democracy.” So writes Angelos Chryssogelos of Chatham House.

I think the same can be said of populism in most Western democracies, but let’s keep the focus on Italy. What are the policy challenges that the populist coalition there poses to the EU?

There are two: the economy and migration. Chryssogelos explains:

Italy is a country where the two major EU crises of previous years cross paths. Italy has suffered both from long-standing economic malaise, made more acute in the years of the eurozone crisis, and a mounting migration crisis in the Mediterranean. In both cases, Five Star and the League have fostered the perception of many Italians that the EU not only failed to help but outright harmed Italy by imposing upon it punishing economic reforms and leaving it without help to manage the influx of refugees on its shores.

The first perception — that the EU has harmed Italy by imposing punishing economic reforms — is probably valid. The second — that the EU has not helped with the influx of refugees from Africa — is clearly true, in my opinion.

One might hope that these perceptions would, in Chryssogelos’ words, “concentrate the attention of EU elites on the effort to overhaul Europe’s economic governance and management of its external frontier, with an eye to developing more sustainable and equitable policies.” After all, “Italy is indeed the final frontier of the decade-long governance crisis of the EU: a founding EU member, its fourth-largest country and traditionally a pro-European society.” And it “faces very real policy challenges that are seen by its electorate as closely intertwined with its membership of the EU and the eurozone.”

Instead, says Chryssogelos, the EU elites largely dismiss the Italians’ policy concerns by labeling them populist — just one more episode in the long, unsavory march of populism in Western democracies. For them, “it is. . .easier to philosophize about the future of liberal democracy from Brussels, Berlin or The Hague than to admit that, for many parts of Europe, participation in structures of economic and migration policy cooperation will soon be politically and socially untenable unless the EU seriously reforms its functioning in the direction of more burden-sharing and solidarity.”

Chryssogelos concludes:

Given the size of its economy, popular dissatisfaction with domestic and European elites, and the urgency of the migration crisis on its shores, Italy is the biggest test yet for this elite tactic of dismissal and diversion – moving the discussion from popular frustration to an often barren and prevaricating debate about the ‘future of democracy’. The question is whether the EU can realize the stakes in time and engage with the real policy failures that lie at the heart of the current democratic malaise in Europe.

I doubt that it can.

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