Europe’s Far-Right Wave: Xenophobic Parties Win Italian Parliamentary Election

The far-right Five Star Movement political leader Luigi Di Maio (R) and party founder Beppe Grillo (L) attend a rally ahead of the March 4 Parliamentary Elections in Italy
The far-right Five Star Movement political leader Luigi Di Maio (R) and party founder Beppe Grillo (L) attend a rally ahead of the March 4 Parliamentary Elections in Italy

Steve Bannon is currently in Europe to advise far-right movements. He first went to Italy, where xenophobes won the Parliamentary elections on March 4, and then visited the National Front in France. Bannon, an infamous former Trump advisor and ex-director of the racist, rightwing media outlet Brietbart, advised the European far right to take insults directed at them as badges of honor: “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

In fact, the European far-right does not need Bannon’s advice. They are able to push racist and xenophobic slogans all by themselves, as was evident in the recent elections for Parliament in Italy.  The sentiment which dominated the Italians election campaigns were: “If there are problems, it is the fault of migrants coming to Italy” and “If it is not the fault of migrants, it is the fault of the European Union.”

Fortunately, the right-wing politicians who won the Italian Parliamentary election are not all of the same party, and it is likely to take some time to put together a coalition government.

Two Italian right-wing parties were already allied going into the March 4 election, but each is more concerned with its share of power than in developing a common position. One faction, Forza Italia, is led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. At 81, despite his sex scandals and a conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi wanted to reinvent his image to be an elder statesman. He largely failed at the ballot box. However, Forza Italia gained 14 percent of the vote and will therefore be involved in the negotiations for building a coalition.

Forza’s partner, the Lega, received 17.6 percent of the vote. The Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, who sees himself as a potential Prime Minister, was historically called the Northern League, a regionalist party which wanted greater autonomy (if not outright independence) for the north of Italy. Under Salvini’s leadership, the adjective “Northern” was dropped in an effort to get votes from the center of the country, Rome and its countryside. While the regionalist vocabulary was scrapped in favor of a nationalist right rhetoric, the party’s leaders still look down on people living in the south of the country.

The south voted heavily in favor of the Five Star Movement, giving it 32 percent of the vote, the highest party vote but still under the 40 percent needed to govern alone without coalition partners. The Five Star was created by a stand-up comic Beppe Grillo, who attacked all politicians in power with vulgar terms. He has now stepped back from the party leadership, and is replaced by Luigi Di Malo, who at 31 is the youngest of the potential Prime Ministers.

Parliamentary negotiations are now going on in the shadows. March 25 is the date set for the election by the representatives of the President of the Senate and of the Chamber. This election may tell us something about the directions for the new government. There are two administrative possibilities. The most likely is that a coalition government is formed. The other possibility, which has been used in the past but not recently, is that representatives could change party affiliations to form a majority. Therefore, both Five Star and the Lega are open to elected representatives from other parties joining them.

These far-right parties shared an anti-immigrant stance. Migrants in Italy have long been marginalized. Since immigration administrative processes in the country are slow even when there is good will, many refugees and migrants do not have residence papers. Often migrants do not have the national papers Italy requires. Many people from some African countries have not been issued birth certificates. Refugees often leave in a hurry to escape danger and do not bring documentation with them, and papers are often lost during the hazardous passage through Libya. In some cases, migrants deliberately do not have papers so they cannot be deported to their country of origin, or they will say that they are younger than reality as minors fit into other categories.

Within this context, the racist and anti-immigrant far-right parties of Italy are calling for the deportation of 600,000 undocumented immigrants. Even the more moderate politicians focused their electoral campaigns on “greater control” of migrants. In practice, deportation is costly and requires the receiving country to agree to the deportation. Thus, very few will likely be deported. The political slogan “Deport illegal migrants” is an empty one, but one which reached a wide audience in Italy.

The other empty slogan common in the Italian election campaigns was to attack the “faceless bureaucrats of Brussels.” The European Union (EU) is accused of doing too much, of doing too little, or of doing the wrong thing. In practice, agriculture in Italy is heavily subsidized by the European Union, and no party wants to cut itself off from the rural vote. Thus, there were few specific proposals to leave the EU following the British model, or to leave the Eurozone as the National Front in France has proposed.

Rather than substantial policy proposals which could be debated, the Italian election campaigns focused on general discontent. This was also true of the Democratic Party (the center-left) which has been leading the government but was reluctant to defend the government’s record. The lack of a program was also true for the Five Stars movement, which sees itself as “anti-system.” Its voters come from both the right and the left as well as those who never voted and were turned off from politics as usual.

It is certain that there are issues in Italy that would require major policy reforms and government action. There is widespread unemployment, especially for the youth. The current upturn in the economy has not yet made itself felt with greater employment or a rise in the standard of living for the majority. The country remains strongly politically divided on geographic lines between the south, the center, and the north. The issue of migrants already in Italy and the continuing flow from Africa and the Middle East is a pressing one but is not usefully addressed by xenophobic slogans.

What is dangerous now is that the situation brought to light by the Italian election campaign and the xenophobic, anti-EU wave is not limited to Italy. One finds it, with a certain local color, in most European countries.

Rene Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.