Frank Furedi on Italian populism
By Alberto Mingardi
The European Union is hardly perfect, but I find it a bit ridiculous to consider it a vast conspiracy and not an extremely complex, and very often contradictory, development.
I am a fan of Frank Furedi’s work, and I typically enjoy his articles on spiked (a must-read, for me). In his last column, “Italy has dealth a blow to the establishment“, Furedi deals with the recent Italian elections.
The starting point of the column is rather common now in the Anglo-Saxon press, particularly the conservative one. The Brits, and the Americans, dislike the European Union so much, that they tend to assume that everything which is against the EU should be great.
This is predicated on the assumption that the EU has ideological motives of its own, which go in the direction of an “ever closer union“, that is of an ever stronger harmonization.
There is certainly some of that in the European project and indeed the European Union shows some the features that “conservatives” assume it has: some monstrous regulatory ambitions, a muscular anti-trust policy that verges on the point of being anti-business, a lot of talk (and some doing) of tax harmonization. But the so-called “unification” process has slowed down greatly, in the last few years, and the EU institutions appear now friendlier towards nation states than in the time of diffused, hyped-europhilia of the Nice Treaty, when I supposed most of the anti-EU conservatives developed their own understanding of this, indeed multifaceted, institution. For one thing, the EU increasingly looks like a cartel of nation states, more than a device to overcome them. Think about the Catalonian problem: instead of finding ways to help the secessionists thereby weakening Spain, the “Eurocrats” happily supported Madrid.
I shall add that most Anglo-Saxon commentators tend to forget the free circulation of capitals, goods, and people that the EU guarantees. Could you have that without the EU? Well, in principle, yes – but to get that we needed some sort of European coordination.
The European Union is hardly perfect, but I find it a bit ridiculous to consider it a vast conspiracy and not an extremely complex, and very often contradictory, development. Even more ridiculous it seems to me is to believe that it is led by an “establishment” that for some certain and diabolic reason want to starve the Greeks! As if the Greeks (the Italians, the Spaniards, the Portuguese) faced a choice between impeccable democratic self-government and odious German rule.
So much for my rant against euroskepticism of the cheaper sort.
Furedi’s piece is interesting, because he recognizes something that other observers who tend to sympathize with populists (see Steve Bannon here) do not see: that is, that the parties that won Italian elections do not “constitute a genuine alternative” because it is “far from clear about where they stand on issues of substance”. He would like to see a “liberal populist” movement emerging in Italy: an interesting element in Furedi’s piece is that, while most of commentators use “populist” just to label parties they do not like, Furedi would not accept to so label parties he doesn’t like!
The piece is worth reading but he gets a couple of details wrong.
(1) He tells the story of Mr Monti becoming prime minister as “a plot” staged by then-President of the Republic Napolitano. This would be a plot against then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, that Furedi doesn’t quite like. Actually, the “plot” basically consisted in a growing spread between the Italian and the German Treasury bonds, which caused an increasing financial uncertainty, that Mr Berlusconi–who was then in the midst of a long wave of sex scandals–couldn’t tame.
President Napolitano “schemed to have Monti appointed as senator for life, so that a week later he could become a ‘legitimate’ prime minister. It is worth noting that Monti’s government did not include a single elected politician”. This is true, but Monti was made a senator for life not to be a “legitimate” prime minister (there is no need to be member of the House or the Senate) but to assure the political parties that were to support him that he would not become a political actor on his own, because he was already a senator for life. Monti actually later did become a political actor on his own and founded a short-lived political party: but Napolitano couldn’t foresee this (and wasn’t publicly very happy about this development). The government did not include any elected ministers- not because the EU asked so, but rather because political parties of both the left and the right had to support it, and given the bitterness of political tensions in the Berlusconi’s era it was impossible for them to think of sharing ministerial responsibilities.
(2) He considers right-wing “populists” (sorry) as having “roots in the old system of Italian pork-barrel politics and have nothing positive to offer the people. Their willingness to unite with Berlusconi’s tired old Forza Italia indicates that what they offer is more of the same”. The thing is that they have been in a coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia ever since the latter has been in politics. The Northern League in fact, was established before Forza Italia and only ran against it in 1996, when it was openly secessionist. The Brothers of Italy are a reincarnation of the National Alliance, which was allied with Berlusconi in 1994, and remained so for years, and in 2009 merged with it in a new, larger party, Popolo della LibertÃ . Ms Meloni quit that party in 2011, as she disagreed with the idea of supporting the Monti government.
These are small details, indeed, but better to get them right. Furedi’s support for populism seems to me to be rooted in the idea that it represents a genuine novelty. I don’t know about that, but certainly existing political parties are in a better position to interpret what they see as the electorate’s demands than parties that don’t exist yet. But Furedi is certainly right in pointing out that no Italian party represents a “populist liberal” alternative to the status quo. They are “populist” perhaps in a more common sense: they want to substitute the establishment with a newer, allegedly non corrupt one. This means that they frame the problems of the country (and of Europe) in terms of men, not institutions.