Italy's populist groups expected to replicate domestic wins

Image from Ministero Difesa   , all rights reserved.

Image from Ministero Difesa, all rights reserved.

A divisivereferendum, a new Prime Minister, a hung parliament, anda rise in Eurosceptic sentiment over the past five years mean the political landscape is significantly different from the last time this country was gearing up for European elections. No, not the UK for once, but Italy. 

Back in 2014, Matteo Renzi’s rapid rise to power saw him take office as Italy’s youngest Prime Minister and vow to shake up Italian politics. That spring, his party – Partito Democratico (PD) – won more seats in the European Parliament than any other Italian party. He was forced to step down less than three years later however, after a defeat in a referendum that had proposed to abolish the Senate. The 2018 general election returned a hung parliament which, following protracted negotiations, resulted in a cabinet led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and supported by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing La Lega.

So how will these changes at domestic level play out in May’s European elections? 

Following the trend across Europe for centrist parties to lose ground to Eurosceptic groups, we can expect the PD and Forza Italia to suffer significant losses in May, resulting in fewer seats for the S&D and EPP groups in the European Parliament. Latest polls suggest that the PD could win just 17% of the vote, down from 40% in 2014. La Lega and MS5 are both expected to benefit from these losses and are currently polling at around 32% and 25% respectively.

 

Towards the end of last year there were rumours that Matteo Renzi was considering forming a new party that could join ALDE, but for now that seems unlikely. 

Italy’s two governing parties may be partners in domestic politics, but they are competitors at the European level.  La Lega sits within Marine Le Pen’s Eurosceptic ENF group, while the M5S is part of the EFDD group, chaired by Nigel Farage. The departure of the UK from the EU means M5S will need to look for new allies in the next Parliament, and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio is understood to be reaching out to party leaders in Poland, Croatia and Finland about creating a new anti-establishment political group. A common manifesto will be signed in Rome next month that is expected to focus on cutting EU spending, including scrapping the European Parliament’s Strasbourg seat. 

Meanwhile, Lega leader Matteo Salvini has made clear that he will be pushing for Italy’s next Commissioner to be given a higher-profile brief, saying that he wants a portfolio that will deal with “substance not philosophy”. Current Italian Commissioner Federica Mogherini is the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a portfolio with relatively little influence on EU legislation.

And last but not least, (dis)honourable mention has to go to Silvio Berlusconi. Fresh from his ban on running for public office being overturned last year, the 82-year old has delighted and appalled election-watchers across Europe by declaring that “out of a sense of responsibility” he will run in May. Election season wouldn’t be the same without him.