Italy Challenges the Postwar Order
This article was first published on First Things, June 2, 2018.
Italy’s new government represents the most radical challenge yet to the order that has dominated Europe since World War II. Comprising the populist-left Five Star Movement and the populist-right League, the coalition is often described as a combination of alt-left and hard-right, but in fact it moves beyond conventional ideological categories. No wonder its members have been darkly described as “barbarians” by the Financial Times and “insurgents” by the Telegraph.
Something in the project of European integration is not working, and the elites who lead it have refused to adjust. The euro is failing miserably in southern Europe, yet the European commission wants to deepen economic and monetary union. The euro has powered German economic growth while saddling countries like Italy and Greece with austerity and debt. According to official government statistics by Istat, absolute poverty in Italy has doubled in the past decade, a few years after the euro was introduced as the country’s currency.
The new government’s eclectic program emphasizes environmentalism, claiming that “man and the environment are two sides of the same coin,” and calls for a reduction of carbon emissions and an end to fossil fuels. The mixed ideological character of the new coalition is illustrated by Alberto Bagnai, a left-wing euroskeptic economist who represents the League in the Italian Senate. His book, The Sunset of the Euro, decries the single currency as a means for Germany to exert its dominance in the Eurozone. Bagnai also strongly opposes mass immigration, calling it a tool to drive down wages and increase exploitation of workers: “It’s no surprise that ‘left-wing’ ‘intellectuals’ don’t care about immigrants’ impact on wages—it’s because they’re not low skilled workers.”
Even more radically, the 31-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, has challenged the tyranny of economic metrics. In a speech prior to the election, he said: “The economic indicator for growth will no longer be GDP.” This represents a fundamental challenge to the free-trade post-war order, which has culminated in the rule of multi-national corporations over small businesses and enterprises.
To address Italy’s public debt crisis, the program rejects austerity measures and seeks to revisit EU treaties that recommend them. In place of austerity, the coalition has proposed a minimum salary, a universal basic income, and a lowering of the pension age. What has raised some eyebrows is the League’s proposal for a more libertarian flat-tax system. How can the government increase spending while also decreasing its revenue? The coalition claims that the program will be paid for by eliminating bureaucratic inefficiencies and by subsidies from the EU. And Italy does indeed have a problem with corruption—Five Star built its popularity by campaigning against it.
The new government also has a traditionalist family minister, the League’s Lorenzo Fontana, who opposes abortion and same-sex civil unions. Italy passed a law for same-sex civil unions only last year and is one of the few countries that has not legalized gay marriage. Fontana strongly opposes the civil-unions law, claiming: “They want to dominate us and erase our people.”
In another traditionalist initiative, the Five Star–League program seeks to reverse Italy’s plummeting birth rates. “It’s necessary to provide family welfare,” the program says. The program proposes measures to help women manage their motherly and professional roles by providing free child-care facilities, thus addressing one of the main reasons for the declining birthrate: the financial penalty imposed by childbirth. The case of Valeria Ferrara, a mother who was denied a Sunday per month to spend with her family by the multi-national Calvin Klein, Inc., is exemplary of this crisis. Both Five Star and the League have, in the past few years, proposed to end Sunday labor. Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star, said, “unrestrained liberalization is making us poorer.”
The Five Star–League program also states that it will oversee the deportation of 500,000 illegal migrants currently living in Italy. Matteo Salvini, the head of the League, who holds the strongest position on immigration, will become minister of the interior under the new government. But even Di Maio, the head of Five Star, has indicated his opposition to mass migration. Last summer he said that the center-left government that has ruled Italy for the past five years had transformed the country into “Europe’s biggest port” for migrants. Di Maio also criticized the activities of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean and transporting migrants to Italian shores: “The EU doesn’t care about saving migrant lives, they just want the money.” The Five Star–League program has accordingly promised to “stop the business of smuggling” and take down “criminal organizations responsible for human trafficking,” which have caused “countless deaths in the Mediterranean.” As for financing the deportation of illegal migrants, the government would accomplish this by “directing funds used for hospitality towards repatriations.”
This would be the toughest stance yet taken by an EU member in Western Europe. (It is interesting to note that Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, has maintained very strict immigration controls and received very little criticism for it.) The measures proposed by the coalition prompted the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to say that the European Commission will now “monitor the rights of African migrants in Italy.” This comment suggests that a collision over migration is imminent, particularly given the EU’s stance toward countries that have taken a tough stance on migration, such as Poland and Hungary.
On foreign policy, the Five Star–League program says it wants to “end sanctions on Russia.” Indeed, the coalition sees Russia as a strategic partner in combating “Islamic terrorism” in the region and in ending the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Despite the great displays of alarm over this fact, it merely reflects a growing consensus in Europe that relationships with Russia must change. “I do think we have to reconnect with Russia,” Juncker said at a conference in Brussels this week. “This Russia-bashing has to be brought to an end.”
Religion also plays a strong role in the program, a role often overlooked by the media. The League has pushed for the registering and monitoring of mosques in Italy. There have also been increasing appeals to a Catholic identity. Di Maio and Salvini have both shown uncommon reverence toward the Catholic Church. In September, Di Maio launched his campaign by observing the old Catholic custom of kissing the vial containing the blood of St. Januarius and bowing before the cardinal of Naples. In 2016, in front of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Di Maio said: “The Church is my home. I am a Catholic.” Leftwing papers have responded by calling him “retrograde.”
Salvini may be even more outspoken about his faith. In March, just before the election, he held up a rosary at one of his rallies, “swearing allegiance to the Gospel and my people.” The chosen prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, a previously unknown figure, is a former leftist who turned to the Five Star Movement. Conte is devoted to Padre Pio, a Catholic saint famous for his stigmata and bilocation.
The Five Star–League program combines euroskepticism, environmentalism, strong borders, protection of families and small businesses against globalization, and respect for religion. It combines elements of left and right in a way that scandalizes well catechized political elites. If it succeeds, it will be the first real sign that we are moving beyond the postwar order.