The spread of sovereignism in EU: the Italian case as populist laboratory

Tatiana Zonova
Dr. Political Sc. Professor MGIMO

In May, 2019, voters from 28 countries of the European Union participated in the ninth (first held in 1979) elections to the European Parliament. The election campaign unfolded in the European countries in a rather complex environment, related to migration problems, the uncertain exit of the UK Brexit policy, economic difficulties and a split in public opinion due to the radicalization of the positions of political parties and movements, especially in Italy and France. The economic and financial crisis of 2007-2008, an increasing gap between prosperous countries and countries that do not conform to established rules and standards led to the rise of the nationalist sentiment in the EU. The EU was increasingly being accused of bureaucratization, the predominance of a technocratic approach, and a lack of democracy, which inevitably led to a widening gap between civil society and the EU institutions. All Europeans today agree that under the new circumstances, the EU is in need of considerable reforms. It is, above all, about overcoming the institutional crisis.

In a number of countries, a new wave of politicians with their “alternative parties” who succeeded in leading a protest electorate came to power. The national egoism of these parties became obvious, they pushed aside global and integration ties and declared their negative attitude towards representatives of a different race or creed. This testified to the crisis of the traditional European party-political system. In particular, in Italy in 2018 two anti-system parties came to power - the right-wing “League” and the populist “5 Star Movement”. During the election campaign both parties threatened a possible exit of their country from the EU.

The European Union is sharply criticized not only by opponents of the idea of ​​integration, but also by its adherents. Both of them agree that citizens of EU countries must make sure of the necessity and relevance of integration. The not always adequate and timely reaction of European institutions to the emerging challenges was skillfully used by opposition political forces and those groups that sought to radically change the vector of integration. First of all, a populist nationalism, called "Euro-skepticism", was rapidly gaining momentum. The leaders of the Euro-skeptic movements in their propaganda harshly criticized the EU for condoning migration flows, especially those migrants who arrived in Europe from Muslim countries. Their statements, at times bordering on racism and xenophobia, were complemented by a call to “overthrow the ruling elites”. Euro-skeptics accused the EU of usurping power and demanded a protectionist policy as well as refused to delegate national sovereignty to supranational polities. However, only the Euro-skeptic conservatives in the UK and the Euro-skeptic populists in Italy were able to create such a government. Given the public dissatisfaction with many aspects of the EU, the popularity of Euro-skeptics has also increased in other European countries. A number of Euro-skeptical parties managed to win seats in parliaments and even became members of the coalition governments of their respective countries. The leaders of some EU countries also began to share Euro-skeptic stance. For example, Hungarian President Viktor Orban sharply criticized European migration policies and emphasized the sovereignty of his country.

Euro-skeptics received clear support from President Trump’s administration. His slogan “America First” successfully echoed the calls of European nationalists “Austria to the Austrians”, “France First”, “Let us defend Our Borders”. Trump’s campaign strategist, far-right politician Steve Bannon, often traveled to Europe with the goal, he said, of creating the “Populist International.” In September 2018, Eurosceptic nationalists, with his patronage, announced their integration into the pan-European populist “The Movement”. At the same time, Bannon called Italy a kind of "political laboratory", and Salvini - "a world leader” and “an Italian Trump." During his numerous contacts with the media, Bannon repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to "challenge Soros" and "to stage up a revolution in Europe”, the immediate goal of which is to “unite populist forces in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May, 2019."

However, these forces failed to gain a majority in the European Parliament. As many experts predicted, according to the results of the elections held May 23- 26, 2019, the pro-European parties retained control over the European Parliament. The People's Party and the Party of Socialists and Democrats together with Liberals and democrats’ alliance “Renew Europe” have remained the largest parliamentary groups. The elections were a success for the Greens, primarily due to the popularity of these parties in Germany, France and the UK. The Euro-skeptics were unable to get the desired percentage of votes for the unhindered conduct of their policies.

Meanwhile, Russia closely monitored the processes underway in the EU. The sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia and the corresponding Russian counter-sanctions led to the actual freezing of relations. The media of the EU and those of Russia often launched a massive propaganda campaign against each other, which occasionally turned into a real information war. All this indicated a grave crisis of confidence between Russia and Europe.

At some point, in Russia it became fashionable to characterize the EU as a “crumbling polity”, a “deteriorating center of power, which is losing its influence and appeal”. In the summer of 2018, Italy was visited by Alexander Dugin, the Russian ideologist of “Europhobia” and the head of the Center for Conservative Studies of Moscow State University. In his interviews, he welcomed the election victory of Italian “sovranists” and populists. Besides, he sharply criticized liberals for their referring to "anti-fascism and anti-communism as a tool aimed at preventing the rise of anti-liberal populism." Observers of the on-line magazine "Katekhon" published by Dugin and Malafeev in many languages did not hide their sympathy for Euro-skeptics. At the same time, many Russian experts quite reasonably warned that European right-wing populists and nationalists are unreliable partners, who skillfully combined demonstrative hostility towards Brussels and a very ambiguous stance on Moscow.

In my opinion, it seems especially urgent for Russia to make efforts to restore full-fledged relations with the European Union. It’s worth mentioning President Putin’s statement: “In spirit and culture, our country is an integral part of European civilization .Today, when building a sovereign democratic state, we fully share those basic values ​​and the principles that make up the worldview of most Europeans .The development of multifaceted ties with the EU is fundamental choice of Russia".