Analysis: How EU founder member Italy went eurosceptic

All eyes are on Italy as the far-right League and rebellious Five Star Movement close in on power, ringing alarm bells in Brussels as the country inches towards becoming the first EU founding member to have a eurosceptic government.

Analysis: How EU founder member Italy went eurosceptic
A woman looks at the proposed government programme on the Five Star Movement's website. Photo: AFP

Italy has seen a surge of populist and anti-establishment sentiment as the country struggles to emerge from a decade-long economic crisis amid sky-high youth unemployment and hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving on its shores. Many Italians feel their country has been abandoned to deal with the migrants and have become disenchanted by the European Union as it is today.

League senator and economist Alberto Bagnai, the inspiration behind leader Matteo Salvini's euroscepticism, summed up the disillusionment with Europe by telling foreign reporters of the first thing he did after being elected to the Senate in March.

“I immediately went to thank (former prime minister) Mario Monti, without whom I would probably never have been elected,” he said.

Former European Commissioner Monti was named prime minister after Silvio Berlusconi's government fell in 2011 at the eight of the economic crisis and he imposed stinging austerity measures to restore market confidence, including a pension reform that both the League and Five Star want to abolish.


Photo: Vasily Maximov/AFP

Lorenzo De Sio, Professor of Political Science at Luiss University in Rome, told AFP their research showed that “70 percent of M5S voters want to stay in the euro and in the EU — but not as it is now” and that “there has been excessive use of the populist label”.

“In recent times …. anyone who criticizes the European project is labelled a populist and anti-European,” De Sio says. “Even pro-European parties like the (centre-left) Democratic Party or (Berlusconi's) Forza Italia announced their willingness to change the EU's current austerity policy during the election campaign.”

This disillusionment was captured by Italian president Sergio Mattarella, who in his speech on the State of the Union conference in Florence ten days ago outlined “the diffuse belief among European citizens that the common project has lost its ability to truly meet the growing hopes of large sections of the population.”

However Gianfranco Pasquino, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins School in Bologna, lays the blame for Italy's shift on the establishment parties Mattarella has served ever since entering national politics in the early 1980s.”If we have come to this point it is because the pro-European parties, starting with the Democratic Party … have not waged a real political and cultural battle for Europe,” he says.

“They have had an ambivalent attitude in many ways.”

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Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP


Across the continent disenchantment with the EU also reflects the rejection of the established political class considered the architects of the current crisis. This feeling is especially strong in Italy, where a so-called political “caste” has for decades been seen as being particularly corrupt and out of touch.

“There has been a rejection of the old political class due to its poor results, and the unpopular measures taken by the previous governments have not led to the hoped-for recovery. The vote also shows the desire to change an ineffective political class,” says De Sio.

“The M5S and the League have certainly made exaggerated promises but at least they gave the impression of a certain autonomy regarding Brussels, a kind of return to sovereignty.”

For Giorgio De Rita, general manager of socio-economic research centre Censis, the League and Five Star have been able to “ride a wave of discontent from people who could find no other form of representation.”

“The vote was one of anger, for some fear, for others hope, but above all, it showed that these feelings were no longer contained by traditional politics,” says Marco Damiliano, director of the weekly L'Espresso.

By Ljubomir Milasin


Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.