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Protest against immigration in Rome, 2017. Credit: Jacopo Landi via PA Images

Lessons from Italy’s election, part four: Immigration and low, low, low, low, low growth drove Italy’s populism

Populism is driven by different concerns in different countries. In Czechia and Iceland, for example, it seems to be driven more by a concern over political corruption than by economics. But while Italian political corruption clearly helped fuel the collapse of the country’s first post-War political order in the early 1990s and the rise of M5S (the Five Star Movement) in 2013, it does not explain the results analysed in my first three (one, two and three) parts in this series. Instead, Italy’s decisive rejection of all traditional political groupings represents a clear consequence of over a decade of inaction on migration, unemployment, and economic growth.

Italy’s slow growing economy is not news, but the extent of its stagnation bears repeating. According to the World Bank, Italian GDP growth has not exceeded 3% since 2000 and has exceeded 2% only once since then. It has spent four of the last nine years in recession, including 2012 and 2013, and its growth has been below 1% in the years since. Any government would be punished by such a dismal record.

This decline, moreover, occurred under both centre-right (2008-2013) and centre-left (2013-2018) governments. Indeed, the final years of the centre-left dominated government saw a succession of administrations supported by both the leftist Democratic Party and the centre-right Berlusconi bloc. Such grand coalitions have been highly unpopular in recent years in Europe, and Italy was certainly no exception.

Unemployment remained staggeringly high, especially for a country that had not suffered a crash of the magnitude of the so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). Only 58% of Italians of working age are employed, according to the OECD, lower than any OECD country save Greece, Turkey, and South Africa. Labour force participation is also low: only South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia among OECD countries have a lower percentage of working age adults even seeking a job. Only Greece, Spain, and South Africa have higher unemployment rates than Italy’s 11.4%.

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Lessons from Italy's election, part four: Immigration and low, low, low, low, low growth drove Italy's populism

By James Coney

Economic stagnation has coincided with a dramatic increase in immigration. Despite the sluggish economy and dismal job prospects, over five million Italian residents are foreigners. Moreover, this number rose by over 60%, from about three million to approximately five million, during the last nine years. At the very time Italians were undergoing hardship, two million people came because even that economy was better than the one they left behind.

Immigration into Italy
Most of the newcomers into Italy came from former Soviet Bloc countries. Over half a million Romanians have entered Italy since 2008; over 1.1 million of Italy’s 60.6 million people come from Romania. Another 1.1 million come from Albania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, or Serbia.  Italian migration looks more like Britain’s than it does Germany’s or Sweden’s.

That’s not say there hasn’t been a large influx of refugees and migrants from Muslim countries in the Middle East or Africa. Almost 800,000 Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians now live in Italy. Attempted arrivals from these and other similar countries has skyrocketed in recent years, increasing from an average of under 30,000 a year from 1997 to 2013 to an annual average of well over 150,000 between 2014 and 2016. These twin prongs of migration also affected different regions of the country.

Most migrants live in the more prosperous north and center of the country, the regions where Lega did best in the elections. The attempted migrants, however, mainly enter the country in the very poor south, where M5S skyrocketed. Thus Italians of all backgrounds faced similar challenges at similar times regardless of where they lived.

Italy’s challenges have also affected all segments of society. Exit polls show that M5S did especially well among students, those under 35, and those with university degrees. That might seem odd until one realises just how bad the economy is for everyone. Youth unemployment, for example, is over 37%, nearly twice as high as France and five times as high as Germany. Italians with less than a university degree are less likely to be out of work than they are in France, but unemployment for college graduates is much higher in Italy than in any non-PIGS EU country.

These concerns clearly manifested themselves in the election results. The Tecne exit poll showed that Lega won 41% of the vote among voters who thought that security and immigration was the most important issue; M5S and the Fratelli won another 27% of these voters. M5S easily carried voters most concerned with joblessness, earning 35% of their votes, with the other two populist parties winning another 19%. Those pessimistic about the economy gave M5S 44% of their votes while 22% voted for another populist party.

My colleague Peter Franklin wrote about these developments recently, noting that most of the British media remain in denial about what happened. He also noted how Italy’s economic and migration woes are directly traceable to decisions made by establishment politicians in France and Germany, albeit enthusiastically ratified by their Italian allies. Given this provenance, it will be hard for the established parties to come back, having been complicit in the causes behind Italy’s problems for so long. But my final part in this series – published tomorrow – will discuss how they might be able to do so – if they take the populist moment seriously.