by Philip Cunliffe
Wednesday, 28
September 2022
Debate
10:15

Meloni’s victory only strengthens the EU

National populism is a feature, not a bug, of the bloc
by Philip Cunliffe
Credit: Getty

Giorgia Meloni’s electoral victory in Italy is predictably being hailed and reviled in equal measure. On the one hand, some hail it as a strike for nationhood and sanity against the globalists and the sinister elites of the World Economic Forum, while, on the other, liberals revile the supposed return of fascism to Italy.

Yet one group has been noticeably quiet on Meloni’s victory, despite often being so voluble when it comes to populists — namely, British Rejoiners, those elite campaign groups seeking gradually to shepherd Britain back into the EU. As Rejoiners’ political claims rest on the idea that the EU offers a firewall against the spread of fascism, the origins of the Brothers of Italy, as well as Meloni’s socially conservative platform, make her election an especially awkward fit for their favoured narrative, which casts Britain as a rainy fascist island cut adrift from a liberal continental bloc. 


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Not only is Meloni’s victory hard to explain from within the Europhilic worldview, it also undercuts the case for rejoining the EU. After all, if the EU is increasingly dominated by national-populist governments such as Meloni’s, or incorporates ever-larger numbers of national-populist voters, such as Sweden, how does this offer a clear alternative to the UK? Perhaps Rejoiners can invest their hopes in EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her not-so-subtle threat to use her ‘tools’ against Italian voters who fail to abide by diktat from Brussels. 

Yet we should not put too much store in this supposed conflict between supranational technocrats and national-level populists. In truth, the growing strength of national populism throughout the EU is a feature, not a bug. As the EU is based on removing decision-making from popular contestation at the national level and boosting it to the supranational level, it is hardly surprising that voters have responded by embracing populist hostility to remote and detached elites. By the same token, it also indicates why populists will not be able to break with Brussels: having no levers of power to grasp, they respond as Meloni has — by amplifying their cultural politics, waxing ever more lyrical about national identity, family and gender in inverse proportion to their actual political capacity to create change. Supranationalism from above and identity politics from below complement each other perfectly. What’s missing is the middle part — national sovereignty. 

By pushing the EU away from liberal technocracy towards national identitarianism, Euro-populists are perfecting the neoliberal EU, not undermining it. When neoliberals began dreaming up their ideas for continent-spanning free-trade federations in inter-war Vienna, they explicitly harked back to the old Austro-Hungarian empire, which had constituted a single free trade bloc across the peoples of the Danube basin. 

As historian Quinn Slobodian has shown, the element that appealed to neoliberals about the old empire was that it functioned by explicitly substituting cultural autonomy in place of national sovereignty: identities could be preserved, as long as they did not seek self-determination and the national economic divergence that came with it. National populists are fitting into this allotted role — they will burnish national pride and preserve their cultural identity from the globalists — in place of seeking national sovereignty. In so doing, the Euro-populists will help to relegitimate the EU, garbing the neoliberal iron cage in gaudy national colours. In place of the dreary globalist technocracy, we will have instead charismatic leaders such as Meloni noisily defending their culture. Meanwhile, the neoliberal technocrats will quietly continue to run the show.

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Philippe W
Philippe W
2 months ago

Nonsense. If you believe populist movements are only looking for cultural autonomy and are not interested in sovereignty then you are peering into the wrong end of the telescope. These political shifts occur precisely because national identities are being eroded by the actions of globalists and you cannot fight globalists without self-determination.

Steve White
Steve White
2 months ago
Reply to  Philippe W

So, what you’re saying is there will be and Italexit?
If there will be an EU split, then I see the V4 nations and Italy forming a sort of anti-EU or self determining bloc. If Austria continues down it’s path, I predict it will be joining the bloc also… If that bloc unites on a cheap energy policy with “you know who”, then there is your ascending nations into 2030.
What throws a wrench into any EU nation’s self determination however is the subversive and abusive boyfriend of the EU nations, who does things like help start revolutions and blow up pipelines… you know who that is too…

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve White
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 months ago

Can we ban use of the word “fascist” in its various forms please? Fascism was, and is, a very particular variant on socialism with militarism, persecution of minorities, state and semi state capitalism, restrictions on various liberties, and so on.
It has become a general term of abuse, rather like children in the playground shouting “fatty” or “weirdo” at each other. This demeans the horror of something which was a disaster for the world and which we should be vigilant for a recurrence of, but is certainly not what is happening in Italy. Maybe Russia, but that is more a quasi dictatorship. Not even Hungary, though beware the possibility (unlikely).

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

precisely- the woke left is National Socialist aka fascist, NOT those who oppose it!

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

F***ism was the system devised by Mussolini and is not the same as National Socialism. It is a form of nationalistic socialism whereby workers and capitalists are obliged to work together under the direction of the state. Hence the image of the bundle of fasces the Roman symbol of government authority and the difficulty of breaking a bundle compared to breaking a single stick.

For many of those sick of the endless strikes and political violence in post-war Italy it had a certain attraction. Mussolini was not particularly obsessed with minorities merely going along with German anti-Semitic policies for the purpose of the Axis alliance. Mussolini’s industrial policies involved the creation of considerable debt and were not dissimilar to modern dirigiste economic practices that do not attract such opprobrium. They attracted considerable foreign approval at the time for allegedly making the trains run on time, draining the marshes and suppressing the Mafia etc despite the obviously authoritarian nature of Mussolini’s Italy and the military adventurism in Ethiopia.

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago

Interesting. Begins to sound a bit like the “managed opposition” in Russia.
I can’t see such a system being stable though. Austria-Hungary – certainly a most agreable place to have been a government bureaucrat – was ultimately not strong enough to compete and survive against the other models around at the time. Why would it be any different this time ?
And the article completely overlooks the fundamental economic problems which are also behind the rise of parties like Meloni’s in Italy. And illegal immigration. These are not just “cultural issues” which the EU can indefinitely leave to fester.
Italy has declined sharply relative to the UK, France and Germany over the past 25 years. There are many reasons, but the effects of adopting the Euro are right up there.

Michael James
Michael James
2 months ago

The basic truth about Italy (rarely mentioned) is that it has been broke for years, and relies wholly on the European Central Bank to buy its debt and keep its show on the road. Unless its politicians resolve to return Italy to solvency by its own efforts, it will remain in thrall to the European Commission indefinitely.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael James

Actually Italy has more Tesori BTP Government bond debt held by domestic and retail savers than any other EU nation,

Michael James
Michael James
2 months ago

True, but the ECB now owns nearly 30% of Italy’s public debt. That debt is so great (150% of GDP) that the ECB’s share is equivalent to over 40% of Italy’s GDP. Meloni has promised to follow the eurozone rules but there is no commitment to any economic reform in Italy that might reduce its debt dependency.
Economists criticised European monetary union on the grounds that the EU didn’t constitute a natural currency area. They completely missed the point. The purpose of the euro is not economic but political: to trap the member states in the EU for ever.

Last edited 2 months ago by Michael James
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
2 months ago

That would be great, if technocrats would be content with simply wielding economic power. There is ample evidence that they are not, and even if they obviously were content with economic management in the present, the nature of power is that it tends to expand until it is prevented from further expansion by conditions outside its control, such as foreign powers, revolutions, etc. Brussels has already used the withholding of funds to pressure Poland and Hungary on non-economic issues. The author is basically describing a Potemkin village.

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve Jolly