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From Italia: Behind the Curtain of the EU Elections All Is Not What It Seems

The danger from the right is becoming more marked and is shifting West, whereas until a few years ago the right was rooted in former socialist countries. The hope is now that moderate components of the center looks unambiguously towards the left.

The results of the European elections on June 9-10 will have significant consequences for the political balance in the European Union: the majority of the European Parliament remains on paper with a pro-European orientation (the European Popular Party (EPP), the winners of the elections, the European Socialists, the liberals of Renew Europe) but the shift to the right, especially at the expense of liberals and greens, has been marked. 

In Italy the electoral debate focused on national controversies and only lightly touched on European politics; in particular, the absence of the theme of peace as a political determinant of the vote was surprising, perhaps because pacifism is today a watchword especially of the radical right and of pro-Putin positions. 

Abstentionism also increased: 49.68% of those entitled to vote voted, compared to 56.09% in 2019. In this climate abstentionism is not disinterest, it is dissatisfaction with what is offered, and voters are waiting for something that there still is not. Further assessments of the European political balance will depend on the composition of the European Council that will elect the President: the EPP has announced that it will re-nominate Ursula von der Leyen, but other names are also being mentioned, including Mario Draghi, past Prime Minister of Italy. 

More disruptive consequences occurred in individual countries.  In France where the rightwing LePen front leaped to 31%, outclassing President Macron’s party.  Macron acknowledged the defeat, and dissolved the National Assembly the same evening as the results. The new elections will be held on June 30th: the victory of Jordan Bardella, face of the LePen front, is looming and the beginning of a long period of difficult coexistence between the Presidency and the government. Soon after Macron’s call for reelections left wing leaders, including the hard left France Unbowed (LFI), the Socialist, Communist and Green parties, agreed on an election alliance called the New Popular Front. However one swallow does not make it springtime! The “rassemblement de la gauche” is against LePen (and in fact being against has already worked in France, but in the presidential elections) … the problems emerge when one advocates for something. If it works in the political elections, that is, not only to block Le Pen’s path, but to build a government, it would be a miracle. The timeframes are really very tight and the divisions are marked. We shall see.

In Germany Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) has become the second party (+5 points compared to the 2019 elections) behind the CDU-CSU centre, but ahead of Chancellor Scholz’s SPD which has already been tested by the disappointing results of 2019. Greensalso suffered a significant decline. The stability of the Scholz government is uncertain but no elections are expected until the natural deadline in the autumn of 2025. 

Even in Austria the right reached 25.5%, while in Belgium the government resigned after the outcome of the vote. Going against the rightward trend, in the Netherlands the Labor-Green alliance stopped Wilders’ far-right. The question arises as to where France and Germany are going and whether they will go in the same direction or will they diverge for the first time since the birth of the EU? 

A stalemate situation is emerging for the EU which has already demonstrated that it is unable to play an autonomous and incisive role in foreign and economic policy – exemplified by its inability to define an autonomous policy on the war in Ukraine. Several times the USA (and Trump in his own way) have signaled their intention to disengage from Europe (read push the Europeans to commit more to European defense) to dedicate the USA to confrontation with China. Already in the Mediterranean and the Middle East you can see the presence of the Russians, the Turks (Libya). Among the EU tasks to be faced there are also economic ones, like the green turn,  closing the gap with the US on information technologies, energy policy, etc. To solve these problems more integration is needed (but the right wants less of it).  On the military question, better coordination between European countries would perhaps be sufficient even without increasing expenses,just as the coordination of European finances would also be very useful for eliminating tax havens present in Europe. The EU urgently needs greater integration between the different countries on military and fiscal grounds, as well as the abolishment of the right of the veto which blocks every decision. Now Timothy Gordon Ash’s prediction from a few weeks agoof the strengthening of Greater Germany, even in the military sphere after the economic one, seems more uncertain. 

The danger from the right is becoming more marked and is shifting towards the West, whereas until a few years ago the right was rooted above all in former socialist countries. With it, the attempt to constitutionalize the European right began to make it attractive in a coalition policy: individual exponents of the EPP, even within the various countries (for example the Gaullist right whose president looks to an alliance with Le Pen, exponent of those forces and ideologies against which Gaullism was born and established itself), are already moving in this direction. 

This context is reflected by the pro-Atlanticism and pro-European reliability of the Meloni government: while the outflanking of the Fratelli d’Italia on the right by the Liga – and in France by Le Pen’s Éric Zemmour – perhaps suggests that there are two right-wing parties, one with the more moderate Conservatives and one with Identity and Democracy more to the right. For the Liga their extreme right turn is almost suicidal to the point that its old founder, Umberto Bossi, openly disavowed it. Even if the candidacy of an openly fascist leader like General Vannacci, brought to the Liga by its leader, the shaky Matteo Salvini, 500,000 preferences (and maybe this is the real news). This explains the evident contradictions of Meloni: reassuring and reliable (in the Atlanticist sense) in foreign policy, but at the same time employing nostalgic identity politics internally. Positions she hopes will hold together the hard core of the party made up of violent and even criminal groups, not to mention its management group inhabited by former thugs, including collaborators with organzied crime.

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 Meloni’s right is also altering the 1995 Fiuggi [1]“turning point” led by the then party secretary Gianfranco Fini with the support of Silvio Berlusconi, to constitutionalize the Movimento Sociale Italiano (the predecessor of the Fratelli d’Italia party). Instead of acceptance, as happened at Fiuggi, of the legitimacy of the Constitution born from the Resistance, Meloni’s party aims to transform the foundations of the Italian Republic with a narrative minimalizing the relevance of the resistance and anti-fascism. And implementing an institutional architecture that hinges on a reform that would elect the President of the Council directly and (for opportunistic alliance reasons) on Northern League federalism. The Fratelli d’Italia party with 28.8% of the votes has progressed by 2% in percentage compared to the votes received in the 2022 elections but not in absolute terms. However, there is no doubt that the Meloni government has consolidated itself and, given that it is among the few successful governments, it is well positioned to become the linchpin of the political balance in Europe. Perhaps we will see the effects in the next appointments of European Commissioners. At the same time Fratelli also aims to federate the extreme right witness the rapprochement with Le Pen. 

However, the party that experienced both percentage and absolute success was the Partito Democratico (PD) of the apparently “weak” leader Elly Schlein: with 24% of the votes obtained (up from 19% in 2022) It indicates a recovery of the party in all its traditional areas and in particular in large cities, where it conquered new capitals (administrative elections held together with the European elections), and in the south, where it benefited from the Cinque Stelle (5 Star) crisis and the reaction to the abolition of  guaranteed citizenship income by the Meloni government and to Northern League federalism . It was surprising that with an electoral campaign based on a few watchwords, but with clear reference to social and labor rights[2], in just one year Schlein managed to get left-wing voters back on the move; especially since at the same time the mayors on the list for Europe also had personal success[3], representing the backbone of power within the PD.

The PD has now become the pivot power for every centre-left alliance, the so-called “wide field”, capable of competing with the right-wing alliance for the government of the country. It can contain the competition of the Cinque Stelle diminished to a modest 10% from the 17.1 in the previous European elections. 

In Europe the Partido Socialista de Espana (PSE) , now part of Socialistas y Democratas(S&D), also held sway in elections in Spain and France. The Left list’s success was also moderate, in particular of the Green-Left Alliance with 6.7%. The image of the Italian citizen Ilaria Salis, in shackles and chains in Orban’s prisons in Hungary, not yet indicted, favored the unexpected electoral success of the party. Three days later Salis was released after being elected as a new member of the European Parliament for the Italian Green and Left Alliance . The 39-year-old activist was elected during her time under house arrest in Hungary, where she was on trial, charged for allegedly assaulting far-right demonstrators. 

European Parliament lawmakers enjoy substantial legal immunity from prosecution, even if the allegations relate to crimes committed prior to their election.

More than 170,000 voters in Italy wrote Salis’ name onto the ballot in a successful bid to bring her home from Hungary, where she had been detained for more than a year.

In Italy it should be underlined that in contrast with the victory of the EPP, two personal parties – Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva[4], and Carlo Calenda’s Azione, failed. Both were allied with Macron’s Renew Europe grouping but made no contribution to his stability because they did not reach the 4% quorum needed to enter the European Parliament. They were counting on the dissolution of the Forza Italia (FI) party after the death of Berlusconi, but the voters preferred the safe use of the faithful and not very brilliant Antonio Tajani of FI to two characters who, after an attempted alliance, split due to power conflicts. 

The hope is now that the moderate components of the center can find credible representation that looks unambiguously towards the left and can complete their political offering in a political atmosphere that appears increasingly bipolar.

[1] Fiuggi is a small city in the Region of Lazio where the MSI convention was held in 1995

[2] Such as minimum wage seen with suspicion by the trade unions, defense, refinancing of public healthcare, aid for the poorest, increase in wages, support for schools, etc.

[3] De Caro, former mayor of Bari, had half a million preferences!

[4] In these elections allied with Emma Bonino on the United States of Europe

Nicola Benvenuti is an Italian political historian who resides in Florence. 

This report on the EU election was translated from the Italian by Peter Olney.  Any unclarity or awkward phrasing is the responsibility of the translator.