ITALY: European elections: incumbent pro-EU government wins despite appeal of Eurosceptic forces

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Italy's European elections saw Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's staunchly pro-EU Democratic party (DP, Partito Democratico) win 40.8% of the vote and 31 of Italy's 73 seats in the European Parliament, where it sits as part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc. Despite this clear victory for pro-EU forces, there are also signs of the Eurosceptic and far-right support that has been the main talking point of the elections across the continent.

The DP's victory is extraordinary considering that it has never before won more than 30% of the vote at any election, European or otherwise. No exit polls predicted the outcome: the DP confirmed as the primary political force in Italy, despite being the most pro-European party in a country suffering from EU-imposed austerity policies and at a time when Eurosceptic, xenophobic and outright racist and fascist forces across the continent are growing stronger and making big gains into the European Parliament.

The elections were widely anticipated for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were seen as an electoral test for the new government, which came to power three months ago without going through regular elections. [1] Renzi, who has been described as "Italy's Tony Blair" [2] is the third Prime Minister in a row to be appointed by the President, rather than elected by the popular vote.

There were also many electoral expectations surrounding the Five Star Movement (M5S, Movimento Cinque Stelle) led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, with exit polls showing it as the biggest contender to the Democratic Party. M5S won 21.1% of the vote and 17 seats - impressive for its first European elections, but only half of the vote share of the Partito Democratico.

Finally, there was great interest in whether Silvio Berlusconi would be able to drive Forward Italy (FI, Forza Italia) to victory despite being barred from standing as a candidate after his latest legal proceedings. The results for FI were worse than expected with 16.8% and 13 seats, down from 29 seats in the 2009 European elections. It seems that the impact of Berlusconi's electoral campaign on the results was close to naught, if not negative.

A lot of curiosity was also generated by the so-called Tsipras List - that is, The Other Europe with Tsipras (L'altra Europa con Tsipras). This is a single electoral list which brings together several Italian leftist forces (individual citizens, associations, social movements and parties). It is named after Alexis Tspiras, leader of the Syriza party, [3] which in Greece's European elections won 26.4% of the vote and received six seats in the European Parliament. In Italy, L'altra Europa con Tsipras was able to obtain 4% of the votes and three parliamentary seats.

Despite coming second in its first European elections, the Five Star Movement's results were widely seen as a defeat for Beppe Grillo, whose movement many thought could defeat Renzi after the spectacular results of the 2013 general elections when M5S lost to the DP by less than 1% of the vote. Until the results were announced, the exit polls also raised the prospect of a head-to-head competition between the two leaders with Grillo vowing to be Italy's largest party at the European Elections.

Clearly, Grillo has not entirely convinced the electorate with his rhetoric railing against the corruption of Italian politicians. With the country still heavily scarred by the economic crisis and its aftermath, he was not able to benefit to the extent he hoped from the strengthening of Eurosceptic sentiment and general discontent over the austerity policies imposed by the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The main promise of the movement - it is, its supporters insist, not a party - was for a referendum on Italy's membership of the European Union. This was not deemed enough by voters and M5S failed to achieve its goal of beating the PD and winning at least 25 seats.

After the initial disappointment, it seems Grillo may be making arrangements with Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party (UKIP, which won the majority of the UK's parliamentary seats), with the aim of creating a new group in the European Parliament - although this will require 25 MEPs drawn from at least seven Member States.

The only 'traditional' right wing party to gain a larger share of the vote than at the last 2013 general election was Lega Nord (the Northern League), a regionalist party grounded in extreme right-wing ideology. Although at the 2009 elections it won 10.2% of the vote and 9 seats in the European Parliament, this time round it only managed 6.2% of the votes, resulting in five seats. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord party, has declared his intention to join the European parliamentary group that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, is attempting to form.

The Italian electorate has therefore chosen to give confidence to Matteo Renzi and his new government, with a result that can also be seen - perhaps oddly, given the circumstances - as a vote of confidence for the European Union. It remains to be seen whether Renzi and the DP can maintain this confidence, given that in Italy and across Europe, Eurosceptic forces - whether from the left or from xenophobic and far-right parties - made significant gains.

Further reading

  • Leigh Phillips, 'Kick ‘em all out? Anti-politics and post-democracy in the European Union', Statewatch Journal, March 2013

    [1] The task of forming a new government has been committed to Matteo Renzi on 17 February 2014 by the Republic President Giorgio Napolitano following the resignation of former Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
    [2] Andrea Vogt, 'Matteo Renzi to the rescue: can 'Italy's Tony Blair' deliver?', The Week, 18 February 2014
    [3] 'In Italy, we don’t have a common left party, so we asked individuals to form the Tsipras list', Red Pepper, May 2014

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