Berlusconi plying playbook of anti-immigration
Et tu, Roma? Sunday’s election in Italy will show whether the right-wing and anti-immigrant political tide engulfs one of the big nations in the core of the European Union, after submerging liberalism in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary.
Election laws shut down opinion polling two weeks back, and a new electoral system split between proportional representation and first-past-the-post seats complicates predictions. However, most analysis has a right-wing coalition put together by the disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi around his Forza Italia close to a majority in the parliament.
Berlusconi, who can’t himself take any public office until next year because of a tax fraud conviction, is campaigning for a flat rate of income tax and a clampdown on illegal immigration, familiar themes when plutocrats take up nativist populism.
The desperate trade of young aspirants across the sea from Africa is the dominant issue of the election, rendered toxic last month when the gruesome murder of a young woman, allegedly by a Nigerian migrant, inspired a young neo-fascist, Luca Traini, to drive around the town of Macerata shooting at people of African appearance. He wounded six before wrapping himself in the Italian flag, giving a fascist salute, and turning himself in to police.
One poll found that some 11 per cent of Italians condoned Traini’s actions to some extent, with another 12 per cent agreeing that while his actions were criminal, part of the blame rested with Africans. One small right-wing party, Forza Nuova (New Force), has offered to pay for Traini’s legal defence. Berlusconi, who says 600,000 illegal migrants should be deported, tiptoes around the case, saying it shows the strains being put on the social fabric.
His coalition partners go in for less dog whistling and more overt appeals to nativist sentiment. They include the Lega (League), trying to extend its appeal by dropping the “Northern” regionalist tag to its name, and the Brothers of Italy, whose leader Giorgia Meloni pushes the slogan “Italians First”. The latter group, strongest around Rome, has lineage back to Mussolini’s fascist movement, and even includes a granddaughter of Il Duce among its candidates. It launched its campaign from Latina, a new city built by Mussolini. Another nationalist group, Noi con l’Italia (“Us with Italy”) will help Berlusconi in the south.
Forza Nuova remains in the wilderness but could play a part in supporting a right-wing government. Another with similar xenophobic tendencies and Mussolini-era nostalgia is CasaPound (House of Pound), named for the American poet who stayed in Italy during World War II.
The left and centre is in disarray, tainted by compromises in office, but the anti-establishment Five Star Movement founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo could still spring a surprise with its candidate for the prime ministership, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, a popular figure. The question is: who can work with Grillo’s creation? Nor is the loyalty of its elected members that certain. Berlusconi has been trying to win defections. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, leading the centrist Democrats, seems nowhere in contention.
One possibility is that a hung parliament keeps in office the current prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, even though he’s not even on the ballot papers. Since taking over the Democrat-led government less than two years ago, after Renzi stepped down following a referendum defeat, he has steered Italy through a banking crisis and worked with Libyan authorities to stem the boat people flow. He remains Italy’s most respected leader but high levels of abstentions could tip things towards the extremes.
Sunday will also mark if Angela Merkel’s efforts to forge a coalition government from the inconclusive result of Germany’s election in September have been successful.
The rank-and-file of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been voting on whether the party should join Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in another grand coalition. Should they vote against the idea – and the previous coalition resulted in the SPD’s worst election result – Merkel will have to choose between minority government or fresh elections, any other combinations being ruled out – especially with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
Should the coalition be approved, it will be a testing ground for a new generation of leaders on both sides and the parties to differentiate themselves from the Merkel policy blur in the centre.
Former SPD leader Martin Schulz has flamed out after a meteoric rise, having sworn not to join a coalition or try to take a ministerial position in one, then proceeding to do both. His successor, Andrea Nahles, is more combative and will try to rally the German left. The CDU succession will be fought over by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a centrist in the Merkel mould who was brought in from state politics as the CDU’s general secretary last weekend, and Jens Spahn, a more conservative figure and immigration hardliner who will be health minister.
In France, Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to bestride left and right branches of politics are getting more difficult, and he’s raising opposition on both sides.
His government has just introduced legislation that criminalises border crossing without permits, extends the time people without papers can be held in detention, and reduces from one year to six months the time for making appeals for asylum.
Staff of the refugee protection office known as Ofpra went on strike, saying it was “an unequivocal departure from France’s tradition of asylum”. It was certainly a shift by Macron, who ahead of May’s election praised Merkel’s opening of Germany’s borders to Middle Eastern refugees in 2015 as saving Europe’s “collective dignity”. He now asserts a “humane and firm” refugee policy.
The left is also rallying against Macron’s plans to sharply cut government employee numbers through an extensive voluntary redundancy program. This tackles an old bugbear of the French conservatives, from whose ranks Macron sprung. At about 28 per cent of the workforce, the public sector is large by anglophone and German standards, though below levels in Nordic countries.
French farmers, who tend to lean towards the protectionist and xenophobic National Front of Macron’s main election opponent last year, Marine Le Pen, are meanwhile disturbed by Macron’s urging of them to get off European Union subsidies and try larger-scale farming. With Britain’s looming exit, the EU budget loses about €15 billion a year in revenue, making cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy gravy train likely.
The British used to look down on the political chaos of the continentals. Now the halls of Westminster are providing the sad comedy.
By the end of this month, it will be just a year to Brexit. But so far, Theresa May’s government has not been able to give any clues about the future arrangement it seeks with the European Union. Her Conservative ranks are deeply divided between those who want to jump off the cliff of a hard Brexit and trust in British enterprise and old imperial ties to make up for lost European trade preferences, and those who want a soft Brexit that keeps things much the same.
The dilemma has been deepened by leaks from a Treasury analysis suggesting Britain would be worse off under any of the possible alternatives to the present EU membership by between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of gross domestic product over the next 15 years. The impact would be hardest in the industrial midlands, which voted most strongly for Brexit. Lost trade in Europe could not possibly be made up by gains with countries such as the United States and Australia. Tighter immigration controls would add to the damage.
The EU’s negotiators are getting impatient and want May to put up her plans to Brussels before the end of the month. In Britain itself, the clamour to reverse Brexit is growing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 3, 2018 as "Silvio plying playbook of anti-immigration". Subscribe here.