Espresso Populism

The Italian province of Emilia-Romagna is found where the north side of the Apennines slope gently toward the Po River Valley. Densely populated since ancient times, a quarter of its territory is mountainous and almost half is flat plain, packed tight with farms, communes, small towns, and big cities. The third-wealthiest region in the European Union, it boasts world-famous brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini in the automotive sector, and Mortadella and Prosciutto in gastronomy. Culturally, it boasts of having Europe’s first university located in its largest city and regional center, Bologna.

It is also Italy’s red bastion.

Counterintuitive as it may seem in light of its runaway global successes in industry and agriculture, the region has been the once-Communist and now social-democratic fortress of the Italian Peninsula. Much of this stems from its history as part of the Papal States, where anti-clericalism took hold in the 19th century, complementing new intellectual movements such as anarchism, and especially, Marxism.

The great disparity in wealth between local landlords, who owned vast swathes of the very rich land in the Po River watershed, and the dirt-poor tenant farmers who farmed their soil made Emilia-Romagna a very fertile environment for revolutionary theories and action. The Italian film director and Communist (and also a son of Emilia-Romagna) Bernardo Bertolucci brought this struggle to life in his six-hour epic, “1900.”

The Communist Party of Italy was on its way to victory in the first postwar Italian elections but were denied this win thanks to the efforts of the OSS (later CIA), which helped fix the results in favor of the Christian Democrats, seen as better partners for the West in a Europe that was already seeing growing tensions between the two rival ideological blocs dominating the devastated continent.

In response, Communists in Emilia-Romagna dug in, capturing local government and institutions, such as the University of Bologna. Over time, more radical elements took to violence, with the most fanatical of the Red Brigades, led by local Communist Alberto Franceschini, unleashing a wave of terror in the 1970s from the safety of the region that served as its home base. Emilia-Romagna would remain red throughout the Cold War, easily segueing into social-democracy with the transformation of the Communist Party into the Democratic Party (PD) after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

On Sunday, the citizens of Emilia-Romagna are headed to the polls to vote for a new regional government. For the first time in postwar Italian history, the Right has the chance to seize power in a land that few right-wingers ever thought could be theirs.

Italy’s Lega, led by the firebrand Matteo Salvini, threatens the PD’s grip on the region by making Emilia-Romagna the latest domino to fall as the party steamrolls its way across the country. In coalition with other right-wing and right-of-center parties (Brothers of Italy FdI and Forza Italia FI), a victory would be a tectonic shift in Italian politics on par with the GOP capturing California’s state legislature, governor’s mansion, and the electoral votes in the November presidential election. Riding high in national polls, on a winning streak country-wide, and having flipped the PD stronghold of Umbria several weeks ago, this vote is not only seen as a bellwether for Italy as a whole but threatens the survival of the coalition government in Rome despite Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s insistence that a Lega-led win would not lead to its collapse.

Yet the polls are incredibly tight and the final results could go either way. Despite the voters’ evident  desire for overall change (especially in terms of economics) and despite the shrinking appetite for PD’s pro-immigration politics, Emilia-Romagna has thrown up a pseudo-populist counter to the Lega juggernaut in the form of the Sardines. This movement has seen sizable demonstrations against Lega in favor of left-wing policies in town and city centers throughout the region, leading to denunciations of it from the Right as being astroturf and little more than a PD puppet.

Anyone but Salvini

The PD-led coalition requires a win in its heartland in order to rescue an already-tottering coalition government at the national level, held together by the chewing gum that is “we cannot let Salvini become Premier.”

Riven by internal factionalism, segments of PD would interpret a loss Sunday as their chance to pull the plug on a party that has moved too far to the political center. Even worse, its coalition partner, the anti-establishment M5S, has seen its leader (and Italian foreign minister) Luigi Di Maio resign as the party continues to suffer defections in Parliament with its members crossing the floor. Salvini senses blood in the water, and a triumph in Emilia-Romagna would serve as a coup de grace, completing a rapid comeback for him and for Lega after the failure of his most ambitious political gamble when he tried to take down the government last summer.

Buttressed by the polls and with allies in both FdI and Berlusoni’s FI, a Lega-led right-wing coalition is certain to win any upcoming national election for the foreseeable future. Much as Boris Johnson’s Conservatives always looked like winners in the recent UK elections, a sense of inevitability is in the air despite institutional and media backing for the wobbly government in Rome.

The government is not without cards of its own to play, however. Rome has an ally in the European Union, which also seeks to keep Salvini and Lega out of power. The European Central Bank (ECB) has given the Italian government some breathing room to come up with a fix for its budget deficit rather than drop the hammer and penalize it, as would certainly have happened should Lega have remained a part of the ruling coalition.

The sluggish Italian economy, forecast to grow by only 0.5 percent in 2020, has seen politicians across the spectrum look to boost it by way of deficit spending which falls afoul of ECB regulations. Not only Lega but PD and M5S have pointed to the fact that France has consistently run budget deficits outside of the accepted 3 percent rule, yet has never been punished. The EU’s patience is not without its limits however, as Italy has already been cautioned for its runaway public debt now at 132 percent, more than double the 60 percent rule.

In many states in the Western liberal democratic world, the judiciary is more than a willing tool of establishment parties seeking to punish populist upstarts, and Italy is no exception. A court recently ruled that Salvini, as interior minister last year, illegally blocked a boat ferrying 131 migrants. The matter has been moved to the Italian Senate, where, by constitutional law, ex-ministers must stand trial should the process be approved by Senators. Calling his opponents’ bluff, Salvini instructed Lega senators to vote in favor of a trial, with the aim of playing martyr to an audience already fed up with the lack of accountability among its elites.

Much like how Silvio Berlusconi was permanently on trial throughout his time in office and would not only emerge unscathed and politically stronger each time, Salvini senses a smart bet that would see the attempt to try him fall flat and earn him even more support among frustrated Italians. How far is the establishment willing to go to sideline Salvini? How much appetite for risk do they have?

The Prospects of a Lega-led Italian Government

Eton-product Boris Johnson seemed pre-ordained for 10 Downing Street despite his many political fumbles and setbacks. A total media creature, he is tailor-made for the Fleet Street broadsheets known for their savage treatment of any and all public figures. And despite his first few failed efforts running for president of the United States, Donald Trump in 2016 had a sense of destiny that would land him in the White House regardless of the conventional wisdom that insisted he had no chance against Hillary Clinton.

So, it is no wonder that Matteo Salvini, himself a figure of inevitability, has already indicated that he looks to form a working alliance with the two aforementioned media bêtes noires once Lega re-enters government. The three men share not only an adversarial relationship with media in their own countries (and beyond), but are each iconoclasts in their own specific ways. This is an anti-establishment rebellion made flesh (even though Boris Johnson is as establishment as it gets), powered by populism, pulsing with momentum.

Yet this would not be an empty alliance based strictly on personality. A Lega-led government would run headfirst into the brick wall of the ECB that wouldn’t afford it a grace period over its budget deficit and public spending, unlike that given to the current patchwork coalition in Rome. The strategy here would see Italy using a newly Brexited United Kingdom and a confident, Trump-led United States as leverage against Brussels.

The EU already fears that the United States, fresh off of its recently concluded initial trade deal with China, will turn its gaze to the EU export sector, threatening it with tariffs should they not agree to a new deal with Trump’s skillful negotiators. Italy’s goal would be to extract some concessions to win a period of greater deficit spending so as to boost its moribund economy as a tradeoff for agreeing to a new EU-wide trade deal with America.

Libya: The Knife in Italy’s Back

A straight line can be drawn from the overthrow and slaying of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the electoral rise of Matteo Salvini.

Libya, a former Italian colony, was the favored launching point for African migrants seeking a new life in Europe in the first decade of this new century. Foreshadowing the larger waves that struck Europe culminating in the 2015 deluge of the continent, human smugglers were already ferrying migrants from the beaches of Libya to Italy’s southernmost island, Lampedusa. This first significant wave of migrants saw Italians shocked as their cities and towns began to change overnight, and often with negative consequences such as increased criminality. One need only to drive through the corporate parks of Milan to see Nigerian prostitutes dressed in neon mini-skirts, standing above a makeshift campfire, ready to service paying johns that circle these areas. Others need only visit any town square to see Senegalese migrants selling trinkets to tourists, upsetting the already-established tourist merchants.

With anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise in Italy and compounded by the 2008 banking crisis (and continuing economic stagnation), Silvio Berlusconi arrived in Tripoli to sign a wide-ranging deal with Gaddafi that not only assured that Italians would apologize for some of its colonial-era excesses, but more importantly, would see Libya shut down the human smuggling pipeline.

This landmark deal was blown apart in 2011 as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy conspired with the UK’s David Cameron and President Barack Obama to remove Gaddafi from power in Libya by way of arming proxy forces on the ground that included Salafist Jihadis who would later appear in Syria to try and repeat the process, this time with Bashar Assad as the target. Libya was plunged into a civil war that continues to this day with no winner in sight. Gone was a dictatorial, albeit stable, regime and in its place were warlords with their own fiefdoms, sponsored by opposing foreign states, each with their own plans for the decimated country. Modern-day slave markets would appear, shocking that part of the world still paying attention.

Most significantly, the Berlusconi-Gaddafi deal was rendered null and void, and the floodgates to Europe’s soft underbelly ripped open. Human smugglers, aided by various NGOs purportedly working on behalf of migrants, began to send wave after wave after wave of African migrants to Lampedusa on rickety boats.

Italy was not prepared for such numbers washing ashore at Lampedusa. Making matters worse, the EU could not agree to a policy that would address the issue. Migrants would be left in limbo in Italy for years (they still are!) as European heads-of-state remained worlds apart as to what to do with this human tidal wave. Only with Salvini’s term as interior minister did the number of migrants landing in Italy begin to drop.

But with Lega in opposition and PD back in power, migrant boats are once again finding friendly ports in Italian harbors. The chaotic situation in Libya remains largely unchanged on the ground, but diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have taken an interesting turn as Russia and Turkey have seized the initiative from the lumbering EU, threatening to remove any influence from the latter.

This failure of Italian foreign policy, up until now under M5S’ leader Di Maio, would be Salvini’s greatest foreign policy challenge. Italy finds itself on the side of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, and by default, on the same side as Turkey. Yet this runs counter to Italian energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean where it finds itself on the same side as the Greeks, Egyptians, Cretans, and others, with Turkey on the opposing side.

Would Salvini be able to untangle this knot and cement Italian interests in its own backyard?

Breaking Brussels

Europe today is in a state of flux. The collapse of traditional social-democratic parties and the rise of populism have resulted in a crisis of confidence in EU elites who themselves are now in a state of panic and existential crisis. Where once they held a duopoly on European politics in tandem with the polite center-right parties with which they traded governments, 2008 burst open a rising populist tide that has overtaken Poland and Hungary, and that has made significant inroads in France, Germany, and now Spain. Both Lega and M5S were propelled to power by this populist wave in Italy, with the latter’s tide now ebbing as the former continues to be the country’s governing-party-in-waiting.

Yet the establishment’s grip on Brussels and its levers of power remains firm despite this continent-wide political insurrection. Fueled by the 2008 banking crisis and by the migrant flows that followed, anti-establishment parties are now seeking to dislodge the entrenched figures in Europe’s capital. What unites these groups is an insistence on the return of some sovereign powers to individual states, with migration being the most pronounced issue. This runs counter to the prevailing trends in the EU of greater integration at the political level.

It is, however, a bit of a contradiction that today’s European nationalists seek to work within the EU rather than to threaten it with the exit of their countries, the UK notwithstanding. The mood in Poland, Hungary, and Italy is not one where they desire to leave the organization, indicating a maturing of attitudes towards the EU as a whole (although the Euro remains highly unpopular in Italy).

Viktor Orban, the “bad boy” of Europe, has called for a “Europe of Sovereign Nations.” He has found willing allies in Poland’s PiS and Italy’s Lega. Although only a loose concept at present, the chances that a bloc on the European stage can be formed are increasing daily with the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) threatening to expel Hungary’s Fidesz. Orban has already made clear that the Hungarians are ready to leave if need be, and that they would then form a counter-bloc with like-minded parties. Lega would be an obvious member as the goals and vision it has of Italy’s role within the EU match those of Fidesz. A Salvini premiership would see the head of Europe’s third-largest economy take Brussels head on.

Matteo Salvini is destined to become Italy’s next prime minister. Barring a black swan event, this will happen as the collective psychology wills it in much the same manner that Trump and Boris Johnson also both lead their respective countries.

Salvini is destined also to collide headfirst not only with Brussels over economic and policy matters, but he will also be smacked in the face with the reality of the intractable Libyan civil war. What is Italy’s place in Europe? What is Italy’s place in the world? Unlike recent (and current) Italian prime ministers, Salvini has a force and energy at hand that would better answer these questions and many others facing Italy.

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About Niccolo Soldo

Niccolo Soldo is a writer, speaker, geopolitical risk consultant, and shepherd roaming the Dinaric Alps, V4 and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @espressosoldo.

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