French or Italian Lessons?

In the UK and continental Europe, we discuss the French election as if we were all French. Likewise, in June we will be British and in September we’ll turn into Germans. Such an interest in other countries’ politics is unprecedented. Whether we like it or not, Europeans share a single political and economic system: the EU matters a lot in reality and symbolically. Even for a UK on its way out of the EU, politics and economics in Europe continue to matter. Diversities among western European countries have become less relevant and more occasional. But differences within countries are growing dramatically. One of these differences is, in fact, the growing conflict in most countries between EU supporters and neo-nationalists. To make our political systems work, it is essential to find a relationship between the two conflicting positions.

EU supporters divide into two factions. Some represent the well-established Eurocracy refusing any possible reform. Their goal is making the system work as it is. Others consider the possibility to change some EU laws and institutions without overthrowing its basic foundations. Macron backs (or is backed by) the first faction; the Italian government (and the Democratic Party leader Renzi) embodies the second option. Notwithstanding Brexit, ironically May is closer to Macron than to Renzi. The clean break caused by the 2016 referendum has created an all-or-nothing situation: Brexit will not affect the financial and global relations between the EU and the UK all that much. But will weaken the call for reform of the political and social institutions.

In the Hirschman’s scheme of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”, the British demonstrated no loyalty to the EU and preferred a hasty “exit” to being a powerful “voice” for change. The bad news is that they did not take any responsibility and gave up engagement for some viable reform. Good news, if any, is that they proved that it is quite possible to reject the current situation. Other countries’ following suit is, therefore, a real risk.

Unlike France, in Italy the Democratic Party still plays a pivotal role in politics, while Macron had to found, overnight, a one-man party to give the old establishment a safe chance to win.

Among the anti-Europe populists there is the less-educated, old, violent and racist faction. But there is also a more open-minded, utopian and intellectually developed faction. The latter also threatens the conservatives by waving the EU exit option, but in fact they use it as pressure for reforms. From this point of view Italy can teach France a lesson. The angry and old fashioned populism of Le Pen/Salvini, inspired by a neo-fascist heritage, is limited by the visionary and environmentalist populism of the 5Stars Movement which is not nationalist but loudly calls for a reform of European institutions. It’s up to the Italian Democratic Party to choose either Le Pen/Salvini or 5Stars as its major competitor. If it chooses Salvini, Italy would follow the French radical option; otherwise it would be possible to create the conditions to reinforce both the Democratic Party’s and the 5Stars Movement’s roles in a new dialectic which can gradually drive toward a new Europe.

It’s not surprising that ALDE initially admitted the 5Stars representatives into their EU Parliamentary group. Unfortunately, the French members of ALDE opposed, hence this opportunity vanished. ALDE would have found a strong ally for reform EU and would have contributed to a positive evolution of 5Stars.

ALDE, however, preferred a sharp contrast along the lines of the Macron-Le Pen dialogue between two deaf persons. The “old is dying and the new cannot yet be born. In the interim, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”: this is what Gramsci wrote just a few years before Fascists and Nazis took over and Stalin had already established a totalitarian government in the Soviet Union. In those same years, British and American governments tackled the crisis by applying Roosevelt’s New Deal and Keynesian policies. Without revolutionary and subversive demagoguery, progressive governments succeeded because they considered people’s needs and the opposition’s demands and transformed them into effective policies.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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