Multifaced populism challenges Brussels

Reinforced by Euroscepticism, it is already slowing down EU integration

Photo: EPA Victor Orban (L) and Matteo Salvini, Milan, 28 August

Last month the European Commission made an unprecedented move and rejected Italy's 2019 budget plan. Since it was endowed with this right in 2013, the Commission exercised it for the first time. In terms of economic development, Italy is the Eurozone's third power.

The Commission said the plan, which sees Italy running a deficit of 2.4% of GDP next year to help finance pledges for a basic income, a pension overhaul and a two-tier flat tax, risks leading to a breach of the Stability and Growth Pact.

The decision came after notifications and exchange of sharp remarks between the EU commissioners and the authorities in Rome. The apple of discord was the 2.4% budget deficit proposed by PM Giuseppe Conte for next year, against 1.8% for 2018. The EU rules allow for a deficit of up to 3%, but Italy's €2.3tn public debt, one of the world's largest, should not allow a budget with high public expenses as the one proposed by Rome. Italy's ruling coalition, composed by the far-right League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has garnered support of the voters in the spring namely because of their promises to oppose the thrifty economic policy of Brussels, which the young Italian politicians think is being imposed by Paris and Berlin. In their opinion, these cutbacks have impeded Italy's economic growth. Naturally, Euroscepticism and populism have been somehow complementary and gave a trump card to the leaders of the two parties, Маtteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio. The inability of the EU to find a rightful solution for the migrant crisis, which should not be a burden for some Member States only, also contributed to their election victory.

Was Italy's draft budget for 2019 a populist one, or are the European Commission's attempts to discipline public finances aiming to impede the country's growth, as the Italian authorities claim? According to the Oxford dictionary, populism is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. In 2004, Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, defined populism as a “thin ideology” of a pure people versus a corrupt elite. The failure of Europe's established parties, which could not cope with the economic crisis of 2008 and the following crisis in the Eurozone, have exacerbated the feeling among European voters that they were betrayed by the elite. This generated natural resistance and the old parties of the status quo were punished. Populism has gained momentum in a number of European countries. But at this juncture, the political analysts met with difficulties. It turned out that populism had many faces - right-wing and left-wing populism, populism nourished by social inequality and protection of national identity. What do politicians like Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Matteo Salvini in Italy, share in common? It is not ideology, because there isn't one. Nevertheless, they seek each other and find common language. In September, Salvini and Orban formed a common front against Brussels. At the heat of the polemics about the budget, Luigi Di Maio said that the 5-Star Movement was working out a programme that would unite similar movements from other European countries with the goal to “give back a heart and humanity to European institutions”.

At this point, though, Brussels has to be worried. And it is not so much about the Italian budget, which can always be corrected. The concern is about the populist parties which can gain so much strength that they will be able to dictate their own rules, different from those commonly accepted in the EU. Few months before the election for the EU parliament, the European institutions issued an ultimatum to Hungary and Poland, and now to Italy, but they face resistance. The convergence of populism and Euroscepticism is dangerous. Populism is not an ideology, it cannot change the essence of the European idea. But it can slow down the processes of European integration. And this gives grounds for concern. Next year's elections will show whether this many-faced populism will gain a dangerously firm foothold on the European political map.

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