The results delivered by the recent Italian election should by now feel almost routine: Yet again, a European electorate has handed down a vote of no-confidence in traditional parties, and yet again media headlines speak of elite shock. Italy’s election followed last September’s vote in Germany, which only now, six months later, has finally been able to cobble together a GroKo government. In country after country, voters are continuing to flock to anti-establishment parties, to reject traditional brands, and to demand an end to business as usual. As elsewhere in Europe, the core political drivers in Italy are immigration fatigue and seething public anger over ineffective border policies that have strained the government’s ability to absorb newcomers while maintaining societal and cultural cohesion. In addition to immigration there are also enduring concerns about high unemployment and the anxiety amongst the anti-establishment that the Eurozone as currently structured may ultimately give Italy a starring role in Act Two of the “Greek economic tragedy.”
Anti-establishment politics is gathering speed across Europe. The Five Star Movement and the League were the biggest winners in Italy—their level of public support is a de facto landslide for anti-EU and national political movements, regardless of what kind of coalition government will ultimately emerge. The British vote in 2016 to leave the European Union was a clear signal that the majority of U.K. citizens wanted a radical course correction. In 2016 Geert Wilders’s Dutch nationalist Party for Freedom won 13 percent of the vote; in 2017 Marine Le Pen’s National Front closed at nearly 21 percent of the vote; and last fall Germany’s upstart Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) took over 12 percent of the vote to become the third largest party in the Bundestag. The current Grand Coalition government reflects the reality that support for the Social Democrats has shrunk dramatically, while the Christian Democrats suffered their worst showing since 1949. Finally, in December 2017, following the fall victory in Austria for nationalist and ant-establishment parties, Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) formed a government with the national conservative Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and has since taken a strong position on securing EU borders and curbing immigration.
Media coverage of election after European election routinely tracks in two directions: either bemoaning “regressive populism” (to quote one of my European interlocutors), or suggesting ways in which the existing electoral rules will ultimately stymie the trend. To be sure, the nature of the electoral system in France did mean that Le Pen’s unprecedented gains were in the end checked by Emmanuel Macron. But what both of these common narrative threads share is that there seems to be precious little reasoned self-reflection as to what is driving the growing tide of anti-establishment voter wrath, or how to generate a new consensus on domestic politics and right the increasingly unsteady EU ship. The European Union is running out of time to sort out not only its own future but also the evolution of democracy in Europe and across the West more broadly. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has shown us that there are larger undercurrents driving the anti-establishment rebellion (although institutional and historical determinants in America are likely to make the country’s Jacksonian corrective moment track differently than in a more ethno-national Europe).
The past three years have revealed a seeming tone deafness among European policy elites when it comes to one issue in particular: immigration. Already in 2015, a Eurobarometer survey showed that worries about immigration transcended concerns over economic security and other issues. But the initial elite response across Europe to the gathering MENA immigration storm was largely in line with Angela Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!). And yet what followed was the largest postwar wave of immigrants arriving from and through MENA, with an estimated two million people going through Germany, and approximately one million staying. The impact of this wave on the Schengen borderless system within the European Union and on communities where the newcomers were temporarily settled was profound, straining central and local administrations and, most importantly, degrading public trust in elites’ ability to manage the immigration crisis. And the paltry administrative response was but one side of the coin: More significantly for the current anti-establishment backlash has been the inability, if not also unwillingness, of mainstream parties to address the electorate’s concerns. As a result, the past three years have strengthened perceptions that Europe’s political systems are headed toward what one of my European colleagues has described as a widening voter insurgency against “undemocratic liberalism,” in which the ideological principles of the elite will be ever more vigorously contested in the crucible of public debate.
This deepening voter rebellion has profound long-term consequences for the European integration project. Regardless of what some analysts claim, the European Union is not an aspiring unitary state but rather fundamentally a treaty-based organization. It provided unparalleled opportunities for Europe to address its postwar security and economic deficits in large part because it brought into mutuality a number of independent nation states whose leaders understood the essential tension between national interests and the larger public good for the entire continent. Today, election after election, Europe’s leaders are being asked to revisit the core principles that have caused ordinary people to persist in the belief that the nation state is the best vehicle on offer when it comes to providing for their security, prosperity, community, and sense of well-being. In fact, there has never been an inherent contradiction between the strong state and an open global economic system, for it is precisely the state that ultimately guarantees the public’s economic security and thereby provides the larger legitimation for liberalized trade. On the contrary, the preservation of national sovereignty remains the sine qua non of active participation in an increasingly globalized world.
Insofar as their concerns continue to fall on deaf ears in European capitals, frustrated electorates will continue to respond by pushing out those who, in their view, have failed to listen. Europe’s traditional political elites are in a race against time, with the central question being whether—or in fact, if—they can offload a number of ideological assumptions about how their countries and the continent as a whole need to be structured and reformed. The longer they wait to respond to their electorates’ concerns, the more the political center will shrink, with new parties and increasingly extreme outliers gaining traction in the public debate on core European issues.
Europe’s voter rebellion will continue so long as the political establishment believes that it can hold the elite line on immigration, national identity, and culture, and that in the end the electorate will somehow come around. The Italian election has shown us yet again what a growing number of the electorate wants from its leaders.