Last week, France recalled its ambassador to Italy for “consultations,” declaring that France has been “the target of repeated accusations, baseless attacks and outrageous remarks. . . . unprecedented since the end of World War II”. When referring to a recent “unacceptable provocation,” the Quai d’Orsay’s communiqué undoubtedly hinted at the recent meeting between Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio and a senior figure of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), the anti-government protest movement which has roiled French politics for the past three months. Di Maio was looking for ways to cooperate with the Gilets Jaunes in the upcoming EU elections, and tweeted that “the wind of change has crossed the Alps.”
The latest diplomatic incident is the culmination of a series of skirmishes between French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s two Deputy Prime Ministers, Minister of Labor Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the League, spats that go back to the Italian coalition’s ascent to power in Rome in June 2018.
Beyond the shows of mutual disdain, there is something bigger at play here: The looming European Parliamentary elections on May 26 are set to be a pivotal event for the European Union. Since 1999, these elections have regularly featured less than 50 percent turnout, and the contests themselves have focused on parochial national concerns. This time is different. France and Italy represent very different paths forward for European voters, with their leaders clashing on such diverse issues as immigration, trade, energy and climate, defense and security, monetary policy, and institutional reforms. At the risk of oversimplifying a little, the two countries, respectively, offer the choice between pro-European centrism and sovereigntist populism.
In 2017, a young and charismatic Emmanuel Macron stormed onto the French national stage, taking advantage of the misfortunes and public rejection of the major center-left and center-right parties to establish himself as a new kind of centrist—a pragmatic, unabashedly pro-EU alternative to what had come before. He defeated far right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election, and went on to win a majority in parliament (306 out of 577 seats), an unprecedented showing for a completely new party. After almost two years in power, Macron has not fully delivered on his idealistic election promises, and his highly personalized approach to politics has alienated working class voters who increasingly see him as arrogant and out of touch. This broad discontent has fueled the Gilets Jaunes protest movement, which has in turn breathed wind into the sails of his far left and far right opponents. As the EP elections approach, Macron has framed both the domestic and the European debate as a titanic struggle between “nationalists and progressives,” taking aim in particular at Italy’s populist coalition partners.
In the last ten years, Italy has gone through a seismic political transformation of its own, and is (for now) the only EU founding member state governed by a ruling coalition featuring parties espousing both populist and sovereigntist stances. In 2018, around 11 million disenchanted Italian voters, primarily from the center-left but also from the center-right, voted M5S, which promised to address social inequalities stemming from unregulated globalization. Meanwhile the League, transforming itself from a chauvinistic regional party to an Italian nationalist party, captured Italians’ frustrations—and almost 6 million votes—over how Italy and Europe have handled the refugee crisis. Using narratives similar to Trump’s, Salvini called for an Italians First policy, promising defiant stances on EU spending caps and refugee laws, while also chastising France for turning back migrants leaving Italy at its own border, and refusing to collaborate on the migration front.
Both Macron and Italy’s coalition partners should be somewhat successful in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections. Although their absolute representation inside the European Parliament will be small in number after the elections, each hopes to exercise outsized influence.
In France, Macron’s party, La République en Marche, is still ahead in the polls (around 23%), closely followed by Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. The Gilets Jaunes protests may have energized Macron’s opposition, but it still remains an inchoate movement. Meanwhile, Macron’s supporters, sensing danger, are rallying behind their president. After the elections, Macron hopes that his centrist, pro-European platform will allow him to hold the balance of power when it comes to choosing the President of the European Commission or the President of the European Council. The two largest European political groups—the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D)—are likely to lose their majority, forcing them to work with the liberals of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) or with ad hoc groups such as Macron’s. If the “progressive” camp he represents performs well, it might enable him to force the status quo camp of the mainstream, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to accept some of his integrationist ambitions.
In Italy, the polls show that Salvini’s League has now doubled its support from the 17 percent it scored in the March 2018 elections, while M5S has lost ground (from 32 percent to around 25 percent). Sovereigntist-populist forces will perform better in Italy than in any other EU country: The League is foreseen to quintuplicate its presence in the European Parliament, while M5S will gain 5 seats, reflecting its increased support compared to 2014. Despite their growing influence, they are pursuing separate paths at the European level.
The M5S is pursuing a political agenda that targets social inequality. It has sponsored a universal minimum income law, and is pushing Strasbourg to allow for the use of EU funds in anti-poverty measures. It has also stressed the need for “direct democracy,” by which they mean citizens more directly participating in the political decision-making processes. It has reached out to the Gilets Jaunes, Croatia’s Živi Zid, Poland’s Kukiz’15, and Finland’s Liike Nyt as partners, albeit with limited success thus far.
For their part, the sovereigntists have also found it tricky to unite: Salvini and Le Pen are planning joint rallies without going for a united list just yet; Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has refused to endorse Salvini’s idea of a sovereigntist front and preferred to remain in the EPP; and partnership with Poland’s PiS might be complicated by Salvini’s pro-Russian views.
As the elections near, there are fears that the implosion of the European Union is at hand. The European Council on Foreign Relations released a report this week predicting that as many as a third of the seats would go to broadly euroskeptic parties, which, while not in perfect alignment in policy preferences, could still tactically cooperate to grind EU governance to a standstill. But much can change to alter the mood ahead of the elections. The final outcome of Brexit, and the immediate consequences of what follows, could go far to shape public opinion on what kind of gambles are worth taking.
What’s not in doubt is that the election campaign is now well underway, with the stakes being the soul of the European Union itself. Pro-European centrists will have their work cut out for them. If they are to prevail, they will have to stand their ground, defend their track record, and make a clear case for the importance of core European values such as openness and cooperation. Given the broad incompatibilities of the euroskeptic alternatives on offer, the fight will be won or lost on how well they are able to make the case.