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Tuesday, March 13 2018
Europe/ Brexit II
The Italian election looks like a Second Brexit. Don’t entertain the fallacy that the present populist, anti-immigration and anti-EU trends may be easily reversed.
It would not be too far-fetched to describe the general Italian election of March 4 as a second Brexit. It confirmed a global trend in Europe towards populist and anti-immigration parties. And a willinness to challenge the European Union frontally on a lot of issues.
Populism and anti-immigration politics are, up to a point, different ideologies, with different agendas : populism posits that democracy has been subverted by special interests or transnational unelected organizations – including the European Union - and intends to bring back power to the people ; anti-immigrationism is concerned by the present mass migrations that are reshaping the demographic and cultural fabrics of Europe as a whole or of individual European countries.
There may be instances where populism is actually divorced from the anti-immigration stand : this is the case, in France, of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Hard Left party, La France Insoumise (Indomitable France). However, in most cases, populism and anti-immigrationism tend to dovetail or to converge, since the social upheavals and disruptions associated with mass immigration are frequently ascribed to the non-democratic forces that have allegedly taken over Europe, or alternatively seen as an evidence of an ageing system’s failure to grapple with the present issues.
The March 4 returns in Italy are quite revealing in this respect. In popular terms, the populist Five Stars Movement (M5S) achieved overwhelmingly, with 32,66 % of the votes. The League (Lega), a more conservative populist party, won 17,37 %, followed by two Far Right parties, Brothers of Italy (FdI) and Us For Italy (NCI), who together garnered 5,65 %. The populist sum total would thus be a stunning 55,68 %.
It may even be larger if one is to include Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative party, Forward Italy (Forza Italia, FI), which won 14 % of the vote. Its platform and rhetorics have usually been described as semi-populist ; and as a matter of fact, it ran on May 4 as part of an electoral alliance with Lega and the Far Right. Populism writ large would thus reach almost 70 % of the vote.
Under a very complex electoral law passed in 2016 combining a national proportional representation system with a constituency-based first past the post system, the populist super-majority in popular vote did not materialize as such at the Italian Chamber of Deputies, nor did any other majority either. The conservative coalition won a plurality of 265 seats out of 625, leaving only 227 seats to M5S. A Centre-Left coalition led by the Democratic Party (PD) of outgoing prime minister Matteo Renzi lost 223 seats in the process as compared to the previous electionheld in 2013, but managed to salvage 122 seats. All kinds of combinations were thus to be considered. Before the election, there were whispers about a M5S-Lega alliance. By mid-March, the talk is rather about a populist-centrist coalition bringing together M5S and PD (a prospect that prompted Renzi’s resignation as PD leader).
Whatever the new cabinet in Roma, it is very doubtful that the issues put forward by the populist parties will be ignored. And immigration is clearly one of them. Some eery incidents like the killing, dismembering and fraying of Pamela Mastropietro, a 18 years old Roman girl, last January, presumably by Nigerian drug dealers, have reinforced an already widespread rejection of immigration and the demographic or social change it entails.
According to United Nations and European Union data, immigrants provide for about 10 % of the Italian population. Most of them flock to the much richer Northern half of the country, where they may thus amount to a much higher share – 15 to 20 % - of the local population ; but the comparatively poorer Southern half, which is facing Africa, is the primary destination of « asylum seekers » and other illegal migrants who, in large numbrs, have been crossing the Mediterranean on small boats since 2015. While two immigrants out of six stem from Christian Eastern European countries (Rumania, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Ukraine), the four others stem from predominantly non-Christian areas, either European (Albania, Macedonia) or non-European (South Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, China). Since Italian average fecundity is very low (1,35 child per woman), some demographers predict that by 2035, in less than twenty years, 25 % of the Peninsula’s population at least will be of non-European and non-Christian descent.
Lega and the Far Right parties call for a complete suspension of immigration and the repatriation of most illegal migrants. Forza Italia suggests both reducing immigration at home and operating a « Marshall Plan for Africa » together with other the EU countries, in order to win the support and cooperation of the countries of origin : a policy which has been in fact initiated by the outgoing PD minister of the Interior, Marco Minniti, and which featured on the March 4 PD platform. As for M5S, its original platform advocated a futuristic and multicultural « Californian model », and its present leader Luigi di Maio warns against turning the immigration issue into a « ticking time bomb » ; but it has nonetheless been taking a more defiant view of « illegal immigration » since 2016. The fact is that the party’s main constituencies are located in Southern Italy and the islands, the frontline in the seaborne immigration crisis.
Populism and anti-immigrationism seem to be equally distributed in Europe today. No country seem to be immune : in addition to Italy, they are substantial or major political forces in the United Kingdom, where populism reached a nearly 25 % in the European elections and was the driving force behind Brexit ; in France, where rightwing populist Marine Le Pen soared to almost 34 % at the first round of the presidential election of 2017, while leftwing populist Mélenchon garnered almost 20 % (thus bringing the global populist returns to 53 %) ; in non-EU Switzerland, where the populist Democratic Centre party won almost 30 % of the vote in 2015 but failed to enter the cabinet ; in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ Eurosceptic anti-immigration party PVV is the second largest in parliament and has been frequently associated to government coalitions ; in the federal kingdom of Belgium, where the Far Right Vlaams Belang party gets one quarter of the vote in Flanders, the richest and most populous region ; in Austria, where the Freedom Party nearly won the presidential election of 2016 with 49,7 % of the vote, and joined a conservative coalition cabinet in 2017 ; in Denmark, where the People’s Party won one-fifth of the vote in 2015 and provides parliamentery support to the cabinet ; in the other Nordic countries - Sweden, Norway, Finland – where populists get from 12 to 20 % of the vote (and get coopted to the cabinet in the case of non-EU Norway) ; and finally in Germany, where in spite of a stronfly embedded cultural rejection of the pangermanist and Nazi past and thus of any kind of populism and ethnic nationalism, the populist and anti-immigration party AfD won 12,5 % of the popular vote and became the third party in national terms, with no less than 94 seats at the Bundestag.
And then, there are five more countries with full-fledged populist majorities in parliament and populist governments : Hungary under rightwing populist Viktor Orban since 2010 ; Slovakia, where the Left of Centre populist prime minister Robert Fico has dominated the local politics from 2012 to 2018, and where several other populist parties, either conservative-leaning or Far Right, are on the rose ; the Czech Republic, under the social-democratic turned populist president Milos Zeman since 2013, who is now supported by a populist prime minister, Andrej Babis ; Greece, under leftwing populist Alexis Tsipras since 2015, with the support of rightwing populists ; Poland, where the rightwing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) has achieved a complete control of parliament and government in 2015.
The loss of confidence in the European Union or any other European framework, one of the major incentives for populism, accelerated after the imposition of euro in 2002 as a single currency for most EU members. Designed as a strictly non-inflationist currency, the euro effectively doomed the EU or national Welfare-State policies that had hitherto cemented acquiescence to the European unification process and domestic social and political stability.
Rejection of immigration is however an even stronger incentive, as we noted earlier regarding Italy. In those countries that were already part of the EU before 1989, immigration has turned into what the French public intellectual Renaud Camus famously called « the Great Replacement », the rapid substitution of an ageing and unfecund European Judeo-Christian population by a young and fecund non-European and non-Judeo-Christian population. The percentage of first generation immigrants in the national population is everywhere near or above 10 % and closer or above 15 %. When second generation immigrants are included in the data, those figures are likely to double. While first generation immigrants in Sweden amounted to 15,9 % of the population in 2017, the combined percentage of first and second generations immigrants was 23,2 %. In France, first generation immigrants amount to 11,6 % ; but many surveys show that the comprehensive first and second generations percentage is close to 25 %. And most immigrants are of non-European origin.
As for the EU countries that were part of the Soviet Empire until 1989, they seem much less threatened by the « Great Replacement » : first generation immigrants are less than 5 % in the Czech Republic or Hungary, and less than 2 % in Poland or Slovakia. However, Eastern European countries, unlike Western European countries, had to struggle for their national independence throughout the 20th century, and see their present ethnic homogeneity as a vital asset. They are thus belwidered by the prospect of hosting larger foreign and especially non-European communities.
Both in the pre-1989 Western and Eastern spheres, concern about « Replacement » was exacerbated by the rise of religious separatism and suprematism among Muslim immigrants, as well as by ethnic delinquency and large-scale terrorist attacks. The final stroke was provided by German Chancelor Angela Merkel’s reckless decision, in 2015, to open the EU wide to Middle Eastern and African « asylum seekers » and even to penalize those EU nations who would desist from such a scheme. Merkel’s decision certainly contributed to the Brexit vote in the UK, to the National Front surge in France, to the Far Right surge in Austria and to the May 4 returns in Italy.
Some observers entertain the fallacy that the present populist and anti-immigration trends may be easily reversed. They point in this respect to the unexpected presidential and parliamentary victory of the non-populist Emmanuel Macron in France in 2017.
The fact is that populism and anti-immigration politics depend on popular vote and proportional representation for their visibility and accordingly for their mere political existence. The more proportionalist the electoral law, the stronger the populist and nativist parties’ returns – and growth : whereas plurality-based electoral laws mute or neutralize them, at least for a while.
This is very apparent in countries that assign a specific law to each specific ballot. Take the United Kingdom, for instance. The craddle of the first past the post system, it nevertheless resorts to proportional representation for European Parliament elections and referenda. The populist United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) garnered 26,8 % of the vote and 24 seats out of 73 at the 2014 European Parliament, thus coming ahead of both Labour and the tories. Likewise, Brexit, a decision to leave the EU largely if not exclusively based on populist and nativist considerations, won by 51,9 % in 2016. For all that, Ukip or other populist or radical parties were barred from the Commons, since general elections are decided according a rigid, one-ballot, plurality system. Ukip won one single seat in 2015, and lost it ironically in 2017, right after its Brexit triumph.
A similar situation emerged in France, a country whose wild imagination, when it comes to electoral law, surpasses Italy’s : under the 1958 Fifth Republic constitution drafted by Charles de Gaulle, electoral provisions are deemed to be « organic » rather than « constitutional » and can accordingly be taylored at will. While proportional representation applies to the presidential, regional and European elections, and most of the local elections as well, the plurality system applies to parliamentary elections. In addition, many elections are decided in two rounds instead of one, the second round being open to the first round’s frontrunners only.
Under such circumstances, France went even more schizophrenic than the UK. Referenda and the first round of proportionality-based elections have steadily confirmed the rise of populist and nativist parties. Plurality-based elections and the second round of proportionality-based elections have no less steadily denied these parties a sizable representation or access to power.
For instance, France almost rejected by 49,2 % in a referendum the Maastricht European Treaty of 1992, as urged by both Rightwing and Leftwing populists, and effectively rejected by 54,67 % in another referendum the European Constitutional Treaty of 2005. The populist and anti-immigration National Front vote, under Jean-Marie Le Pen and then his daughter Marine Le Pen, grew from less than 15 % in popular vote in the late 1990’s to over 24 % at the European elections of 2014, and then to almost 34 % at the presidential second round of 2017. The parallel Leftwing populist but pro-immigration France Insoumise party garnered almost 20 % of the popular vote at the first round of the presidential election of 2017.
For all that, if the National Front won 24 seats at the European Parliament in 2014 – exactly like Ukip – it hardly won a few seats at the French National Assembly in 2017, in the wake of the presidential ballot, and did not manage to take over major cities or provinces. Likewise, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise managed only to snatch 17 seats at the National Assembly in 2017. Moreover, both parties dropped by almost one half at the general elections, to just 13 % of the popular vote as far as the National Front is concerned and to 11 % regarding France Insoumise. Clearly, many of their supporters don’t bother to vote for them when they don’t stand a reasonable chance to win.
Whether Macron will be able to tame populism and nativism in the long run remains however to be seen.
© Michel Gurfinkiel, 2018
Michel Gurfinkiel, a French public intellectual and the editor at large of Valeurs Actuelles, is a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum and the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute.
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