The Guest Blog

Guest post by Giuseppe Lenzo, university of Durham

Today it is opposing the austerity measures promoted by Mario Monti’s government, accusing him of stealing money out of Italians’ pockets. However, yesterday it acted as protagonist as a key ally of Berlusconi’s coalition which was about to bring the country into the mire, with an alarmingly high public debt and peaking interest rates on ten-year sovereign bonds (over 7%) and increasing spread against the German state’s bund.

That is the Northern League, one of the most rooted Italian parties (especially in the North East), born in the nineties with the clear objective of separation from the rest of the peninsula. One of the most famous slogans used by its leaders is “Roma ladrona” (“Big robber Rome”), blamed of retaining the whole taxation due by Northerners to the central government without receiving appropriate redistribution or even wasting resources for sterile expenses in the South. Nevertheless, providing an account of the national debates over bad administration and clientelism in the South against better policy-making in Northern Italy is beyond the scope of this article.

The alarming side of the rise of the ‘greens’ within the Italian political system is instead its unquestioned appeal to many working class people who feel penalized by a ‘lazy’ South producing only debt, as well as by an increasing number of immigrants who are accusing of invading their country to find a job. Regions such as Sicily, Campania and Apulia are depicted as burdens for Italy’s productivity, with a high level of tax evasion and penetration of organized crime and whose people take advantage of Northerners comply with their fiscal duties and fund the State’s investments.

Among the other things, the whole concepts of regionalism contributed to a great extent to fervid confrontations over the Unification of Italy, seen as a catastrophe. In reality, regional disputes over interpretation of historical events and local peculiarities are still very common in the Belpaese, which unfortunately appears much divided even after 150 years of formal amalgamation. The fact that the former Prime Minister Berlusconi did not intervene publicly to stigmatize Bossi’s (Northern League’s leader) statement “I clean my arse up with the tricolor flag” says a lot on the deep-seated divisions over the Italian identity.

Most critics argue that the Northern League’s supporters propagate a sterile populism made of aggressive slogans and vulgar language, yet in the last years this party has experiences a significant mount in voting support, reaching around 15% in some areas in 2008 elections. Since its first participation in Berlusconi’s government in 1994 Bossi’s party has never seen its major proposal – federalism – implemented, instead it has steadily become part of the centralized administration which it had disapproved vehemently in the early 1990s.

The Northern League has found consensus among many citizens because its exponents blended issues of regionalism as an aged winning strategy in Italian politics – a similar political experiment led the MPA (Movement for Autonomy) to win Presidency of Sicily Region in 2008 – with extremely xenophobic positions and overt racism. Being incapable of tackling the economic challenges affecting the North, as it has been the case with the whole country, with increasing unemployment and diminished opportunities for youngsters, the leaders of the Northern League diverted attention to concerns of wild immigration and loose barriers, especially after many Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004. This situation has led to much uncertainty among people over the actual causes of the crisis Europe is undergoing, but the old “those foreigners stealing our jobs” slogans generate still empathy in many citizens who would not consider low-salary, labor-intensive jobs that Bulgarian or Polish people would instead accept.

Today every political party is supporting Monti’s government of technicians as the moment for austerity reforms and difficult decisions has come thus most political leaders can provide an external support without being criticized as unpopular by the public opinion. The plan of the main political groups (Party of Freedom and Democratic Party) is unambiguous: since a considerable disaffection and explicit attacks on political leadership have emerged over the last months, the decision to let technicians do the “dirty job” would mean taking breath and gain experience so as to get ready for next elections in 2013 when Monti will have to leave his post as Prime Minister.

In this case, the Northern League’s strategy may seem to have a good rationale in considering the upcoming vote, by accusing the government of rising taxation and postponing retirement age. However, most Italians are bravely accepting responsibly those urgent measures since they are aware of the high debt provoked by decades of bad administration and lack of fiscal discipline. Hence, this strategy could backfire on Bossi’s strategy in the long run. This view can be strengthened in case Monti succeeds in dealing with the spread, thus increasing the confidence of American rating agencies and investors to pour fresh money into Italy’s cash desk.

To this respect, the next weeks will probably be crucial as the EU Member States will decide how to produce growth, because years of austerity and spending cuts only will not be enough to save the European countries from depression.

Nonetheless, putting aside the political discourses brought about by the Northern League in Italy, it remains to be seen to what extent issues of immigration, regionalism and xenophobia would turn into broader considerations on the role of the European Union as an aggregating organization which, by tidying not only economies but also cultures, risks to pave the way to a degenerating future in terms of social cohesion.

In other words, it is not only the economic interdependence affecting the stability of the Union, but also the lack of communication and common understanding between Europe’s sections of society which may trigger further rows.

If the Northern League represents intolerance, other political organizations across the old continent – such as Le Pen’s front in France, the Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the Kingdom, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, the True Finns in Finland – are spreading fanatic right-wing narratives focusing on the rejection of “the other”. In times of economic and social crisis, these divergences have the potential to lead to forms of ‘balkanization’ in the territories represented by the most liberal, open and rights-guardian organization worldwide. On contrast, around a decade ago a similar case, after the ethno-populist claims made by the nationalist leader Jörg Haider in Austria, was followed by wide condemnation and EU-led sanctions imposed on the Austrian state .

Most agree on the fact that those considerations are appropriately defining the current European society, and given this moment of unstoppable austerity and low (if no) growth for many European countries, it seems legitimate to wonder to what extent those ‘separatist’ issues will interact in next European elections in 2013. Evidence seems to suggest that a drop in citizens’ participation and climbing abstention will be deeper.

As the Utøya tragedy shows, one of the most demanding challenges in the future for the EU is internal terrorism and social degradation, since hostile tendencies of anti-Marxism, anti-Islamism, anti-multiculturalism are likely to emerge more and more, representing a fundamental threats for the entire Union. Among the other things, this politics of the enemy and intolerance against “the other” (this being very difficult to classify nowadays into an ethnic, cultural or national model) has generated in Italy the creation of so-called “ronde“, namely spontaneous organizations of citizens vigilante groups patrolling quarters overnight to look for and punish possible aggressions and thefts committed by foreigners .

As for the EU and its citizens, it is time to wonder how to stop such episodes of separatism, anti-EU demonstrations and violence among frustrated and angry people. Although good economy and healthy balances of payment are key factors in providing nations with stability, it seems also legitimate to cast doubt over social cohesion in a Union which appears more violent, more divided, definitely on the wrong track.

Finally: if political parties are the representation of people, and right-wing intolerant political groups are on the rise, what comes next?

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