The removal from the Italian government of Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega strips the European populist parties of their “showcase”. It is a second setback after the break-up of the right-wing extremist coalition in Austria. But this does not mean that the causes of their existence have disappeared.
The political shift in Italy with the removal from the government of Matteo Salvini’s League has repercussions for the whole of Europe. Partly because the far-right leader was putting Italy on the path of confrontation with the European Union; but more generally because the whole European political landscape is affected.
At the beginning of the year, as the European election campaign began, populist and far-right movements in Europe looked like becoming a major force in the European Parliament. And they had two examples to show that they were on the right track: Austria and Italy.
Since then, the far-right is out of power in Vienna and in Rome. And although it is a little more present in the European Parliament, it does not have the ability to block or even influence the functioning of the European institutions, as it had hoped.
Each country obviously has its own context. In Austria, the coalition between the far-right FPÖ and the conservatives was shattered after a video showing the leader of the party negotiating for Russian support was leaked. In Rome, Matteo Salvini jumped to the conclusion that his time had come, brought his coalition with the 5-star Movement to an end – and lost his bet.
In fact, these political forces have captured the attention of part of the electorate by taking advantage of the collapse of traditional political parties everywhere, and by surfing on the fears generated by the 2015 migration crisis.
The case of Italy is paradigmatic, since Salvini’s League has more than doubled its score in less than two years, in a context of political bankruptcy and in a country where migrants continue to arrive. But Salvini’s genuine popularity was not a blank cheque, as he is now realizing at his own expense.
These so-called anti-system forces will obviously not disappear. First of all, because traditional political parties are still permanently weakened, as is also apparent in France. And although the centre-left Democratic Party is returning to office in Italy, it is in an unnatural alliance with the 5-star Movement. The arrangement is dictated by urgency, and still has to pass the test of approval by Italian voters.
But above all, the causes of the malaise of recent years, which have allowed these parties to gain power, have not disappeared, whether they be inequalities, feelings of downward mobility, or the discredit of the elites. Political renewal — o which there are signs in the rise of greens, for example — has only just begun. The regional elections in Eastern Germany this weekend will also show that when these conditions are still present, anti-system parties know how to take advantage of them.
It is therefore a dangerous illusion to believe that everything is back to the way it was before. That would be the best way to guarantee their return in force, and perhaps for the long term.