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The problem is populism

Roberto Brunelli
Roberto Brunelli
May 30, 2018

A DW interview with EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger has triggered strong emotions in Italy. But when it comes to controversy, cliches won't help anyone, writes La Repubblica journalist Roberto Brunelli.

Italien Parlament Sitzung Abgeordnete
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Pizzoli

Italy's political situation right now seems like something straight out of a bad TV show. Three potential prime ministers (Paolo Gentiloni, Giuseppe Conte, Carlo Cottarelli), all of them frozen until maybe, somehow, a government appears out of thin air; a serious argument with the president to the detriment of the Italian constitution; populists up in arms, yelling "They won't let us govern."

In addition to that, the traditional parties are still in shock, there's the risk of new elections with a completely open outcome and the stock markets are scared, too. Also, the Italians have been spending more than they have for a long time, so the state debt is astronomically high. And there are no long-term, sustainable reforms in sight.

Read More: Italy and the eurozone: the cloud returns

A right-wing extremist party (Matteo Salvini's The League) and classic populists (Luigi Di Maio's Five Star Movement) are the ones with power now. They have been saying ― albeit in a confusing and conflicting way ― that an "Italy of change" governed by them will leave the eurozone. That of course makes people like far-right figures Steve Bannon, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen or even Vladimir Putin very happy.

Europe's problem child

Yes, the whole world is talking about Italy these days. We are once again the problem child of Europe. The best-known political commentators are calling it a "Greek tragedy," citing the danger of an Italian default ― the fear that the country might not be able to pay back its debt. They warn that Italy, the third-largest economy in the European Union, could go bankrupt.

Roberto Brunelli
Roberto Brunelli writes for Italian newspaper La RepubblicaImage: Privat

But despite all of that (or maybe even because of it), EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger saying essentially that the markets will teach the Italians how to vote doesn't help Italy or the EU at all. On the contrary, such phrases play right into the hands of populist politicians.

Major newspapers wrote in response to Oettinger's remarks about "Oktoberfest cliches," new talking points from the right and left use words and phases like "blackmail" and the "arrogance" of the "strong powers" in Brussels, Strasbourg and Berlin. Within minutes, social networks were full of nonsense posts about the "Fourth Reich" and German tanks. In many peoples' minds, Germany has turned into an imperialist superpower again!

Even Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, immediately realized that Oettinger's statement (which was denied in its first, condensed form) was a bad communications gaffe. Someone who wants to avoid a fire should not pour oil onto the flames ― that should be obvious.

The problem is, after all, populism, and not just in Italy. It stokes fears and rocks the democratic structures of established institutions. That has to do with the great loss of trust, of course, that "traditional politics" has had to face across all of Europe these past few years. Everything is supposedly part of the "establishment," everything is perceived as alienating globalization and as a loss of identity for those who feel left out of the political discourse.

Arrogant rhetoric and a lack of solidarity

As for the case of Italy: Those who are surprised that people here are so hurt by Oettinger's comments should think of our high unemployment numbers, the lack of investments, of the constant rhetoric that's perceived as arrogant about "homework" in saving and social cut-backs, of the missing European solidarity when it comes to migrants and refugees. And yes, also of the grinning faces of Bannon, Le Pen and the like.

Read more: Italy's rising populism leaves refugee aid workers worried over immigration reform

Populism is behind many of the mistakes made in Europe in recent years, and those who don't understand that simply don't realize the extent of the risks that are looming now.

Yes, the situation is complicated: That's why we should break the spiral of mutual cliches (lazy Southerners versus arrogant, but frugal northern Europeans) ― in Rome, in Berlin and in Brussels.

Roberto Brunelli is a foreign policy editor at Rome-based daily La Repubblica. He has also written several books, including a 2013 biography of the German chancellor titled Angela Merkel ― The Sphinx.