Italy’s elections and the European “misunderstanding”

Does the political return of Berlusconi represent a realistic danger for Western democracy?

Will Italy’s parties be able to establish a proper government? How long will this last before calling for elections again? These are hectic times for European politics. A weak leadership is evidently part of a European landscape characterised by an inability to cope with the economic crisis and, in some cases, a popular disillusionment with the same process of European integration. Anti-EU propaganda is unsurprisingly getting stronger across the old continent. Socially and politically, all this may generate an increasingly painful impact. Along with a group of other southern countries such as Greece and Spain, Italy is one of the main areas where the future of the same Euro-project, and of western economy too, is being played out. 

The Italian peninsula is in a state of agitation following an election where political coalitions were unable to get a realistic parliamentary majority. In truth, the electoral result showed not only the (now “historic”) inability of the centre-left to deal with Silvio Berlusconi, but also the massive victory of the Five Stars movement, the under-funded and recent group led by comedian Beppe Grillo. These elections demonstrated the impressive endurance of Berlusconism, and dealt a tremendous blow to Mario Monti, as well as the European Central Bank and other overseas political and economic actors (including Germany), which fully supported him.

International eyes across the Atlantic are therefore focusing again, and with some preoccupation, on Italian affairs. In particular, there are questions about the endurance of the Italian economy with a non-technocratic governmental phase and poor government stability. Another concern is whether the political return of Berlusconi represents a realistic danger for Western democracy at large. Given this, and for a number of other reasons, many world leaders and international institutions hoped and, implicitly or explicitly, backed another Monti’s leadership. Yet, they showed only a very limited knowledge of the Italian context (and Monti’s electoral strength), and  of people’s disillusionment and the country’s moral crisis.

International pressures on national politics might, at times, lead to tricky outcomes too. The Cold War years are, moreover, well behind us. Where is the democratic legitimacy of these often perceived “intrusions” in domestic affairs? Would this pressure be acceptable or well received in countries such as, for example, Britain or Denmark? In some cases, the missing real political unity of the EU would suggest using diplomacy and international relations more proficiently. Numbers (and votes) are numbers after all, and they are supposed to be weighted similarly in all western nations. It is true that international elites were, for example, rightly worried about the overtly anti-EU and anti-Merkel rhetoric of Berlusconi. However, what have they done to stop this? Did they pay the same attention when world-leading economists criticise austerity plans and EU policies? 

Foreign politicians who offer suggestions to Italians on how to vote, or who overtly criticise the media tycoon, are and will be seen suspiciously by some sectors of the electorate – and it is now clear that this is not only an Italian trend. Instead, they gave vigor to Berlusconi’s extremist discourse: portraying himself as the champion of Italy’s freedom against the plot orchestrated by financial markets, the European Central Bank, the EU, German banks, the US administration, and a (nebulous) international technocracy. In truth, intercontinental preoccupations with the current state of democracy in a major Mediterranean nation are – at least partially – welcome and accurate. Smart observers may, however, wonder where is the “novel story” here, or why the leading political and financial global institutions have not acted before. Berlusconi led his first government with the presence of a neo-fascist party and the promoters of a sort of autonomy for the northern Italian regions in the early 1990s. This idea of “bad” EU, Germany, and banks, similarly contributed to an overall picture which helped Grillo’s propaganda (though this is far from being the only reason for his success).

Monti’s semi-technocratic and serious platform certainly offered, in other words, a better electoral option to voters, but this proved not to be enough. Without any form of violence and street riots (like in other southern European democracies), this vote represented, in many ways, the Italian response to these peculiar European socio-economic (and political) times. However, to avoid the recurrence of these types of democratic emergencies in Italian history, it would now be time to promote a genuine transformation in national and popular culture to overthrow some obsolete principles and ideas – like the one promoted by Berlusconism. It is, nonetheless, too early to say if the “common people” elected by Grillo will be the best answer to all this. International elites cannot, however, really do a lot about it.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge). He has also been a commentator on the far right, Italian politics, and other European affairs, for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Observer, BBC, and Voice of America, among others.

A woman walks passed an electoral information banner at a polling station in Rome. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ukrainians now have more freedom of travel - but less freedom of thought

Ukraine's government is rightly concerned about Russian cyber aggression. But does that merit online censorship?

Ukrainians have sacrificed so much in their bid to be recognised as fellow Europeans. Their struggle to extricate themselves from Russian domination is written in the blood of the Euromaidan protestors and the toll of its military dead.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s emergence, into something resembling normality, passed another milestone on 17 May, when President Petro Poroshenko signed an agreement with the EU allowing for visa-free travel in 34 European countries. 

From Sunday 11 June Ukrainians with biometric passports will be able to travel in Europe and stay for 90 days within a 180 period. There are obvious economic benefits to the new agreement. Ukrainians will be free to travel and conduct business with much more efficacy. The new agreement will also reduce the insularity of Ukrainians, many of whom yearn for the cosmopolitanism they see in Western Europe. President Poroshenko was mindful of the symbolism of the agreement. He declared: "Ukraine is returning to the European family. Ukraine says a final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire."

Perched on the periphery, Ukraine is now set to become more woven into the European mainstream. Ukrainians sense that the western door is slowly but inexorably opening, and that both recognition, and validation beckons. In this respect, it seems that there is much to celebrate.

However, as ever, Ukraine hangs uneasily in the balance between the old ways and the new. On 16 May, Poroshenko signed a decree blocking access to Russian social media websites Yandex, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Millions of Ukrainians sign in to these websites every day. Even Poroshenko himself uses them. Five Russian TV stations are already banned in Ukraine. Poroshenko says that "Ukrainians can live without Russian networks". And it is certainly a fact that Ukrainians have responded to the decree by turning away from the Russian platforms in great numbers. Ukrainian Facebook is growing by some 35 percent a day.

In the context of Ukraine’s continuing conflict with Russia, it is perhaps understandable that the government in Kiev wishes to limit Russian trolls, together with Russian state influence and misinformation. This is certainly also the case across the whole western world, which is keenly aware of Russian cyber aggression. Nevertheless, one must ask why countries such as Britain, France and Germany continue to allow their citizens to access Russian media platforms, when Ukraine does not. 

While the new travel freedoms for Ukrainians has unleashed optimism, the latest decree has indicated something a little darker about the future. President Poroshenko would do well to consider the actions of other European governments that he so ardently wishes to emulate. Closing down social networks is usually done by authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. But Poroshenko advocates democracy, and in democracy there is no place for such acts. It is surely a mark of a nation’s maturity to encourage freedom of thought, as well travel.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.

 

0800 7318496