Law students from the European Union are reporting for JURIST on law-related events in and affecting the EU and its member states. Here Luisa Gambs, a German law student at the University of Augsburg, reports on the implications of a rightward shift in recent national elections in Italy and several other countries for the policies and posture of the EU as a whole. This year Luisa is doing her LL.M. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
Recent elections in Sweden and in Italy have produced gains for strong right-wing parties. In combination with Poland and Hungary, whose conservative-right wing governments have already influenced the Union, we must now consider how strong the voices of extremists might be in the future European Union.
To ascertain where the EU stands and what the current trends are, one should first look at the situation of the member states, especially those that have held national elections this year so far. Although those have been held in a short period of time, they do not all have the same background. The first European election this year was the Portuguese general election in January, before Russia invaded Ukraine. The spring elections in France and in Malta took place after the invasion, but before the European population started to fear an energy crisis in winter. The elections in Sweden, Italy, Latvia and Bulgaria, however, were all in the last month.
Out of all those elections, three did not show a strengthened far right: in Portugal, Prime Minister Costa and his Socialists successfully remained in power, continuing a center-left course. The same goes for the Social Democrats in Malta. The third election in this category is the one in Latvia last Saturday, where the conservative party of the former pro-NATO prime minister Kariņš remained the strongest power. However, parties in that country traditionally elected by voters with Russian origins have changed; some of those votes ended up for a party supporting Putin’s war, but most moved to support western-focused parties. Voters in all three countries showed continued support for their current government.
The election in Bulgaria on Sunday showed a slight move to the right with a win of the populist-conservative party and high losses for the former center-left coalition. At the moment it is unclear what government will emerge from this, but Bulgaria’s influence on EU politics is comparatively small.
In France, Sweden and Italy the situation is different. Voters in all three of those countries showed growing support for right-wing parties to a different extent, and amidst a different social and political background.
France is the second largest country in the Union, and accordingly has a big influence. The presidential elections in April reflected a politically divided country that reelected President Macron (the first sitting president to be reelected in France for over twenty years), but with significantly less support than he received previously. His liberal-conservative coalition Ensemble (Together) lost their absolute majority, and Marine Le Pen, from the right-wing party Rassemblement National, made a close second place. The election showed the continuously growing support for the extremist and EU skeptical Le Pen.
Sweden held their general elections on September 11, with the biggest winner being the right-wing Sweden Democrats. Though the Social Democrats of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson managed to gain some seats, her center-left coalition lost vastly. The Sweden Democrats, however, took 21 percent of the vote, only 10 percent behind the Social Democrats. Andersson renounced her resignation as a consequence, and the next Swedish government will most likely be a conservative one, probably supported by a strong right-wing party. Though Sweden is not among the strongest voices in Brussels, these elections show worrying social and political tendencies in a traditionally stable country.
But the elections with probably the most serious consequences for the European Union were those in Italy on September 26, where a coalition of three right-wing parties won an absolute majority in both houses. The strongest of those parties is the relatively new party Fratelli d’Italia, headed by populist Giorgia Meloni, who will probably be the country’s first female prime minister. Her coalition parties are the center-right Lega led by populist Matteo Salvini, who gained international publicity as Minister of Internal Affairs with his strict course against migrants and penalizing the saving of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, and the liberal-conservative Forza Italia headed by Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Prime Minister in the past and is now known for his support of Putin. All three of these parties have expressed distaste for the European Union in the past, and Salvini and Berlusconi especially campaigned with the promise of a stronger nationalism. While Meloni has expressed similar convictions, her campaign was comparatively moderate. However, the recent election does not mean that a majority of Italians are Fascists. Instead, it shows a growing political disenchantment, a fact supported by the lowest electoral participation rate in Italy ever. That rate fell to 64 percent, the very first time it was below 70 percent in recent decades, reflecting citizens’ frustration.
Though probable, it is not completely certain that President Mattarella will actually task Meloni with forming a government. But regardless of who will head it, a government in Italy usually does not last long; the average lifespan is about two years.
But the next Italian government will be a right-wing and populist one for sure. This will have consequences for the European Union as a whole, with Italy being the third biggest member state. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stated shortly before the election, referring to a possible result that has now occurred, that in case of local violations of EU law the Union does have certain powers and that there would be consequences. That is true without a doubt: the EU has had to deal with the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary for years, and had certain wins in face of them. The most important one was with regards to Poland’s Judiciary Reforms of 2018, which led to the establishment of a disciplinary organ for judges, thus seriously diminishing the independence of the judiciary. This year the government was forced to take the reform back, because Brussels made the respect of judicial independence a condition for financially aiding the member states to battle the pandemic consequences on their economies. Still, this does not mean that national governments cannot pass increasingly right-wing and sometimes even oppressive legislature. For example the homophobic laws of Hungary have not had particularly serious consequences.
In conclusion, we can say that while the ascendancy of far-right parties in a number of European countries may not be dangerous as individual instances, there is a developing trend of increased support for anti-EU and populist parties. And although no single government per se should be able successfully to reject the rule of law in their country or the Union, the passing of homophobic or xenophobic legislature as well as a more disputed and weakened Union overall are now well within the range of possibility. Especially now with Putin on the warpath, the growing influence of China and uncertainties regarding the EU’s relationship with the United States after the Midterm elections, a strong European Union focused on shared values and convictions is more important than ever.