by Alexander Görlach

Italy is increasingly distancing itself from the European Union. Once a proud founding member of the EU, the country’s new left-right populist government is already preparing itself to blame the coming economic disaster on Brussels. Matteo Salvini, now leader of the racist Lega-Nord, entered politics demanding Northern Italian independence from the less affluent south of the country. Now he claims that foreign powers are trying to destabilize the country and that they are willing to bet against Italy on the financial markets.

The myth of “foreign interference” is a narrative cherished by many populists: Turkey’s leader, for example, claims that the enemies of the country are ganging up to devalue the Lira. The shtick is always the same: Diverting their own incompetence on others so that in the worst case, there is someone else to blame it on. The Italian stock markets plunged after the government promised large expenditures without explaining how to pay for them.

More than anything else, Salvini’s rhetoric shows how he aims to beat the EU with its own weapons. A ‘Europe of regions’ was once the buzzword of all those battling nationalist tendencies and ahistorical narratives of superiority within the union. In the new Europe, the nation was supposed to step back so that a new feeling of connectedness would emerge from the regional patriotism in which everyone partakes. A Europe of regions, not of nations, was the ideal.

In Salvini’s world, the region has become the new nation. Segregation now happens on an even smaller level: The Italian North is superior to the south, the affluent Milanese superior to the incompetent Neapolitans. It corresponds to an economic worldview that doesn’t try to reach beyond the local allotment, the floe or the local peasant. This is the continuation of what the US and China are currently enacting as a ‘trade war’ on the international stage. The advantage for the highest possible number of people no longer counts. Me, myself and I is the grounding formula of every “First” policy.

The populists in Catalonia have shown that this new secessionist regionalism can be successful: Their claim to independence was based on the assumption that they wouldn’t need “neighbouring” Spain anymore. Much to the contrary, however, Catalonia is not a victim of Spanish oppression, as the leader of the movement Charles Puigdemont suggests, but connected to the rest of Spain by a constitution that all regions of the country signed. The situation is similar in Italy, where South and North are equal parts of the state. And in Germany a minor regional party (CSU) placed its regional claims above those of the Federal Republic, risking a government collapse. A real populist of today is a regionalist, as Horst Seehofer, Charles Puigdemont and Matteo Salvini all are.

The regional populist Salvini would cherish a failure of the Italian state. He can already see his utopia, “Padanien” as it is called by the Lega, rise from the ashes of a unified Italy. What happens to the South in this scenario is of little to no concern to him. Does this sound fantastic? It is, after all, the world that populists inhabit. There is no more rational argument for his oracles – usually, governments hope to comfort investors, rather than shaking them up. Some commentators argue that this is how Salvini hopes to move Italy’s finance minister to consent investments beyond the three per cent threshold. Here, equally, principles of solidarity would be disregarded and the own success placed above the wellbeing of the majority. 

The centrifugal forces in Europe are increasing. The seed of populism has yielded a dangerous crop in a country that until a few years ago displayed one of the highest approval ratings for the European Union. The Italians trusted Brussels more than their own governments, of which they saw many pass in the last few years.

There is no doubt: If Italy leaves the Euro, the Union is lost. The populists who demand solidarity for their projects would not show any sympathy with the millions of citizens who tumbled into the abyss that Salvinis, Seehofers and Puigdemonts created. That is the grotesque face of the new, disfigured regionalism that had once been installed to keep out nationalism and has now been turned against its creators.