Is the wind of anti-Europeanism really weakening? Looking at the results of the past months and days, the answer is definitely yes. Voters faced a clear choice between pro-European candidates and Eurosceptics and finally opted for the former with greater or lesser enthusiasm.
A gallery of election results
For the second consecutive time in Austria, the green and pro-European Alexander Van Der Belle prevailed; in the Netherlands outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte over the extremist Geert Wilders; not to mention the extraordinary result obtained in France by Emmanuel Macron against the “passionate” Europhobe Marine Le Pen; the result was reconfirmed in the first French legislative round not only with the incredible growth of Macron’s “non- Party”, but especially with the near disappearance of the National Front.
Even in the British parliamentary election, the great Eurosceptic wave that revealed itself in the referendum a year ago showed a clear weakening: Theresa May’s Conservatives lost 12 seats; by contrast, Labour had a good showing (+31), not precisely raising the European flag (Corbyn is not a Pro-European) but at least proving the old referendum had been a serious mistake – the problems were and are different in Great Britain.
Even more significant then is the zeroing of UKIP, which in previous elections, especially in the fierce pro-Brexit campaign, had achieved great results.
It is clear that this shift in public opinion is partly due to the improvement of the economic situation and prospects.
Moods confirmed by the latest Eurobarometer
This different mood in national public opinions had already been partially confirmed by the latest Eurobarometer in April (Designing European Future, Commission, April 2017). It reported that about half of those polled, 47 percent, still believe in Europe, versus 46 percent who continue to reject the idea of more integration. However, the interesting fact is that those in favour have grown by 11 points compared to October 2016, just over six months later.
It is clear that this shift in public opinion is partly due to the improvement of the economic situation and prospects, which has been occurring all over Europe. It must also be added, that beyond the objective economic data, it is the leaders’ role to make a difference.
The role of leaders in an EU under siege
Macron, who is overturning the discourse of the Eurosceptics and aiming decisively at the improvement of the process of European integration, is the most convincing example. That attitude is also clearly manifested in Germany ahead of the elections on 24 September. In fact, both Angela Merkel and her Socialist competitor, Martin Schultz, have made their core topic the strengthening of the European Union.
The reason is pretty obvious. Germany today, and Europe with it, is under siege. To the North, the difficult negotiations on Brexit; to the East, the quasi-imperial attempts of Putin; to the South the great challenge of immigration and instability in the Middle East and North Africa; and, big news, the problematic relationship with Donald Trump.
Angela Merkel has already declared that “Europe must take its fate into its own hands” and this will be the tone of her election campaign. From here, and with the impetus of Macron, the impulse can begin for a revival of some European policies both in the economic field and in defence. In short, we are witnessing in all probability the revival of the old Franco-German “twin-engine”.
With this domestic political confusion and lack of strategy towards the EU, it isn’t even amazing that people don’t believe, as in the past, in the value of integration.
Italy and the Euro-scepticism of parties and leaders
And Italy? It is likely to be the soft underbelly of the Union once again. Leave aside, for some sort of national shame, the incomprehensible spectacle on the new electoral law. Let us return for a moment to the Commission statistics: in Italy only 39% support the EU, even a point less that Eurosceptic Great Britain. Those opposed are at 48%.
But while looking carefully at the opinion polls, just reading the parties’ statements on the EU is enough to realise that a large majority is no less Eurosceptic: M5S, Lega Nord, Fratelli d’Italia, the majority of Forza Italia are not missing the opportunity to criticise Brussels. And even the PD, or rather its current leader Matteo Renzi, is not particularly in line with the EU.
It seems we are witnessing a race among those who criticize most, without ever addressing the problem of a realistic alternative to the Union. With this domestic political confusion and lack of strategy towards the EU, it isn’t even amazing that people don’t believe, as in the past, in the value of integration.
If Europe starts again on the basis of a renewed alliance between Paris and Berlin, the risk for us is to be excluded.
The soft underbelly and the risk of exclusion
But careful, because if Europe starts again on the basis of a renewed alliance between Paris and Berlin, the risk for us is to be excluded. Or at least be relegated to the second tier of a Union which by now is moving with the prospect of higher speed. For a founding country like Italy, and Macron insistently urging us to be there, missing this opportunity would be deleterious.
It would be appropriate, therefore, that the national political forces or some of them, in a burst of reasonability, resumed a commitment to substance and not just the surface of the EU’s future. We shall see if the hints of economic recovery (the Commission survey reports an increase of 4 points, to 58%, in favour of the Euro) and a certain clarification of the political picture following the municipal elections of these days does not help us in the end to reengage to the train of our partners, now “en marche” towards a stronger Union.
We too, perhaps, could change the wind’s direction.