13 August 2019

Italy and the United Kingdom Could be Headed for Elections

Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that the upcoming late 2019 election season in Europe would be relatively quiet. With all due respect to countries such as Poland, Romania, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland that had scheduled national elections for this period, none of Europe’s most powerful countries were planning to go to the polls.  However, if there is one thing that we have learned about European politics in recent years is that governments in that region are increasingly fragile.  First, given the plethora of political parties that now win representation in various parliaments across the region, it has proven to be very difficult to form governments.  Second, even when governments are formed, there have proven to be very hard to maintain due to the fact that they either consist of a coalition of diverse parties, or are minority governments that can be brought down at any moment.  With this in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the two of Europe’s larger countries could now be headed for early national elections before the end of this year.


Salvini Makes His Move in Italy

The first of these large European countries that could go to the polls in the coming months is Italy.  Already, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has called for the break-up of that country’s coalition government and the holding of early parliamentary elections.  According to recent polls, Mr. Salvini’s far-right League party is now the most popular political party in Italy, with the support of nearly 40% of that country’s voters.  In contrast, the League’s populist coalition partners, the Five Star Movement, has seen its support fall to around 17%, nearly half of what it was in last year’s parliamentary elections.  

Of course, just because Mr. Salvini has called for these elections does not mean that they will necessarily take place right away.  In fact, Italian President Sergio Mattarella could install a technocratic government that could run the country for some time before elections would eventually have to take place.  What is certain is that this latest political turmoil in Italy is bad news for what already has been the worst-performing large economy in the world over the past two decades, as even more political uncertainty will prevent the reforms needed to revive Italy from being implemented.


Boris Johnson's Tenuous Grip on Power in the UK

The other large European country that could be holding national elections in the next few months is the United Kingdom, a country that continues to be destabilized by its convoluted efforts to withdraw from the European Union.  Until recently, the UK’s economy had been quite resilient in the face of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, but a contraction in the second quarter of this year shows that Brexit is now weighing heavily on the British economy. Now, Boris Johnson is prime minister, and he has insisted that the UK will withdraw from the EU by the end of October, with or without a deal with the EU.  

In recent days, he has sent signals that he intends to hold early parliamentary elections, likely in the immediate aftermath of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.  According to recent polls, Prime Minister Johnson’s Conservatives are the most popular party in the United Kingdom by a healthy margin over the Labour party. However, parties such as the Liberal Democrats (pro-EU) and the Brexit Party (anti-EU) are both polling relatively high at the moment.  For Prime Minister Johnson, he hopes that this election will increase the Conservatives’ majority in the House of Commons, as it could not be any smaller than it is at the moment (a single seat).


Blaming Brussels

What will be a common theme in both the Italian and British elections (as well as in some of the other elections taking place in Europe later this year) is a growing opposition to the European Union and the decisions taken by policymakers in Brussels (and sometimes in Berlin and Paris).  For example, Italy’s frustration at what it views as a lack of burden-sharing from the EU, or EU member states, with regards to the migration issue has been the primary reason why the far-right League party is so far ahead of its rivals in the polls in Italy.  Furthermore, Italian voters place a good deal of the blame for their country’s economic woes on the European Union and the euro, not to mention Germany.  

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has gone one step further with regards to widespread opposition to the European Union and is preparing to leave the EU altogether later this year.  Even with all of the associated chaos surrounding the UK’s efforts to leave the EU, nearly half of British voters would vote again to leave the EU today is there were a second referendum.  Overall, Brussels has become the scapegoat for the dissatisfaction of many European voters, and while in some cases this is far-fetched, the fact is that a large section of the European electorate fail to see how the EU has improved their lives or their futures, and the EU leadership in Brussels deserves a lot of the blame for this state of affairs.


The Need for Leadership in Europe

The trends of the past few years suggest that politics in Europe is becoming much more unstable and will continue to do so if these trends persist.  Simply put, as it becomes harder to form and maintain governments in increasingly fragmented parliaments, political volatility in Europe could continue to worsen. Moreover, this fragmentation is opening the door for more parties on the far-right and the far-left to gain greater shares of the vote and to increase their influence within parliaments across the region.  This is evident in the recent success of right-wing parties that have used anti-immigration sentiment to boost their support as well as the recent surge in support for left-wing parties that use environmental issues to attract younger voters. 

This fragmentation of European politics comes at a dangerous time for the region.  Economically, Europe has struggled to generate significant growth so far in the 21st century and is facing the prospects of a long period of stagnation.  Geopolitically, Europe’s peace and stability is being challenged on a number of fronts, including its fraying relationship with the United States and the growing threats to its stability coming from areas around Europe’s periphery.  As these economic and geopolitical threats are expected to remain in place and potentially worsen in the years ahead, Europe will need strong political leadership to overcome these challenges, but as the region’s politics grows more unstable, this leadership may be lacking.