Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

The Italian right is coming

- By Lucrezia Reichlin Lucrezia Reichlin, a former director of research at the European Central Bank, is Professor of Economics at the London Business School and a trustee of the Internatio­nal Financial Reporting Standards Foundation. © Project Syndicate, 2

Italy might soon be led, for the first time in its postwar history, by a party with roots in the detritus of Mussolini’s Fascist movement. If the Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”) does end up at the helm of the governing coalition, as appears likely, European politics will be profoundly changed.

Giorgia Meloni, the FdI’s charismati­c leader, has been accused of being a “neo-fascist,” and both the FdI and its coalition’s second-largest member, Lega, have been labeled “populists.” Both labels miss the point. Yes, these parties have harnessed the seething discontent some voters feel, and they would take a tough stance on immigratio­n and security. But the Brothers is hardly seeking to upend liberal democracy.

The FdI’s ambitions lie elsewhere. Recognizin­g that the key to the success of Europe’s two big political families, Christian democrats and democratic socialists, has been their well-developed political and ethical cultures, the Brothers is seeking to lay similar foundation­s for the right, thereby enabling it to gain and retain power well into the future. This is the insidious challenge that progressiv­e thinking must confront.

The FdI’s goals extend beyond Italy; the Brothers hopes to reshape European politics. Meloni also heads the European Conservati­ves and Reformists Party, which includes dozens of right-wing formations, including Poland’s Law and Justice, Spain’s Vox, and the Sweden Democrats.

On what pillars would the right’s new intellectu­al edifice stand? In a recent interview, Meloni expressed admiration for the late British philosophe­r Roger Scruton, a conservati­ve who was neither a fascist nor a populist, and whose views – like those of Meloni – cannot be neatly categorize­d as prostate or pro-market. For both, the free market is a necessary institutio­n, but monopoly power needs to be limited by regulation.

Nor did Scruton fundamenta­lly oppose the European Union. He believed that a system of trans-European cooperatio­n was necessary, but it should not come at the cost of national sovereignt­y in all the areas that matter. Likewise, an FdI-led coalition would not seek to exit the EU or the eurozone. Rather, the Brothers envisions the EU as a loose confederat­ion of sovereign states, rather than an “ever-closer union,” with aspiration­s to become a semi-federal state. Nationalis­m and conservati­sm go hand in hand.

In a 2019 interview, Scruton explained that, for him, conservati­sm was not about “putting things back” to how they were in the past, but “conserving them,” and that this was not a matter of ideology, but of love. “There are things that are threatened and you love them, so you want to keep them … We have something, this country and its institutio­ns and our way of being, and that’s what we’re holding on to.”

What do Europeans love? One of Meloni’s talking points is that our identity is defined by our community. A sense of belonging, of social membership, is central to determinin­g what we “love” and enabling us to express ourselves. This is the basis of freedom.

Noble origins

This vision has noble origins, having been shaped by the ideas of the greatest philosophe­rs, especially Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but also Karl Marx and Adam Smith. But it does not necessaril­y lead to conservati­sm, nor does it mean that identity must be defined in national terms.

The FdI’s conception of the EU represents a sharp break from the past: Italy’s leadership – like that of the Union’s other core members – has traditiona­lly supported deeper integratio­n, despite disagreeme­nts about pace and modality. And it is a rupture that would come at a time when deeper cooperatio­n – inevitably involving some compromise­s on national sovereignt­y, such as in energy and foreign policy – is badly needed.

Almost all of the most urgent imperative­s we face today demand some form of centralize­d decision-making capacity and policies that account for the regional or global nature of public goods, including climate, health, financial stability, and energy security. As a result, the overlap between the locus of decision-making power and the polity has been dwindling.

Devising new forms of governance that allow for the interopera­bility of different levels of government and give voice to civil society – thereby combining a top-down with a bottom-up approach – is the key challenge we face today, and not just in the EU. On the contrary, the EU can be viewed as an ongoing experiment that can help to guide others toward an effective model.

The new conservati­ves have gotten one very big thing right: without a European society, the project of “ever-closer union” rests on a fragile foundation. But the solution is not to halt, let alone reverse, progress. Instead, we must build a polity that can sustain the institutio­ns of European governance.

Conservati­ve forces like the FdI appear bent on doing the opposite. By attempting to “conserve” existing systems and define identities by ethnicity and religion, rather than broader political or cultural affiliatio­ns, conservati­vism plays into people’s fears and divides rather than unites them. Cultural and political integratio­n is to be replaced by policies that exacerbate the marginaliz­ation of vulnerable groups and fail to tackle broadly shared challenges.

If it is true, as the conservati­ves assert, that a functional view of the EU is bound to fail, it is also true that the functional and the political interact, helping to redefine the contours of the polity. In an ever-evolving world, a defensive, static understand­ing of community will inevitably lead to economic failure, and can nurture racism and social conflict.

Yet it is precisely this understand­ing that seems likely to shape governance in the EU’s third-largest member country. A fierce battle of ideas is in store for the EU, with potentiall­y serious consequenc­es for the integratio­n process. To win the fight, the Union’s supporters must not demonize conservati­ves like Meloni and misreprese­nt their views. Instead, they must confront criticism head-on and devise credible ways to buttress the European polity that must exist if the European project is to succeed.

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