Italian expert Nathalie Tocci and German expert Constanze Stelzenmüller analyze new results from two important and distinct votes in Europe: Germany formed a government after five months of uncertainty, while in Italy, rightwing, Euroskeptic populists triumphed electorally but left no clear path toward a new government.
[Constanze: But there are populists who appeal to people who aren't Nazis and who are just disappointed and confused.
Nathalie: Americans should be interested in the same way as Americans should be interested about the future their own democracy.]
Brian: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're discussing populism and politics in Europe, focusing on this weekend's events, which included the formation of a new government in Germany, as well as surprising Italian election results.
To help us understand these developments, I'm joined today by Nathalie Tocci, the Director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. She is also the Special Advisor to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and an expert on European foreign policy. Welcome, Nathalie.
Nathalie: Thank you.
Brian: Also on the line is Constanze Stelzenmüller, who is the inaugural Robert Bosch senior fellow for the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She also previously served as the senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and has expertise on both German foreign policy and European politics. Welcome, Constanze. Good to have you.
Constanze: Thank you for having me.
Brian: This weekend was marked by two important and distinct events in Europe. For Europeanists, there was rejoicing after Germany finally formed a government after nearly six months of negotiations and uncertainty. And then barely 12 hours later, as Europeanists were celebrating that result, they came crashing down to Earth with the announcement of how Italian national elections had come out, in which populist and Euroskeptic parties captured over half the vote.
So we want to really dive in and figure out what does all of this mean for Italy, for Germany, for Europe, and even for Western democracy more generally. To start off, I want to start with you, Nathalie, with the recent results coming out of Italy. Could you briefly share with us, what were the results of the election, and why were so many people surprised by what happened?
Nathalie: Well, actually, Italians were not particularly surprised by the results. I mean, if one could describe the results in a nutshell, I think it would be fair to say you basically have the overtaking of Matteo Salvini's Lega. For the first time, he overtook Berlusconi's Forza Italia, which is a more traditional, center-right party. So that's one element to it. The other element is the incredible rise of the Five Star Movement that describes itself as neither left nor right, simply anti-establishment. This is basically a big win for populists.
So essentially, what you see is, as I said, two big winners: the Five Star Movement and the Northern League. A complete collapse of the Democrat Party, which I think is in line with the collapse of social democracy elsewhere in Europe and beyond, so a Democrat Party led by Matteo Renzi that went from 40%, crashing down to 20% or less rather than 20% to date. So those are three big stories emerging through the elections alongside, as I said, the final death of Silvio Berlusconi that is probably the silver lining to this whole story.
Brian: Okay. If that's how the parties fared in this election, what happens next? How do they come together and form a new coalition government?
Nathalie: In terms of where this leaves us, it essentially leaves us with three fairly unfeasible options. The right put together Berlusconi's party, Matteo Salvini's League together with the Fratelli d'Italia, which is a very small, sort of neofascist party, they're about 37% of the vote. Now, to get a majority of seats in Parliament, you need to go over 40%. Now, where there would be the numbers to govern would be a government between the Five Star Movement and the League.
In terms of party political program, what they have in common is a number of issues, which position both parties on the closed side of the open versus closed axis. The reason why I don't think it's possible for them to form a governing coalition is that I don't think that Salvini, the leader of the League, would actually go into government with the Five Star Movement. Why do I think that? Well, if he has the opportunity of being number one of the right, as opposed to being a junior partner in a neither left nor right coalition, well, considering that Italy is overall a conservative country, you wait for your turn to come.
Now, this leaves a third option, which is a government between the Five Star Movement and the Democrat Party. Now, they would also have the numbers to govern. My guess is that the president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella, is actually going to push very strongly for the Democrat Party, or parts thereof if there is a split within the Democrat Party, which I think is actually quite likely, is going to push the Democrat Party to join the Five Star Movement in the government so as to save Italy from itself.
Brian: Terrific. Thank you for that really comprehensive overview. And Constanze, you have been watching the situation in Germany evolve over the last six months, which were set up by a very similar kind of election outcome, where we saw the two centrist parties' totals fall, the rise of more extreme parties, and then six months of negotiations that just produced a government, and actually the restoring of the grand coalition of the two centrist parties.
As you listen to Nathalie's story of the situation in Italy, which parts resonate with you, and what are some of the broader trends you see going on that help us understand both what's going on in Germany, as well as the situation we're seeing unfolding more broadly in Europe?
Constanze: Thank you, Brian. I will say in defense of my country, it's been five months, not six months, but the-
Brian: Sorry to exaggerate. Ever the American.
Constanze: No, no, no. No worries. But still, that, for Germans who have never been in a situation like this in their post-war history of German democracy, that has been hair-raising enough. And of course, having an unclear outcome was also a first in German post-war history. So those two things, for Germans who sort of like to have stability, predictability, and clarity in their politics, have all been sort of hair-blow-back time for quite a while.
That said, it's not as though Germany has been ungoverned. The previous government of Angela Merkel has simply been in a caretaker mode, so you could argue that the country has been run reasonably competently by people who have, by now, some experience, more than a decade in fact. But of course, I'm being half facetious. A caretaker government can't in constitutional tradition, of course, make any big policy moves.
And that is of course what people are expecting now because there is a sense in the country and, of course, among Germany's friends as well that we are seeing political, cultural shifts in much the way that other country, including Italy, are seeing that Germany's politics will be a lot less stable, a lot more volatile and variable in the future, and that very large policy questions now remain to be dealt with: the impact of digitalization, artificial intelligence on the German economy and on society, and of course the ongoing impact that sort of, if you want to call it that, the social media democracy have on our representative institutions.
And finally, we are still dealing with a host of external risks and threat: Russian meddling, Chinese meddling for that matter, a very fraught transatlantic alliance with a White House threatening tariffs that Europeans are deeply concerned about. There is no shortage of very large issues to be dealt with going forward.
Brian: So Constanze, as you listened and watched the debates in Italy, there was a lot of concern about corruption, a lot of concern about the responsiveness of government. To what extent do those issues resonate and map onto the German experience? And to what extent is really the political dynamics driving what broadly gets characterized as populism? To what extent is it different in Germany as well?
Constanze: Well, I think that obviously there is a populist groundswell all across the transatlantic space, in America as in Europe. And the way that I like to frame this is with a sort of little quadrant. I think we have to make a distinction between real and imaginary grievances and legitimate and illegitimate. What I mean by that is the following. Anti-Semitic grievances, anti-foreigner grievances to me may be real, but they're not legitimate. Grievances about the lack of hospitals, bus lines, and other public transport in rural spaces or the lack of broadband in rural spaces in Germany are real and legitimate grievances, and it's something that the government needs to do better at.
Then somewhere in between those two extremes, there is the question of whether Germany's representative elites, the parties, the mainstream parties, have paid enough attention to people's fears about the future of democracy, the future of their prosperity. And while Germany, in comparison to other European economies and perhaps also in comparison to America, is a country that is very prosperous and has a relatively little inequality, that inequality span has actually been growing, and there are regions in Germany and urban spaces where there are concerns about inequality and social exclusion.
And story is partly an East German story, although not only. But it's clear that there is a post-reunification, 25-year-old resentment in some pockets of East Germany about having been left behind. I have some sympathy for that, I have to say. I, in the early '90s, was a young journalist working as an intern on a Berlin daily paper, and I was fascinated by these incredibly onerous and wrenching social and political transformation processes that were taking place in East Berlin and in the new Bundesländer, the new East German states. And so whenever there was a story to be covered there, I used to be out the door before anybody could stop me.
And I had a general sense that there were really thrilled and just ran with every opportunity that they could see and who have passed this on to their children, and then there were people for whom all of this was too much. Some of them had been deeply invested in the East German state and perhaps even in its repressive institutions like the Stasi, found a way of engaging with the reunified Germany. And there is, therefore, sort of a schizophrenic attitude in a lot of East Germany. There are those that feel that they were given the greatest opportunity of their lives and those who felt resentful and left behind. And again, in between there is also a gray zone where people felt that even if they were happy to be liberated from the communist East German government, they were being carpetbagged, as it were, to use an American term, by West Germans, who came in and got the best jobs in the new administrative structures.
And I think that all of these things in East Germany have created a sense of resentment and have proved to be fertile ground for the populists and, if I may say, the rat-catchers. The rat-catchers, by that I mean the genuine neo-Nazis. But there are populists who appeal to people who aren't Nazis and who are just disappointed and confused. And there I think we have to do better with policies, and that is something that the new German government under Chancellor Merkel, which will be voted in on the 14th of March next week, will have to pay very close attention to.
Generally, I think because we now have a seven-party system with the Alternative for Germany, the right-wing party, I think we're going to look at much more volatile and chaotic politics, but I will also say that based on what we've already been seeing in debates in the new legislature, the Bundestag, it's also reinvigorated German democracy. The AfD have made some fairly outrageous proposals, and they've gotten some very vigorous proposals, sorry, counter-responses in Bundestag debates. And an institution that used to be, shall I say, occasional a gentle snoozefest is suddenly becoming a lot more interesting, and these videos of these exchanges are being posted on social media. And I think that a lot of people are feeling that this situation is actually, in some ways, oddly and counterintuitively a boon to German democracy.
Brian: That's really fascinating. I want to switch back now, Nathalie, to you in Italy. Constanze has really laid out a trajectory in German politics, which sounds like, in her analysis, is bringing things back to the center and bringing certainly the coalition back to the center. You, when you were describing political possibilities in Italy, also emphasized the potential for a kind of a centrist-controlled outcome. Will that kind of response be effective in answering the concerns of the folks who are disaffected, who did come out and vote so strongly for change and against establishments and elites that we saw in Italy? Can this be an effective response to restore kind of a political center in Italy?
Nathalie: I mean, what I would say is if there were to be a government in which there is the Five Star Movement very clearly in the lead, and then the Democrat Party or parts of the Democrat Party being the junior partner in the coalition government, then in a sense this is not a return to the center or certainly not a return to the establishment. This is for the first time putting anti-establishment forces bang into power.
Now, putting them bang into power but with a constraining or containing influence of an establishment party or remnants thereof is probably a way to, how can I put it, avoid them doing too much damage. In the overall scenario, which is one of damage limitation, you would have as a cost to factor in, firstly, the fact this would be from the end of social democracy in Italy as we've known it.
And then the second point is connected to Europe, really, and is the fact that whatever happens in Italy, so even in the event of a government between the Five Star Movement and the Democrat Party, let alone any of the other two options that I was sort of outlining earlier, but whatever of those three scenarios, what we're basically seeing is a significantly weakened Italy in a moment, as a historical moment, in which following last Sunday in Germany, the Franco-German engine is ready to restart. It will probably restart on those aspects that they can agree on.
The danger is that the kind of agreement that France and Germany will come up with without an Italy which is fully participating, will imply that the reforms that are agreed on are not going to be conducive to Italian interests. So I see a longer-term potential impact of fueling further Euroskepticism in the country, if the perception of Italians is one which Italy and Italians will feel more and more distant from themselves. And this has a longer-term impact in terms of fueling further Euroskepticism in the country.
Brian: And Constanze, from your perspective, thinking about your Europe's future, if Italy moves in that direction and even with this election result, how does that affect the future of Europe? Where do you see it providing restraints or challenges for Europe?
Constanze: Well, Nathalie's right that this is an important blow to Franco-German efforts to restart the European engine for the simple reason that the Italians and, in fact, the south of Europe have security concerns related to tensions in Northern Africa and the Middle East, both military and relating to the Syria conflict, Israel-Palestine, but also migration outflows from Africa, instability in Tunisia and in Libya. And it is more than time for Europe to attempt to broker a security consensus between the concerns of the Nordics and the Eastern Europeans greatly shared by Germany in particular about the threats and risks emanating from Russia and the concerns of southern EU states.
And with an Italy that's going to be inward looking and very chaotic, that is going to be quite difficult to do. And it's worth reminding ourselves that Italians have pretty much been coping bilaterally with the situation in Libya from the European side, so it's been Americans and Italians that have been most engaged there. And I think that that is not good for Italy, and it's not good for Europe. So all of us have an interest, I think, in instability in Italy because the Italians have had a very important voice in the past in these kind of debates.
Brian: One of our Facebook followers on the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group asked about these developments really in what effect ... what are the long-term implications for relations with some of the Eastern European countries, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, some places that have had challenges with democracy on their own? We talked about border issues to the south. In terms of within the European Union, what's the implication of these developments for relations with those countries?
Constanze: In the past, there was actually substantial agreement between Germany and the Eastern European countries and certainly also the Baltic on how to react to Russian aggression. The migration crisis, in which it's worth saying Russia has certainly also played a role and not a good one, has set these countries against each other, with Germany asking for help and solidarity, and the Poles in particular and the Hungarians saying, "We don't want to take in any migrants. You called them in."
But the greater concern now beyond Russian aggression and beyond the continuing existence of migration outflows, which are challenging Europe, of course, is the question of the illiberal authoritarian changes to the constitutions in Hungary and in Poland. That really is forcing other European countries, including Germany, to confront some very painful options, none of which are good, about how to react to this. But it has to be said that what Hungary and Poland are doing contravenes fundamental European principles of how we order our constitutions.
Brian: And Nathalie, what is your sense of Italy's engagement with this set of issues?
Nathalie: Well, I mean, there's an element of paradox here. The paradox is that paradoxically, politically speaking, you will have an Italy emerging from these elections that is certainly going to be more inclined to understand the rationale coming from countries in the Visegrád Group. But the paradox is that it's precisely those policies sort of pursued by these governments that are harming Italy's interests [inaudible 00:22:18]. So precisely how we're going to navigate this mess, I don't quite know.
But what I do know, and I come back to the reflection I was making earlier, is that compared to what we've seen up until now, Italy's going to probably be less effective in pushing forward certain reforms when it comes to asylum and migration policies, as well as holding up, if you like, those liberal values that are the basis of the EU treaties. And this goes back to the remarks that Constanze was making concerning the difficulty in actually dealing with some of these violations when it comes to democracy and rule of law.
Brian: As we close, I want to ask each of you a final question, which is, we've had a fascinating conversation about incredibly important developments in Europe, looking across the ocean from the United States and thinking about our listeners here, why should Americans care about this as we watch this unfold? What's at stake for people living in the US as how this is resolved in Europe? You want to start Constanze?
Constanze: Well, I think that's a legitimate question to ask at a time when America seems to be more introverted than in a long time and seems to be considering whether it really wants to be not just a steward of the liberal world order but connected to world order. I would say that, not just the stability and prosperity of Europe, but the existence and future flourishing of the European project, is a first order national security interest for the United States.
And not just because America has bases in Europe, but because we are your closest and best allies. We are the countries that share the most values and interests with you. We are geographically close to regions that are of deep strategic interest to you from Russia to the Middle East and Africa, and our ability to handle the challenges emanating from those regions, either on our own or with you, ought to be of deep interest to you.
Brian: And Nathalie? How do you see this? Why should Americans care?
Nathalie: I mean, added to everything that Constanze has said that I agree with, I would say the following. That I think this has been and, in fact, is a broader conversation about the future of democracy. So Americans should be interested in the same way as Americans should be interested about the future of their own democracy.
I mean, I think what we're obviously seeing, whether we're talking about the election of Donald Trump, whether we're talking about Brexit, whether we're talking about the in-the-end-turned-out-good competition between Marine Le Pen and Macron but could've gone badly, whether we're talking about the Italian elections, I think this is a deeper conversation about the future of Western democracies, I would say, and democracies in general.
Brian: Nathalie, thank you so much for sharing your views and helping us understand what's going on in Italy. It's been great to have you on the show.
Nathalie: Thank you.
Brian: And Constanze, thank you as well for your perspectives. I think it was a excellent conversation and clearly important developments for all of us to continue to watch because, as you all have articulately argued, we all share a deep interest in how these issues evolve and their inner connections to the things we all care about. Thanks very much again.
Constanze: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
Brian: Also, thanks to Christopher, Jake, and Jon for submitting questions through the Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group for this interview with Nathalie and Constanze. Jon, I think you heard Nathalie say that she thought Renzi and the left's underperformance was linked to the decline of social democracy elsewhere in Europe. Jake, I hope you heard the links between what's going on Italy and Germany and the development of anti-establishment politics in France and other places and Europe. And Christopher, I believe that you heard Constanze talk quite directly about how the developments in Germany and Italy have an impact and will have long term implications in Eastern Europe.
And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have any questions about anything you heard, please feel free to ask them on our Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook group. And as a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the institutional positions of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, please subscribe and share the show with your friends. You can find us under "Deep Dish on Global Affairs" wherever you listen to podcasts.
Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Our research associates for this episode were Alex Hitch and Emily Baker. Joe Palermo is our editor. I'm Brian Hanson. And we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.