Italian parties in EU decision-making: key positions and coalitions

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This report is part of a series analyzing the voting behavior of Italian and Spanish parties while taking part in EU decision-making.

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During the past few years, Spanish and Italian politics have been in the global media limelight as their established political parties struggled to maintain legislative majorities with newer parties chipping away at their electorates. The increasingly volatile and fragmented Spanish electorate has been called to the ballot four times in five years, while Italian voters boosted the political extremes into the mainstream. As neither Spanish nor Italian parties managed to secure the essential legislative majority for forming governments, they played the coalition-forming game with rather limited success. At the moment, both of them are governed by coalitions made up of “old” left and “new” (supposedly anti-establishment) left. 

In this report, we look at how Italian parties position themselves and make coalitions when key EU policies are on the table in Brussels and Strasbourg (while in a separate report we look at Spanish parties). 

The stability of governing coalitions in Southern Europe will matter even more at the European level, as the United Kingdom has departed. As seen in our previous report, Brexit has deep ramifications on the European Parliament’s balance of power, with some European groups winning and others losing from this historical political development. The effects do not stop there though, as the British departure is set to increase the political weight of Italy and Spain, which will become heftier players on the European political scene, since they hold the third and fourth largest populations (and hence voting power) in the EU.

While Germany and France, the biggest EU countries, can count on comparably more stable political systems and the most powerful political parties across the EU (as seen in our previous report, German CDU benefits from longevity, while the French political system favours the concentration of political power), Italian and Spanish political parties fare lower than their countries’ size would predict. This is largely due to their fragmented and volatile politics.

As the stakeholders are now waiting for the Commission to send to the European Parliament and the Council a wide range of legislative proposals, the key question arises: how much actual agreement is there between governing coalition partners at the EU level? How will the governments and the MEPs from these countries behave vis-a-vis these proposals?

As always, Vote Watch looked behind the politicians’ campaign promises and bluster and uncovered their actual positions on current policy issues. Their voting behaviour in the European legislature can show which foes can actually become friends and which friends are actually foes. While the national and European legislative levels follow different political dynamics, they are nevertheless interrelated. Changes in the parliamentarians’ voting behaviour at the European level can signal future developments at the national level (or the other way around) as parties twist and turn to adapt to their electorates’ wishes.

Related: click here to read the analysis on Spanish parties

For more information, data, tailored research and training, feel free to write us at [email protected]

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Italy’s volatile politics

In the run-up to the 2018 Italian elections, Vote Watch analysed the level of agreement among Italian political parties at the EU level. Our report indicated that any post-electoral coalition arrangement was set to be rather unstable, due to the increasing polarization of the Italian political system. As expected, the following coalition between Lega and the Five Star Movement lasted slightly more than a year, a short amount of time even for Italian standards.

While its skyrocketing rise in the polls provided Lega with the rationale to leave an arrangement where the party played the role of junior partner, deep disagreements on most policy issues also contributed to the ‘divorce’ between Lega and the 5 Star Movement. Their different policy stances are particularly visible at the EU level: during the previous term of the European Parliament, their MEPs voted similarly only 50% of the time. More specifically, the EU Parliamentarians of Lega and 5 Star Movement vote rather differently when it comes to civil liberties, migration and environmental issues. Furthermore, we found that Lega and the Five Star Movement have been moving farther away during the current legislative term of the European Parliament, as the former coalition partners currently disagree almost 70% of the time when voting in the legislative institution. Their deepening rift at the EU level was visible right after the elections, as the 5 Star Movement’s backing for new President von der Leyen put it on a collision course with Salvini’s Lega. The two former partners are likely to continue playing in different teams at EU level, as their positions on the ‘European Green Deal”, the landmark legislative package of the new Commission, could hardly be further apart. 

Conversely, voting data from the current European legislature indicates a rapprochement between the Five Star Movement and its current coalition partner, the Democratic Party (S&D). This means that, despite their previous quasi-existential conflict, the two forces are becoming closer in Brussels as well. For example, these parties tend to be aligned on environmental issues, which is rather important since climate policy is currently at the top of the EU agenda.  Both sides support a higher emissions reduction target of greenhouse gases (GHG), although they disagree on level of ambition, the 5 Star being supportive of increasing the 2030 GHG emissions reduction targets to 70% (this is a rather bold proposal, since the largest EP political family, the EPP, is sceptical on increasing them to 55%). PD and 5 Star also agree on issues that are under the direct competence of the Italian Commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni, namely stronger EU harmonization and coordination of taxation and unemployment policies of Member States. Also in this case, the level of ambition differentiates the two parties, the 5 Star Movement MEPs being in favour of the radical proposal to set a common corporate tax rate of at least 25%. 

As the Democratic Party is moving closer to the Five Star Movement, the centre-left party is moving farther away from Forza Italia. Differently from the previous legislative term, Partito Democratico MEPs currently tend to agree more with their new coalition partners rather than with Forza Italia. This move is underlined by the PD’s general move to the left within its social-democratic European group. This is rather interesting, as the Democratic Party was seen as one of the most centrist members of S&D when led by Matteo Renzi. Under the new leadership of Nicola Zingaretti, the party shifted to the left, becoming one of the most progressive factions within the S&D family, in particular when it comes to budgetary issues and foreign policy.

Foreign policy is among the main sources of disagreements between the Italians belonging to S&D and those belonging to EPP, as the Democratic Party is taking a harsher stance against Russia than Forza Italia, while the latter is seen as adopting a harsher stance on the crisis in Venezuela.

To add further distance between PD and Forza Italia, the latter is also tweaking its positions so as to be more right-wing (in the European legislature, Forza Italia is more right-wing than its centre-right European group), although this does not seem to help Berlusconi’s party capitalise on the Italian electorate’s current disposition towards right-wing politics. The distance between Forza Italia and its rising conservative competitors remains rather significant, as the EPP party agreed more often with Partito Democratico than with Fratelli d’Italia. Even more significantly, Forza Italia continues to agree more with the 5 Star Movement MEPs than with those from Lega. This reflects the overall dynamics of low level of cooperation between the EPP political family with Salvini’s ID group.  The biggest Lega-Forza Italia disagreements are on economic issues, as Forza Italia MEPs tend to be more free-market-oriented than those from Lega, in particular when it comes to international trade and regulatory affairs (Lega is more supportive of a strict application of the precautionary principle to ban disputed chemical substances). Their different views on European integration also lead to divergences in their voting behavior on taxation  (Lega is more critical of EU tax harmonisation than Forza Italia) and the EU budget (Lega is critical of the proposals to increase the size of the EU budget, while Forza Italia is more supportive). 

Due to Forza Italia’s gradual demise, other two conservative parties, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), are set to lead the Italian right-wing forces into the next legislative elections, as their polling numbers have been increasing since mid-2018 and their right-wing coalitions have won 10 out of the past 12 regional elections. What are the main differences between these two parties with regard to their positions on EU policies? The two right-wing parties vote relatively similarly but with essential differences.

Although FdI is a newcomer, it has managed to join the ECR, a group with arguably more influence than Lega’s ID group. In fact, despite it being the largest national delegation in the European Parliament, Lega does not reap the benefits of its size because its European group has been surrounded by a ‘cordon sanitaire’ by fellow lawmakers. Conversely, FdI stands the chance to strengthen its network at the European level, as its ECR membership can help the party to be perceived by the more centrist political forces as more ‘approachable’ than Lega. Voting behavior also highlights their different degree of opposition to the proposals of the new Commission. In fact, while both parties opposed the investiture of von der Leyen’s College of Commissioners, Lega and FdI vote differently when it comes to other key EU initiatives. Importantly, Fratelli d’Italia supported the EU’s budget for 2020, while Lega voted against it. Similarly, Fratelli d’Italia MEPs are more supportive of EU trade agreement proposals than Lega, with Meloni’s lawmakers voting in favour of both the extension of EU’s agreement with Ukraine (on poultry) and with the US (on beef). Finally, the two right-wing parties are not on the same page regarding the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and increasing the EU budgetary capacity for defence cooperation, Salvini’s party being more opposed to EU defence and enlargement than Fratelli d’Italia. 

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Despite the shaky coalition arrangement between Partito Democratico, Movimento 5 Stelle and their junior partners, the lackluster performance of the governing parties in the polls reduces their incentives to risk snap elections. However, political change is only postponed, since their governmental action seems to be falling short of placating the appetite of the Italian electoral for change. In this regard, Italy is a rather extreme example of increasing political volatility. While Partito Democratico got over 40% of votes in the 2014 European elections, the party got hammered in 2018 as it got only 18% of votes. While the 5 Star Movement got 32% of votes in 2018, the party is now polling (on average) around 15%. Conversely, Lega has been steadily polling above the 30% threshold, despite getting only 17% of votes in 2018. 

This poses challenges for stakeholders to be able to adapt to such a fast-paced environment, as political cycles become shorter and shorter. Having connections with key figures within established parties is no longer enough as even the strongest political force might face a sudden reversal of fortune. This is affecting countries that have been otherwise rather stable, the latest case being the Irish one, where the last victory (in terms of a plurality of votes) of far-left nationalist Sinn Féin was deemed unthinkable until a few weeks before the elections. Not to mention the case of Germany, previously a bulwark of stability, where Merkel’s CDU is increasingly struggling to deal with the rising polarisation in German society. In order to navigate such a complex environment, the need for accurate and reliable political intelligence becomes stronger than ever. 

Need more specific analysis? Feel free to send your inquiries to VoteWatch Europe. We provide tailored research, presentations or training on political parties’ likely positions and majority building in specific areas. If interested, send us an email ([email protected]) or give us a call (+32 2 318 11 88).

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