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Welcome back. I’m Sam Fleming, Brussels bureau chief of the FT, standing in for Tony Barber as we face a potentially historic weekend in European politics.
Just days after Vladimir Putin escalated his nuclear rhetoric and mobilised Russia’s reserves, the face of Italian politics is about to change profoundly, with polls pointing to the far-right Brothers of Italy coming on top in tomorrow’s election.
How deep is the concern here in Brussels at the radical right’s resurgence in one of Europe’s biggest economies, coming alongside the strong performance of the Sweden Democrats in last week’s elections?
Before we get to that, here are the results of last week’s poll, which asked whether ultranationalists are a threat to Putin’s hold on power. Some 48 per cent of you thought ultranationalists could weaken the Russian president, while 30 per cent believed they are not at all a threat and 22 per cent were on the fence.
We won’t know the results of Italy’s election until well after polls close at 11pm tomorrow night, but surveys before the official polling blackout pointed to a strong performance for Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. Her party could win more votes than probable coalition partners Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia combined.
As my colleague Amy Kazmin wrote yesterday, this formation would mark Italy’s first experiment with far-right rule since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It also would mark a second electoral success for the hard-right after the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats finished second in the Swedish elections this month, with 20.5 per cent of the vote.
It comes on top of the unexpectedly strong recent performance by Marine Le Pen and her National Rally, which, after losing out in France’s presidential election stormed into the National Assembly with 89 MPs in June.
It adds up to a deeply worrying trend for the EU, given the traditional hostility of hard-right parties towards European integration and the open enthusiasm many of them have displayed for Putin.
Of course, while big EU capitals will deeply miss the reassuring face of Mario Draghi in the Chigi Palace, these potential electoral successes need to be put in context.
As Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist at the University of Georgia, told me, there is a risk that we fixate on the wins and ignore the losses for the far right. Le Pen lost decisively to Emmanuel Macron in April, after all. And even if the Sweden Democrats gained ground this week, it will be Ulf Kristersson of the centre-right Moderates who is first in line to form a government.
Officials in Brussels expect the next Swedish government (which will take over the EU rotating presidency in January) to firmly embrace continuity in EU affairs — and on Russia in particular — despite the influence the Sweden Democrats will seek to impose on domestic policy.
With Meloni as prime minister, the EU would have three hard-right governments along with Poland and Hungary. But that does not guarantee they would present an effective axis on the critical topic of foreign policy and Ukraine given the gaping divide between Warsaw and Budapest on the topic.
Salvini has openly embraced Putin, as has Berlusconi, who this week defended Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, saying he was “pushed” into the conflict. But Meloni insists she will continue Draghi’s policies of military support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. The jury is clearly very much out on this, but Rosa Balfour of Carnegie Europe argues that past behaviour suggests that Italy will “stay the course” on Russia policy.
For her part, Meloni has no experience of leading a government and would be battling two fractious and unpredictable coalition partners. Italy will no matter what remain highly reliant on a steady flow of EU cash from both the regular budget and €200bn stream from the post-Covid NextGenerationEU recovery fund, restricting incentives to pick fights with Brussels on economic policy.
“This all leads me to believe that Meloni will not be a major force in EU politics in the first years,” predicts Mudde.
Nevertheless, the loss of Italy as a constructive player in EU policy still represents an acute blow to Brussels — especially given the important role Draghi played on sanctions policy and as an interlocutor with the Biden administration. It would also be a setback for the broader western alliance at a time when the EU needs to show a united front in the face of the Russian threat.
This is a moment when the EU’s political centre of gravity is weakening. Member states regularly complain of indecision and a lack of clear direction coming from Berlin, for example, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz struggles to direct his traffic light coalition.
Macron, meanwhile, is on an unsteady footing following the legislative elections in the summer. In Spain one of the questions facing the conservative People’s Party is whether it can form a government next year without relying on seats from the far-right Vox party.
This comes, of course, at a time when EU governments are deeply on edge as energy prices soar and recession looms, fearful that the economic pain will further embolden populists or nationalists as it already has in Italy.
Even if Italy doesn’t rock the boat on foreign policy, diplomats and industrialists expect it to begin caucusing with the conservative nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary on key topics such as the rule of law and social policy, as well as migration.
In Brussels diplomats are already gaming out which EU files could be disrupted if Italy starts aligning with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, given the latter’s willingness to wield his veto. Tensions are already rising ahead of Sunday after Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, warned during an event in Princeton this week that Brussels has “tools” to respond if things go in a “difficult direction”.
It all adds to a deeper anxiety about the EU’s ability to defend and promote the fundamental rights it was founded on — in a wider context in which democratic values feel fragile in numerous countries around the world, not least the US.
This is a phenomenon that Russia has gone out of its way to encourage, prompting, as one EU diplomat puts it, a perpetual state of nervousness all around Europe.
Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economics commissioner and a former Italian prime minister, underscored the stakes earlier this week, in a speech during which he clearly had his native country in mind:
The European way means keeping our unity and respecting our fundamental values of democracy. Our unity, as the response to the pandemic and the Russian war has shown, is the precondition for us Europeans to be stronger together, leaving no room for the dangerous illusions of protectionism and nationalism.
“[Putin] only wanted to replace [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy with a government made up of decent people” — Former Italian president Silvio Berlusconi defends the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine in a television interview
Sam’s picks of the week
Countries including Poland and the Baltic states are demanding hard-hitting measures against Russia, including ejecting more banks from the Swift messaging network and banning diamond imports, Henry Foy, Andy Bounds and I report from Brussels
Putin’s decision to bolster Russia’s army by calling up reservists has brought the war close to home for many Russians. A nightmare phone call to one family in Buryatia on Wednesday evening sparked panic and desperate urge to flee the country, as Max Seddon and Polina Ivanova detail in their dispatch from Moscow
A draft UN report proposes flood-hit Pakistan negotiate with creditors to suspend or restructure debt payments — a sign of concern that climate change is threatening the solvency of vulnerable countries. Our South Asia correspondent Benjamin Parkin has the scoop.
Join FT correspondents and guests on September 27 (1-2pm UK) for a special virtual briefing on the Italian election results and what’s in store for Italy and Europe. Subscribers can register for free and submit questions for the panellists here.