the general elections of March 2018, for the first time ever one of the
founding members of the European Union is now lead by a Eurosceptic government.
fter months of
negotiations, the Five Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League formed a
grand coalition to hold the Italian Parliamentary majority, appointing as Prime
Minister (PM) the neutral law professor Giuseppe Conte.

How do we arrive at a similar
defeat of mainstream parties after several years of absolute domination of Italian
politics? The scope of this article is to address two factors, consistent with
the political literature on European populism: one internal (crisis of
representation) and one external (national media), to explain the failure of
Italian traditional parties and the consequent rise of populism and
Euroscepticism. The Italian case is exemplifying for the perfect combining of
two key dynamics, since it addresses both the dimensions of EU politics that –
among others – recently led to most of the critics: accountability and the
media coverage. The “sickness” that has affected mainstream politics is an
EU-wide phenomenon that should not be underestimated.

The crisis of mainstream actors

The analytical framework
is composed as follows:

  1. We
    shall consider the Italian case as a crisis – although in its embryonic stage –
    by framing it into the European Integration theories on crises. The actual
    government approach to European politics has demonstrated to be likely to
    determine a decision-making situation of reduction of the actual level of (political)
    integration (F. Schimmelfennig, 2017).[1]
  2. The
    model we will use for the analysis is developed by Hanspeter Kriesi (2015) on
    the conditions for the rise of populism in Europe. We built two hypotheses, to
    be corroborated, based on this model:

a) Populist movements benefited
from a crisis of representation of traditional parties;

b) National media are active players in the process.

3.We shall consider the League as a non-mainstream political actor in Italy for research purposes. Changes in governance, from Umberto Bossi secretariat to Salvini’s leadership, have radically changed the party’s political agenda (V. Raos, 2019).

Also, Matteo Salvini’s
League has to be considered as a populist party, according to Kriesi’s model.[2]

I.I. Crisis of

According to Hanspeter
Kriesi model, populist parties benefit from a socio-political environment of
widespread crisis of representation that occurs to mainstream politics –
notably, pro-European integration parties like the Italian centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and the
centre-right Forza Italia (FI), led
by Silvio Berlusconi.

As Table 1 shows (data
source: YouTrend), starting from 2009, the aforementioned parties experienced a
respective collapse in consensus among Italian voters.

The common thread
between consensus’ dwindle for both FI (formerly Popolo delle Libertà – PDL) and PD is represented by the years of
government in charge, as intended 2009-2011 for Berlusconi’s parties and
2013-2017 for PD.

The main driver for the crisis
of representation is identified in the “constant tension between responsibility
and responsiveness for mainstream parties” (H. Kriesi, 2015), thus between a party’s
role of representation – and the commitment to its voting base – and the role
of guarantor of wider national and supranational interests, notably EU politics’.
For empirical results we shall consider the case of the PD, which under the
premiership of Matteo Renzi first, and Paolo Gentiloni later, pushed for strong
structural reforms whose sunk costs have shown tremendous impact in terms of
loss of votes.

It is worth to notice
how the major centre-left party in Italy reaches a peak in consensus during the
last European elections of 2014 – with a 36.7% of Italians who trusted PM
Matteo Renzi’s leadership, also ahead of the solid results obtained in EU
elections indeed (40.7%). From that year on, PD’s consensus trendline became negative
until the bottom-low of 18.76 % of the last general elections of March 2018
(see Table 2). From 2014 on, the PD – with the heritage of a debt/GDP ratio of
133.8% – is constrained between the political effort to keep and enlarge the
electorate and the financial need of levelling Italian public debt, in order to
comply with the EU fiscal rules and remain on track with the integration

Some of the policies and
proposed reforms under the premiership of Matteo Renzi reflects this
ambivalence, notably the Decree-Law 66/2014, a « €80 bonus » of fiscal
leverage to eligible low-income households with – indeed – income redistribution’s
aims (M. Bazzoli, S. De Poli, C. V. Fiorio, 2017) and the Constitutional
Referendum held in December 2016.

The 2016 Referendum
particularly shows how a strong commitment to the European administrative
convergence challenge (M. J. Bull, 2015) – declined into the Referendum
question as:

a) abolition of perfect
bicameralism in the Parliament and

b) costs-cutting of
institutions – is no priority for the Italian electorate, mainly because of the
trans-political alignment of the No voters who were more interested in Renzi’s
political stability (G. Pasquino & M. Valbruzzi, 2017).

The outstanding aftermath
of the Referendum – 59.12% of contrary votes and Renzi’s consequent resignation
– corroborate the hypothesis on the crisis of representation.

I.II.  The role of the media

The second hypothesis aims
to verify national media have an active role in determining the rise of
populist parties, at the expense of mainstream politics. Kriesi describes a “new
media logic » of interpreting, selecting and adapting news to certain interests,
from which particularly centralised and personified parties – like the
« Salvini-centred » League – can take advance.

In this view indeed, the
5SM rapidly adapted to the media logic by switching from a pluralised approach
of political communication, to a centralisation on the figure of its PM-candidate,
the actual Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio[3].

The Italian case fits
the model’s description.

We considered the migration
issue for analytical purposes by the fact that ­- from 2013 on – it is
constantly one of the most sensitive issues in the EU agenda (J. Park, 2015).

Table 3 above (data
source: InfoMigrants by ANSA) represents Italian media coverage of migration

We consider data from
the years 2016 – last year of PD government-in-charge, with PM Matteo Renzi –
and 2017. As discussed in paragraph I.I., PD government’s Constitutional
Referendum is the strongest deal-changer in Italian politics’ recent history. Renzi’s
successor Paolo Gentiloni – former Foreign Minister – took over in 2017, but
his cabinet was perceived as a transitional government that should have led to
new elections (the one held the 4th of March 2018, indeed). Thus, we
shall consider 2017 as the year of electoral agenda-setting for the former
oppositions, overall the League and the 5SM.

The League, especially,
based the electoral campaign on a harder approach toward illegal immigration[4], proof of which is the realisation
of the decree-law (dl) 113/2018, known as “Decreto
” (Security Decree) [5], under proposal of the
Interior Minister and League’s leader Matteo Salvini, indeed.

Also, a migrants
unfriendly and bi-lateral oriented agenda on such a critical issue revealed as
a breakup point between the new born coalition-government and the European
Commission, as well as some of the other MSs – as the cases of Aquarius[6] and Diciotti[7] have shown.

Therefore, media
coverage on migration adapts and rapidly increases (see Table 3), assisting the
massive and continuous campaign that populists made on it, through the
dramatization and scandal-shifting tone of the news (H. Kriesi, 2015). National
media actively contributes into pushing migration issue at the top of the
electoral agenda, even though the issue itself did not constitute a priority,
given the decrease in number of landed migrants (see Table 4 – data source:

Migration stories on
Italian newspapers grew from the 2016’s 4055 to a top 6059 in 2017, as well as
news stories[8]
that grew from average 189 to average 667 in one year; consequently, the number
of shares for the stories uptrends from 953 to 2998.

Mainstream parties –
like PD and the other centre-left parties overall – which have a more friendly
and open-border position on immigration – are cut out by the media coverage on
the topic.

For instance, news on
safe and/or legal channels of migration in Italy remains marginal; humanitarian
corridors[9] are cited in only 94
articles during 2017, as well as migrants’ relocation stories, that are the focus
of only 86 articles.


Therefore, the two
factors proposed and analysed seem to assume valid claims on the phenomenology
of populism in the recent Italian case. The old “right-left” cleavage has been stretched
by the lack of ability of mainstream actors in facing national and
supranational challenges in an already financially fragile State. Thus, from this
deepening populist parties emerged, benefiting also from a favourable agenda
setting by the media.  That given, those
aspects are not the only ones to be taken into account, as well as they’re not
sufficient to extend the core of the analysis to all the Member States. Many
other factors are concurrent to explain the upheaval of mainstream politics in
Europe, especially the Euro crisis of 2008, but that goes beyond the purpose of
this article.

De Falco

further information:

Frank Schimmelfennig (2017), Theorizing Crisis in European Integration,
in Dinan, Desmond, Neill Nugent, and
William E. Paterson (eds.): The
European Union in Crisis, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 316-336.

Gianfranco Pasquino
& Marco Valbruzzi (2017), Italy says
no: 2016 constitutional referendum and its consequences
, Journal of Modern
Italian Studies, volume 22, 2017 – Issue 2, pp. 145-162

Kriesi (2015), Populism. Concepts and
Conditions for its rise in Europe
, Il Mulino -Rivisteweb

by ANSA (2017), More coverage of
migration in Italian media
, at

J. Bull (2015), Institutional Reform in Italy to
Respond to the EU Challenge: Renzi’s Constitutional Reform Project
, Paper presented to the
Conference, ‘The 2014 European Elections: Italian Politics and the European
Challenge’, European Policies Research Centre, University of Strathclyde, 14-15
January 2015

Martina Bazzoli, Silvia
De Poli, Carlo V. Fiorio (2017), The
impacts of the Renzi government’s economic policies on income distribution
Romatrepress, at

Park (2015), Europe’s Migrants Crisis,
European Council on Foreign Relations, at

Višeslav Rao (2019), From Pontida to Brussels: the nationalization and Europeanisation of
the Northern League,
Anali 15(1), 105-128

YouTrend, Tabella riassuntiva dei
sondaggi (2008-2017): lo storico,

UNHCR, data on landing
migrants in Italy, at

[1] 5SM-League
government opted for an expansionary economic policy in 2019, voluntary
breaching EU fiscal discipline’s rules (Growth and Stability Pact). The
Commission bargained the amount of deficit spending to concede to the new government,
but still estimates a negative impact of policies on the overall country’s
growth. That led to a series of remarks. (

[2] Populism as a “political strategy” (instead of an “ideology”),
adopted by particularly personalized parties (H. Kriesi, 2015).

In September 2017 the 5SM asked the electoral base to pick the future
PM-candidate for the party through an electronic vote in the web platform
Rousseau. Among the most influent 5SM’s figures, Luigi Di Maio was the sole to
be selected to run. Alessandro Di Battista, Roberto Fico, Danilo Toninelli and
Beppe Grillo himself remained outside the run, thus determining an outstanding
victory of Di Maio (85% of votes) over other semi-unknown activists or former


[5] The core policy issue of the dl 113/2018 regards
restriction on the right to « humanitarian
protection » (art. 5.6, Consolidated Text
286/1998) to only few cases –
notably for civil merits, to
victims of exploitation, domestic abuses and
for health issues.



[8] A news story is a written or recorded article or
interview that informs the public about current events, concerns, or ideas. It provides
story ideas to journalists who then flesh out the idea to create the story as
it appears.

[9] A humanitarian corridor is a type of temporary
demilitarized zone intended to allow the safe transit of humanitarian aid in,
and/or refugees out of a crisis region.

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