How not to win the next European elections

The drawbacks of ‘referendum propaganda’

, by Riccardo Moschetti

How not to win the next European elections
Italian Lega leader Matteo Salvini debating the situation in Hungary at the European Parliament in 2017. © European Union 2017 - European Parliament

Some weeks ago, at the annual meeting of the Lega in Pontida, the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said that the next European elections will be a battle between them and everybody else. Furthermore, he affirmed that “a League of Leagues” will be established for the European Parliament elections in May 2019.

The deputy Prime Minister has a very clear path in his mind: to create a pan-European alliance in order to a) challenge the other organised political forces in Europe, b) maximise far-right parties’ success within the Member States, and c) be vindicated in his quest to delegitimise EU institutions’ policies and very existence (even if he is already used to doing so).

The enormous paradox of this new political scenario is the following: far-right parties are re-organising themselves faster and better after their defeat in many Member States (France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Greece). In these countries the rhetoric chosen for the campaign, a dichotomy between opposing and favouring the EU, didn’t work as they had predicted. In other words, when a political party relying on strong leadership deploys referendum propaganda, eight times out of ten it is the losing strategy. This has happened on many issues, especially the EU. Radical positions on the European theme don’t attract the electorate so much.

Radicalism is not worth it due to the moderate majority position among European citizens: EU member states with a high population have (apart from Italy and the UK) a moderate electorate, and a political system which still has survived the “populist ascent” (be it right-wing or left-wing populism). So, the confrontation in the campaign for the next European elections launched by Mr Salvini, the “Salvini referendum on the EU”, cannot be expected to work, unless the International of European populist and Eurosceptic parties or movements is established.

If that happens, the key point on an EU-themed campaign will be to move from referendum propaganda, pitting today’s EU against a “collective of sovereign nation states” (which means no EU at all), to a different approach that contrasts today’s unmanageable status quo with a different idea of Europe. However, the storytelling capabilities of anti-EU parties are far above their competitors’. The demand by citizens for more democracy and legitimacy represents a very easy win for them.

In fact, this is an important point. Since ‘they’ are already used to this kind of narration and approach (not) to solve different issues at a European level, it will be completely pointless to challenge them in their game: you won’t simply lose, you will implode. Until now, we have been quite lucky that these political parties didn’t realise that presenting a choice between “us” and “everybody else” won’t work, as it didn’t work when other political actors did it (in Italy we’re quite addicted to it). However, these days, they have reached a certain degree of approval, and also a certain rate of maturity suggesting that this could be exactly the move they’re trying.

The advantages of the “everybody else” side of this confrontation are many, but first of all these movements and parties have to find a common way to confront their opponents, and to fight together, because in politics, as in war, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

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