The EU, not Meloni, is the threat to democracy

I have found through my constant exposure to them through the years that the EU’s intellectual cheerleaders among geopolitical analysts — funded as they so often are by the very institution they are supposed to be impartially analyzing — are as numerous as they are clueless.

At my political risk firm, the joke goes that if Brussels is “for” something — entrusting its energy security to the Russians, confidently predicting that Europe will emerge as the dominant superpower in our new era, or ignoring the threat that China poses — we should instinctively bet against them, so often and regularly are they proved mistaken. Beyond the mirth, there are two concrete reasons EU analysts are so unerringly wrong.

First, the corkscrew way EU cheerleaders reason dooms them from the start. In a sort of Kafkaesque example of magical thinking, they believe that while EU policy success confirms the upward trajectory of Brussels, failure also somehow means the bloc is about to arrive. Success obviously means the EU is headed in the right direction; failure, in a bizarre form of Hegelianism, means Brussels will inevitably “learn” from whatever it has done wrong, immediately and rationally make the necessary corrections, and move onward unto sunlit uplands. As ever with wish-fulfillment, these cheerleaders fool no one so much as themselves.

Their second major intellectual mistake is to confuse analysis with what they would like to happen. Brussels advocates invariably tout the death knell of populism, the EU’s sworn enemy, because across Europe it embodies the very things Brussels most hates — it is nationalistic, suspicious of experts, and democratic rather than elite-driven.

So, EU cheerleaders excitedly (but wrongly) thought European populism would be extinguished as a result of the pandemic crisis, when the vital need for the supremacy of technocrats became self-evident (at least to them). Instead, these experts were proved wrong time and again — from vastly overstating the efficacy of lockdowns, to the quasi-religious primacy of mask-wearing, to wholly subordinating economic, social and democratic rights, all in the myopic service of a health dictatorship.

Next, with the invasion of Ukraine, these same experts felt populism would come to an end, because the overriding imperative of international cooperation (a supposed strength of Brussels) over the conflict was self-evident. Once again the EU’s cheerleaders got it wrong, while populists learned the realist lesson that a country’s specific national and geostrategic interests are paramount; plus actually having an army — neither of which are policy areas in which the EU is anything other than a pipsqueak.

Recent political facts confirm my political risk call, rather than that of my cheerleader foes. In Sweden, the rightist populist Sweden Democrats, rather than disappearing as most EU analysts had confidently predicted, now hold the balance of power. Even more importantly, last week in Italy there was an overwhelming populist rightist electoral victory over the remnants of the Brussels-installed center-left political establishment. One of the great powers of Europe, contrary to the fever-dream of the EU’s favored pundits, decisively elected a government deeply skeptical about the very nature of Brussels itself.

Of course, confronted by the imminent election of a government not to its tastes, the EU’s authoritarian visage, so often hidden behind banal verities about its innate goodness, became plain for all to see. Just a week before the Italian election, a grim European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, referencing serial troublemakers Poland and Hungary, threatened that Brussels had “the tools” to deal with wayward members not content to sing along with the EU’s supranational, elite-driven hymnal.

What did Italy’s newly victorious Giorgia Meloni do, even before coming to power, that so threatens the Brussels establishment? Or, to put it another way, what explains the meteoric rise of her rightist populist Brothers of Italy party from 4 percent of the vote in 2018 to a dominant 26 percent now? First and foremost, Meloni crucially decided to stay out of the EU-imposed government of national unity run by Brussels darling Mario Draghi, which managed to last for only 18 storm-tossed months.

Meloni proved to be highly effective in opposition, artfully questioning whether Draghi’s authoritarian response to COVID was serving basic democratic ends, given his habitual governing by authoritarian decree rather than the usual parliamentary process. As ever, biography proved to be destiny; Draghi, a technocrat to his fingertips, thought the pandemic crisis too important to be left to the vagaries of democratic scrutiny. Meloni brilliantly made her commitment to democracy (despite the present hyperventilating of the mainstream media) abundantly clear, while yet another unelected, Brussels-imposed prime minister ignored any shred of democratic practice.

Second, this Brussels-imposed elite (incredibly, Meloni will be Italy’s first elected prime minister since the odious Silvio Berlusconi was ousted by the EU in 2011) has utterly failed at the policy level. Extraordinarily, Italian GDP per capita is lower now than it was before the country adopted the euro in 1999. This lost economic generation is only a few years away from irrelevance, more likely to end up a crumbling, irrelevant Greece than to emerge as the new Germany.

In just practical terms, EU tutelage has been an absolute disaster for Italy, and for a long while. It is little wonder its citizens have revolted against its EU-shackled establishment.

The piece was originally published in Arab News.

At last Italy is about to return to democratic government

It is a remarkable, overlooked fact that Italy hasn’t governed itself in a democratic sense for quite some time. Incredibly, Silvio Berlusconi was the last prime minister who explicitly ran for the job at the head of a major political party, in 2008. Since then, Italy’s ramshackle governance has been a case study in the EU elite’s ruinous quasi-colonization of the country.

Most recently, this anti-democratic scenario reared its ugly head again. Following the failure of two governments led by the unelected Giuseppe Conte and supported by the out-of-their-depth Five Star movement, yet another unelected EU functionary was parachuted in to save the day. Mario Draghi, the former successful head of the European Central Bank, was summoned by his EU masters to take charge in Rome.

His government was designed to steer the country through the pandemic, and also to wisely allocate the more than 200 billion euros coming Italy’s way in terms of the EU’s massive aid package — the country’s last, best chance to drag itself out of its generations-long economic torpor. For the astounding reality is that Italygrew at average annual rate of zero percent between 1999-2016; this amounts to nothing less than a lost economic generation. Above all, the EU’s mandarins believed the highly respected Draghi would be able to provide stability until the next election, then scheduled for 2023.

But, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry. Like most Western governments, Draghi made monumental mistakes over the pandemic, opting for (unsurprisingly given his pedigree) a top-down, draconian approach that until recently has still forced Italians into the dinner-theater of wearing masks, long after the rest of Western Europe came to its senses. The economic losses have been immense, as has been the loss in the presumption of individual liberty.

But Draghi’s biggest failure is that the EU’s anti-democratic power play has failed in the most basic terms, in that he did not provide the stability that was the main point of his technocratic government in the first place. Having served only 17 months, on July 21 he was forced to resign as the populist Five Star movement, the rightist, populist Lega, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties undermined him. Without a democratic mandate, Draghi’s government proved the opposite of what the almost-always-wrong Brussels elite had confidently predicted; it was fragile rather than strong, as it simply had no sort of popular mandate to sustain it when times got tough.

It is little wonder that the main beneficiary of the crisis, Giorgia Meloni and her rightist, populist Brothers of Italy Party, have risen in popularity as the only major party that shrewdly chose to stay outside Draghi’s technocratic government. She leads a surprisingly united Italian center-right alliance, also comprising Matteo Salvini’s populist Lega and Berlusconi’s centrist party.

An Aug. 12 Politico poll of polls has the Brothers of Italy with 24 percent of the prospective vote, the Lega at around 14 percent, and Forza Italia at seven percent. The fractured center and center-left (comprising five parties) together have only 45 percent of the vote between them. There is little doubt the Italian right are on course for a famous victory.

The deal welding them together is that the party in the alliance with the most votes will select the new prime minister, an eminently democratic point of view. Meloni therefore finds herself in the driver’s seat for the job, because she leads in terms of the democratic vote. The irony is that while Meloni is trying to quell fears about her party’s quasi-fascist lineage, it is she who has been the true democrat.

Meloni, who personally gets on quite well with the outgoing Draghi, intends to follow in his economic footsteps, carrying out Italy’s recovery plan in order to receive the cascade of promised EU funds. She is likely to also push for conservative policies such as curbing immigration and flattening the tax rate for lower earners, while increasing funding for child-friendly policies (nursery schools and child benefits).

On the foreign side, given her close ties to the global conservative movement, Meloni will find the progressive Biden administration a tough partner to deal with ideologically. Likewise, within boundaries the haughty Brussels functionaries will reap what they have sown, due to Meloni’s social conservatism, latent euro-skepticism, and plans to unilaterally curb immigration. However, given Italy’s monumental and growing public debt rate (an Olympian 152.6 percent in the first quarter of this year) there are limits to how far Rome can go in biting the hand that feeds it.

Nevertheless, for all the challenges ahead, the good news is that Italy has repudiated the notion that it is a quasi-colony of the EU. Now it is up to Meloni to govern more effectively than her hapless technocratic predecessors, and thus avoid the full colonization by Brussels that economic collapse would surely bring.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

What comes next in Europe might surprise us

As the writer, Anais Nin put it, “All the art of analysis consists in saying a truth only when the other person is ready for it.” Political risk analysis — which is essentially an art rather than a science, and no less essential for it — demands thinking ahead so as to always be ready for whatever comes or, as Nin would put it, to always be ready for the truth. To never be surprised when seemingly unlikely events unfold is an artistic prerequisite to doing political risk well.

At present, two somewhat unconsidered but quite possible political currents are unfolding in the heart of Europe. While the potential of Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Valerie Pecresse of France to rise to power has been under-evaluated, it is also likely that at least one of these “surprising” events will happen. To see what comes next in Europe, it is imperative to take the possibility of their success seriously, and to do so now.

Outside of Italy, almost no one has thought through the fact there is a very real possibility that Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, could soon be prime minister. She has proven to be a savvy political operator, working with some success to detoxify a party that still has all too many ties to the fascist nightmare of Benito Mussolini.

In addition, Meloni sensibly opted to stay outside of Mario Draghi’s COVID-19-inspired government of national unity. She has ably criticized the Draghi government’s many panicky zigzags regarding pandemic policy, as well as emerging as an eloquent (if somewhat unlikely) champion of parliamentary sovereignty and the need for the technocratic-heavy government to more openly and democratically submit its program to the Italian people. All of this has done her a world of good, as her party has risen to second place in the most recent Italian polling ahead of the next scheduled election in 2023.

Politico’s Jan. 10 poll of polls put the center-left Democratic Party at 22 percent, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy just behind at 20 percent, the far-right League on 19 percent, and the populist and foundering Five Star Movement at 15 percent. These numbers make it obvious the right will be heavily favored to win the 2023 parliamentary election.

Better still for Meloni, she has put in place a deal with Matteo Salvini of the League — long the golden boy of the far right — that whichever of their parties does best in the next election will have its prime ministerial candidate favored by both, making them the odds-on favorite to assume power. While Italian politics is byzantine at best and while there are many twists and turns to come over the next 18 months, at present a strong case can be made that the far-right Meloni (with all the policy repercussions this entails) is as likely as anyone to be prime minister, and as soon as next year.

Likewise, in France, a largely unknown woman has also quietly made political inroads. Pecresse, the leader of the Paris regional council and former Cabinet minister in the Sarkozy government, has surprisingly emerged as the Gaullist candidate for the French presidency, with the two rounds of voting to be held in the late spring and early summer of this year.

The latest polling numbers from Politico find President Emmanuel Macron with 25 percent of the vote, the far-right Marine Le Pen with 17 percent of the likely tally, Pecresse breathing down her neck at 16 percent, and with Eric Zemmour — the far-right talk show superstar — at 13 percent. Given the complexities of the French voting system, this means that Macron would easily get through to the decisive second round, but that the other three all still stand a real chance of advancing in the second slot.

Unlike the personality-driven campaigns of Macron, Le Pen and Zemmour — who merely have factions rather than established parties behind them — Pecresse is the heiress of the Gaullist Party, the oft-ruling governing party of the French Fifth Republic. The party has branches throughout the country, long-established community ties, money and organizational clout, giving her a level of support the other three candidates simply cannot match. Also, Pecresse, as opposed to her far-right rivals, simply cannot be demonized as a threat to the safety of the republic — she, like Macron, is a moderate center-right politician who demonstrably poses no threat to the French state.

As such, if there is a runoff between Macron and Pecresse, the incumbent cannot count on disaffected leftists to unenthusiastically but decisively vote for him, as they did in the 2017 showdown between Macron and Le Pen. Instead, the president’s many detractors — due to his imperious intellectual nature, he has never been loved by his countrymen, if admired as capable — now have a real opportunity to vote against him. With Pecresse only a point behind Le Pen as the campaign gets into full swing, she has a real chance to claim the Elysee Palace.

For both Meloni and Pecresse, victory is far from assured. However, as Nin’s analytical injunction makes clear, neither should these seemingly surprising political risk outcomes really surprise us if they swiftly come to pass.

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.