European Campaign Trail: Running Up Against Voter Disaffection in Tuscany

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Photo Credit: Joaquin Corbalan P / Shutterstock
Over two days, I followed Simona Bonafé, who heads the Democratic Party’s list in central Italy’s constituency and was the Italian MEP who received the most votes in 2014, as she campaigned for

Over two days, I followed Simona Bonafé, who heads the Democratic Party’s list in central Italy’s constituency and was the Italian MEP who received the most votes in 2014, as she campaigned for the European Parliament elections. We traveled across Tuscany, attending several different events: we went from a public conference in Florence hosting Frans Timmermans, the Party of European Socialists’ candidate for president of the European Commission, to small gatherings in countryside towns of less than 10,000 habitants, and from a conference on the circular economy at the European University Institute to visiting family-run factories producing local goods.

Being on the campaign trail is strenuous work, and Bonafé is what Italians call a “war machine.” She is clearly passionate about what she does and does not spare herself: there is no alone time during her day, except for sleep. She shows a striking capacity to keep the focus on her policy priorities for the EU—sustainability, fiscal union, and institutional reforms to solve its democratic deficit—and to adapt her language to different audiences.

On the road, plans are continuously changed and time between meetings is dedicated to phone calls and feeding the online campaign through social media. Holding a conversation with Bonafé is almost impossible. She is also the party secretary in the region, which means her agenda is crowded with events where she endorses party candidates running for the local elections, which in many cities will take place on the same day as the European Parliament ones. This increases the number of platforms she can use but often means that time is short for questions and discussion with voters. The meetings I attended reminded me of my time in Italian universities, full of speeches and limited time for questions, if at all.

While we were traveling in Tuscany, videos and pictures were released of Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, and the Lega party’s leader, posing in front of a steel fence on Hungary’s southern border, a symbol of anti-immigrant policies. “Taking is fine, but when it’s time to give, we raise walls,” said Bonafé during a speech. “On one side there are those who really want to change Europe; and on the other side those who say they want to change Europe but in reality want to go back, thinking that today’s challenges are better tackled at the national level.”

In her recent book, Without Europe Is Worse, an appeal to Italian citizens to reflect on the benefits of EU integration, she elaborates on her flagship proposals: harmonization of fiscal policies to complete the economic union; an EU “web tax” to finance welfare initiatives such as pan-European unemployment benefits; and sanctions against member states that refuse their fair share of burdens.

"There is in the country a growing sense of having been failed by the EU, and resentment of other member states for their lack of solidarity."

Another key element of Bonafé’s agenda is orienting EU industrial policy to the creation of a circular economy. Although the concept has not fully been absorbed in the Italian political conversation—there is a tendency to mistake it for recycling—in practice, many industrial sectors already work in a circular way. This is the case in Tuscany for the gold manufacturing sector in Arezzo, the textile sector in Prato, and the paper industry across the region.

In many cases, the adoption of a sustainable business model in Italy has been possible thanks to EU investments. The same is true for key infrastructure and public spaces like the former textile factory turned into a conference venue in Loro Ciuffenna where one campaign event was held. Structural and cohesion funds are a hobbyhorse of pro-EU parties like Bonafé’s that stress the link between the local and supranational to make the union feel closer to citizens’ everyday life.

Repulsion Toward Politics

In a country where civic education is not part of schools’ curricula (a proposal is currently underway in the Italian parliament to amend this), it is no surprise that many people are often unaware of how the EU works and are at best indifferent to EU politics. Many are not interested due to their disaffection for national politics, which becomes a repulsion toward politics in general.

For a long time, the EU was regarded by many Italians as a guarantee of honesty and legality, and as a layer of checks and balances over national governments. However, as my time on the campaign trail with Bonafé confirmed, there is in the country a growing sense of having been failed by the EU, and resentment of other member states for their lack of solidarity, embodied by the politics of austerity after the financial crisis and the unwillingness to develop a common strategy during the migration crisis. There is also a feeling that the EU has become complacent and stopped growing, and that the European project will never function correctly as long as there is a monetary union and multiple fiscal regimes. One of the people I spoke to described the relationship between Italians and the EU as “one we have with someone we love but drives us mad.”

The issue that seems most difficult to address is the sense of powerlessness expressed by many citizens, especially those who understand that blaming Brussels is of no use because governments are for the most part still responsible for decisions made at the EU level. Some go as far as to say that there is no actual union, only a group of states working to pursue their selfish interests. No politicians seem to have been able to provide convincing answers to people’s legitimate questions: How to influence EU decisions when they are made by politicians elected in another state? How to come to terms with decisions that impact radically on your everyday life when they are taken by leaders who are not accountable to you?

Speaking with some Lega voters, it is clear their main motivation is that Salvini’s party is “at least doing something to defend Italy’s interests.” By contrast, for many Simona Bonafé’s Democratic Party and other political forces of the center appear too weak to drive positive change. Although Bonafé is an engaged politician running a campaign rich in policy proposals, on this campaign stretch she was met with quite small audiences, mostly consisting of people aged over 50 and party faithful. Her party is perceived as having no identity and being anchored to a style of politics stuck in the 20th century that fails to provide a vision for the long term or to instill enthusiasm in people.

After each campaign event, I asked attendees what they expect from the EU and why they were going to vote? Details varied slightly but the answer was the same: they want a politics that speaks to their core issues: jobs, security, welfare, and migration. For most of them, their main concern is not whether this politics is national or international as long as it puts them at its core.

This shows that, while in Brussels the EU’s communication problem is seen as one of the main reasons for citizens’ disaffection, the real issue is that the EU is not delivering on citizens’ priorities. The EU is far from being perceived as just a technocratic institution, which raises political expectations, but it is also not sufficiently equipped to live up to these. For many citizens, the EU needs to fully embody the idea of a Europe that protects their income and welfare, consumers’ choices and privacy, and European borders, and that it invests in necessary social and physical infrastructure.

Talking to voters in Tuscany also supports the argument that the EU needs to give citizens real control over their elected leaders. It is not enough to vote for national politicians and for European parliamentarians when the Council still holds power over all politically sensitive issue. Many citizens, like those I came across while accompanying Simon Bonafé across Tuscany, are not dissatisfied with the EU per se but with what national leaders are doing with it. The next few years should be used to figure out whether the EU wants to become more accountable to its citizens or to remain a distorted reflection of its governments.

Strong diplomatic effort and civic engagement will be crucial to the needed reforms. Regardless of the new European Parliament’s configuration, MEPs with a clear understanding of what is a stake will need to work hard to create the political capital needed in Brussels and, most of all, at home. Stronger multi-stakeholder engagement will also be crucial. It will be the responsibility of the diverse European networks to promote political solutions at the national level and hold politicians accountable. When bold political ideas will be ripe, all the talk about “the end of Europe” will quickly become the bugaboo that each period of transformation brings along.