Cemented by solid gains made by Eurosceptic and ultranationalists parties this March, Italy now joins a list of nations breaking ranks from the American led liberal order pervasive across the continent since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With an emphasis on market liberalisation and commitment to internationalism in the form of bodies like the EU, this order has been punctured by severe mishandlings in the arena of economics and migration epitomised by the Brexit vote of 2016.
Despite relatively solid economic growth at least by Italian standards, voters across Italy reminiscent of their American and British counterparts opted towards perceived anti-establishment parties from the ideologically ambiguous but stridently Eurosceptic Five Star Movement to the more explicitly right wing Lega Nord.
In particular, immigration caused as a by-product of the Libyan Civil War was a major concern for voters with 37% of Italians citing immigration as their biggest issue relative to 3% in 2012.
The very fact that the perennially amoral Silvio Berlusconi is allying with this new Eurosceptic order is testament to the fact that he’s savvy enough to understand where Italy and Europe are heading.
Unlike the UK or America, Italy does not have a particularly illustrious history of democracy, with a recorded 65 prime ministers since 1945. The legendary levels of corruption as well as the regionalism that may in time splinter the nation similar to what is occurring in Spain has made it difficult for reform minded governments to function.
Despite attempts made by centrist regimes to address structural issues around debt and corruption, Italy is facing down the barrel of economic insolvency buoyed on by an ageing population similar to most of southern Europe.
Extrapolating ahead, one can foresee Italy drifting towards a more authoritarian form of governance akin to what can be witnessed in Orban’s Hungary or that which has swiftly overtaken Eastern Europe.
Even if Italy retains a fig leaf of democracy similar to Russia, Italians or specifically Italian elites may decide upon a return to strongman rule, preferring it to endless myopic coalition governments. To an extent, Berlusconi was a prototype for this with his stranglehold over the media and relationship with oligarchs pushing the boundaries of European democracy to the limit during his sultry tenure.
In a Trumpian age where the resolve of liberal democrats appears weakened, the Italian elections and what has already transpired in Eastern Europe or Britain may be harbingers of the end of the post-war system of liberalism which Ireland has relied on.
This political volte-face from aspiring liberal democracies to authoritarian conservatism has been repeated across the Eastern bloc, crystallised perfectly over an issue like refugee resettlement and the point blank refusal of Eastern European nations like Poland to take their allotted quota of migrants. Eastern Europe once committed to liberalism now seems to be hurtling in the opposite direction.
At one time eager to embrace liberalism with one eye on increasing living standards and another on a belligerent Russia, Eastern Europe now openly flaunts liberal norms on matters of migration and social policy.
The formalisation of this split is epitomised by the recently formed Visegrad Group consisting of the more illiberal nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.
Unlike British Euroscepticism, the group aims not to detach from the Union but rather to act as a nationalist wing within the EU, coordinating on matters of defence and presenting the internationalists in Brussels with their first counterbalancing force.
The Group is likely to grow as populism continues to rage and may play an interesting role should Russia seek to expand its influence in the vacuum left by a future American withdrawal.
With Merkel and Macron rattled by their own internal populist upsurges, the Union struggling to grapple with Brexit, and the migrant crisis seeing Spain regaining some of its Francoist muscle memory in the wake of the Catalan referendum, not to mention the spectres of Russia and the debt crisis – the EU is seeing its problems multiply by the year.
It appears liberalism has overplayed its hand and lost, with convulsions now set to reshape post-war Europe and Ireland along with it.
Amidst this geopolitical tremor, Ireland remains a surprising bastion of calm even with the messy issue of Brexit compounded by partition to deal with. Despite much soothsaying, the two party system inaugurated by De Valera’s ascent to power in 1932 remains viable, with the two establishment parties recapturing electoral ground lost since the economic crash.
What little energy there exists for populism is siphoned into liberal establishment backed projects like repealing the Eighth Amendment. Sinn Féin, the traditional bête noire of Irish democracy with its penchant for paramilitary violence, has gradually been defanged and brought into the centre, preparing itself for coalition.
The closest Ireland witnessed to a populist movement had its zenith in the street protests over the shambolic imposition of water charges, which whilst achieved their primary objective, have now fizzled out due to being centred upon a single issue.
For this reason Ireland is presently an anomaly on the European stage with liberalisation accelerating rather than falling off the rails. Arguably this may result in not being able to apprehend the coming disintegration of the liberal order we take for granted.
The political scientist Ian Bremmer has described this trend as the “G-Zero” world, where American liberalism which has dominated until now suddenly wanes – shattering the global order into regional powers and placing in particular smaller nations such as Ireland in jeopardy.
The tectonic changes tearing apart European liberalism shall continue if not accelerate placing Ireland in an awkward quandary considering how grounded Ireland’s export economy is in free trade.
While we naturally remain preoccupied with Brexit, the looming fragmentation of the liberal order to which Ireland has tethered her destiny to since the 1960s appears to be a bigger issue and one which a complacent commentariat has so far been silent on.
Similar to the cordon sanitaire forced upon Ireland during WW2, the economic and political network that Irish prosperity has been based around may disappear almost overnight. This reality may face us squarely in the eye as early as the 2020s should the trend of liberalism buckling under the weight of the modern world continue to gain momentum.
At this junction, reformist policies regarding the encouraging of Irish entrepreneurialism ought to be pursued rather than continuing the dependency of foreign direct investment. Infrastructure projects around nuclear power or even an Irish-French power interconnector may help prepare for the worst.
As we slowly meander our way through the 21st century, it is becoming self-evident that liberalism as we have known it shall not dominate the West let alone the planet as foretold by theorists like Francis Fukuyama.
Irish people, having recently liberated themselves from the supposed shackles of social Catholicism, have thrown themselves head first into hyper-liberalisation – totally negligent of the fact that the political infrastructure which supports this state of fears is at the beginning of its death throes.
While Ireland today may be increasingly cosmopolitan and concerned more with where the next Boojum branch will open rather than with European political rifts, this naivety may have the rug taken from under it with its denizens thrown back into a world of tribalism and protectionism.
It is naturally incumbent on publications such as this to start to awaken the Irish from this trance.