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The Italian Job:  learning to cope with populists?

We are at turning point in the way in which the mainstream deals with populists.


For those of us who have been studying the rise of populism for too long, the past couple of years have felt like a particularly long and violent earthquake.  The quake is the result of a set of tectonic shifts that have highlighted citizens’ levels of frustration with their elite representatives (whatever the party family), but also their capacity to be be heard, and, perhaps most strikingly, the grand failure of markets to intimidate them back into a status quo for which they have no patience left. What started as a rejection of Tina (There Is No Alternative) has led to a sustained flirtation with Aby (Anyone But You).

Everything that we have seen in the past few years (from Brexit to Trump, from the challenge of Le Pen to the rise of Corbyn), and more recently in the Italian elections and the mounting internal challenges to Angela Merkel’s government from its hard-right sister party the Bavarian CSU, can be boiled down to choosing Aby. You can try and boil it down to xenophobia, or to inequalities, or to a tug-of-war between citizens of the world vs citizens of Little-Treasure-under-Wigglesworth—but it all stems from the perception that those in charge of representing the interests of their citizens betrayed them by opting for a status quo that did little for ordinary people, but plenty to shape the kind of world in which they, the elite, might thrive.   The result has been a long time gathering steam (starting long before the last financial crisis) but steam ahead it has, and it has reshaped our political landscapes and slammed on the table a new popular consensus that while fabricated and manipulated by the Bavarian CSU, the Italian League, the French FN, is far from being confined to them.

Italian lessons

And now we find ourselves at a turning point: As Merkel fights for her political life, as Salvini – Italy’s new, Ligue, Home Office Minister – calls for a roster for the Roma population, as Macron meets with everyone in Europe, and migrant ships drift from one Mediterranean port to another, a new deal is slowly emerging in Europe.  We are at turning point in the way in which the mainstream deals with populists. Some may argue that the populists have won.  I would suggest that we are slowly learning some valuable lessons. They may not be pleasant – and they certainly will not be easy to implement.  But we are learning something.

It began with the Italian elections: Aside from the fact that, this time, the routing of the mainstream came from a populist pincer effect from left and right, it is all starting to look a bit too familiar. But the Italian crisis has been an impetus for new dynamics. Not all of these will feel comfortable – far from it; But it is a move out of the self-fulfilling vortex in which we have been caught for decades.

The Italian results illustrate a number of crucial points.  They tell us first and foremost that the revolt against TINA has produced a large subset (perhaps even a majority) of voters who feel they have little, or nothing, to lose. This may or may not be objectively true, but it is how many of them feel. So, threats of market retaliation have little impact.  Even the markets know this.  If we imagine ‘The Markets’ as the chorus in a Greek tragedy (warning, bemoaning, and commenting on the unleashing of unpredictable forces), then the Italian crisis has shown that this time, the chorus understood perfectly well that a technocratic government was unlikely to tick anyone’s boxes for very long: when President Mattarella vetoed the name of the League’s proposed finance minister and called for a technocratic, caretaker government to pave the way for new elections, the markets were not fooled, they reacted with mayhem—because they knew the voters would.  The reaction of the market showed full well that it was assumed that new elections would not deter voters from their initial choices and would deliver a very similar result; only, potentially, worse.

Events in Italy, in Germany, in the Netherlands – but also in the US and the rest of developed economies tell us that, whatever the nature of the complex relationship between voters and the economy, one thing is clear: a general improvement in the balance of payments and a reduction of the public debt may thrill Eurocrats and market watchers, but they are not going to deliver a grateful electorate.  This is not to argue that improved economic conditions have no effect on voters; But, rather, that for as long as economic improvements boil down to nothing more than market improvements and do not translate into an improved daily reality for voters, they will not translate into support for our current institutions and the status quo they tend to uphold.

These lessons seem to have been grudgingly learned: the Italian process to which we have been witness between March 4th and now, may be the first, hot-house flower, evidence that, we may be shifting toward a new way of dealing with and reigning in populist leaders.

President Mattarella’s actions during the government formation negotiations in Italy, whether calculated or intuitive, may have begun to usher in a new way of dealing with populists: he called the meetings, demanded new names, drew red lines, stuck to them, allowed his interlocutors to regroup, argue, come together again. He showed a tiny corner of his hand, bluffed and then came back; In other words, he played poker, not dodgeball.  This, therefore, is not just a question of letting ‘them’ into government to see them fail (as many have advocated in the past), but rather a shaping of the parameters of government negotiation under new conditions. For the past few decades parties and politicians seem to have gone by the George Bernard Shaw maxim that you should never wrestle with a pig because you get dirty and the pig enjoys it; As a result they have invariably adopted strategies that play right in the hands of populist politicians who can claim victimhood and marginalisation—whether they succeed or not. This seems to have changed somewhat: comments from the CDU’s Gunther Oettinger that ‘markets would punish Italian voters’ was met with consternation and condemnation; It shows that one way of trying to short-circuit populism is to drag it kicking and screaming onto the representative, democratic terrain of compromise and negotiation, rather than allow it to behave like a petulant child.

The other way of responding to populism is to leave the cynicism and laziness to them and start addressing crucial issues of migration, redistribution and trade by negotiating not just with them (which can easily, on its own, turn into a 0-sum game), but with each other. No matter how tense the emergency meeting held this Sunday may have been (not to mention boycotted by the Visigrad 4), Merkel’s migration discussions with Macron over the past few days is a case in point. This is not about giving into populist party demands, but rather, to paraphrase Lampedusa to change everything, in order for things to remain the same.  To maintain a liberal, progressive view of such matters the approach needs to change.  The cynical stance that has left Greece and Italy alone to deal with a humanitarian emergency cannot continue; resorting to unilateral action as Merkel did in 2016, thereby catching her European partners off-guard and unprepared, however morally praiseworthy, is not the answer either.  In the face of a growing, cross-party consensus against the status quo, we may be seeing responsible leaders finally become more creative and cooperative.

The current Italian government, aside from being sinister and cynical, is also unstable at best: the two coalition partners may share delusional policy ambitions and a hatred of the status quo; But they share little else. But the question here is less about them, and more about establishing a new set of responses them – and they are emerging.

Hatching the next European project? From Tina, to Aby, to EU

The pressures created, on the one hand, around the issue of migration – by the Visigrad 4, by the new Italian populist coalition government (and more specifically the League’s Matteo Salvini as Home Office Minister) and by Merkel’s own CSU Home Office Minister Seehofer – and the pressures created by Trump’s attitude toward trade with his allies, on the other hand, have conspired to create a situation in which Merkel and Macron need each other more than ever. She needed Macron to come to her rescue in and jointly talk tough on migration and borders (which he did on Tuesday); He needed her to make concessions on a Eurozone budget – which she also did. Many will argue that the Eurozone budget is vague, will be tiny and is nothing but window dressing; but that is to underestimate the value of such symbolic pronouncements.  It is also to misunderstand how things emerge and get done in the European sphere. What we have been witness to in the past year is the very traditional dynamics of the Franco-German couple, dynamics that have been at play since the creation of Europe and which are perfectly suited to the current protagonists: France brings some grand ideas to the table (too many and too fast) and Germany does the careful picking and choosing that will deliver the mechanisms and a generally acceptable European balance. While Merkel may be weakened the dynamics of the past few days are important. And they may point toward the shape of things to come.



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