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Europe Has a New Defender in Italy

Europe Has a New Defender in Italy

Europe may finally be entering calmer waters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed her image as leader of the free world in a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday. Talk of a Geert Wilders victory in the Netherlands now seems like a bad nightmare. And European Union wonk Emmanuel Macron seems to be edging out right-wing Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential race.

What’s more, Italy has a new pro-EU party.

On Saturday, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano announced that he was refashioning his New Center Right as Popular Alternative, a new party that aims to draw liberals and moderate conservatives to a pro-EU agenda.

“We are the political movement in Italy that defends Europe,” he declared at the former NCD’s national assembly. He also unveiled a new blue-and-yellow heart logo (mirroring EU flag colors) and the slogan: “Dare to build. Together.”

It was an interesting move for a politician who was once considered Silvio Berlusconi’s protégé. His NCD party was founded in 2013 as an offshoot of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia after the two had a falling-out. But his moderate-right party never quite got off the ground as anything more than a junior partner with an abstract, conservative agenda. It holds only a smattering of seats in Italy’s parliament and the European Parliament.

Some said the change smacked of a publicity stunt. “He’s fighting for survival,” Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, told Foreign Policy. “NCD is not faring well in the polls and risks heavy losses in the elections.”

Alfano may be hoping an image reboot will help him fill the vacuum left by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The firmly pro-Europe, center-left leader stepped down in December after Italians rejected his constitutional reform in a referendum, leaving the country in limbo until the next election, which could be held this year or in February 2018. For now, Renzi’s ally Paolo Gentiloni has been guiding the government as a place-holder prime minister.

The uncertainty has set off a fierce battle among Italy’s political parties. Renzi and his Democratic Party are trying to revive their momentum, while the anti-establishment Five Star Movement is surging in the polls. The far-right Northern League is hoping to capitalize on migration issues. And 80-year-old Berlusconi is even trying to get back in on the action with a “Trumpian” hard-right recast.

Alfano’s “choice of a new party is just to find some new clothes and place the party well for the next elections,” Rosa Balfour, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Europe program, told FP. “I guess he assumes he could be kingmaker.”

Alfano framed his party as a counterweight to the anti-establishment mood sweeping Italy. He defined the party as an alternative to the Lepenisti, an Italian term for supporters of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. It’s also an alternative “to the leftists that only want to go backward; those who are only thinking of the bulldozer; those who say ‘no’; and those who don’t care about the Republic,” he said.

But will an expressly pro-Europe stance play well in Italy?

Former Prime Minister Renzi espoused similar positive views about the EU and liberal progress but still lost support. Some even compared Renzi’s referendum debacle to Brexit, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU. But most observers said voters were mostly fed up with Renzi’s personal style and disliked the domestic changes his party proposed.

Populist parties, like the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, have flirted with anti-EU rhetoric in the past. But it doesn’t always play well. Though Italians often complain about EU intrusion into the country’s financial system and lack of solidarity for dealing with the migrant crisis, there seems to be less appetite for a full-blown “Italexit.” After Brexit, an Ipsos Mori poll found that 48 percent of Italians said they would vote to remain in the EU if it were put to a vote. Only 28 percent would vote to leave, and 26 percent were undecided or wouldn’t vote.

Alfano is probably encouraged by Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s relative success in the Dutch elections, argued Stefanini. “In Europe, you can win on a conservative pro-EU platform,” he said.

Photo credit: FRANCO ORIGLIA/Getty Images

Correction, March 20, 2017: Mark Rutte is the prime minister of the Netherlands. A previous version of this article gave his first name wrong.