There was an interesting debate in the European Parliament yesterday with the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte.
The first striking thing was that Nigel Farage initially sat on the front row, keenly anticipating what he thought would be a Eurosceptic speech from a Prime Minister who heads a coalition between two populist parties (the far-right Lega Nord and the Five-Star Movement) and which has repeatedly clashed with other EU countries and with Brussels over the last few months.
Farage’s face was a picture as Prime Minister Conte paid tribute to the EU’s role in bringing the peoples of Europe closer together, said that free movement of people within the EU is the “most significant achievement in the process of European integration”, commended the EU27 for sticking together in handling the Brexit crisis, underlined the need for solidarity among European countries to jointly deal with problems they could not solve alone and pleaded for more aid to Africa. Halfway through the speech, Farage slunk away from the debate, leaving the parliamentary chamber and foregoing his opportunity to speak. Any intended lines praising the Italian PM no doubt went into the bin.
Not that the Italian Prime Minister got off lightly for the actions of his ministers, and in particular the two party leaders who are seen to be the effective power-brokers in the government – Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Luigi Di Maio (5 Star).
Manfred Weber, the leader of the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), was withering about the parties that had won the election by pretending to be anti-establishment but who now are the establishment and who have taken decisions that have triggered a downturn in the Italian economy costing ordinary people their livelihoods. He was equally critical of them for being the only government in the EU to back Maduro in Venezuela.
Socialist Group leader Udo Bullmann said that the conflicts between the Italian government and France, and the spats with Brussels, had been manufactured mainly to give Salvini some publicity. Salvini, he said, “has a scapegoat for everything but a solution for nothing”. But on the genuine problem of the number of refugees arriving in Italy, who was it in Europe that had opposed measures that could have helped Italy? Salvini’s far-right friends in Hungary and Poland, Victor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski!
Liberal Leader Guy Verhofstadt – speaking in Italian of his love of Italy and about its place in European culture and the historic contribution it made to the creation of the EU, deplored the current government. He drew particular attention to Di Maio’s recent visit to Paris to meet one of the leaders of the Gilets Jauneswho had called for a military coup d’etat against the elected government of France. This was the same Di Maio who had written to Macron a year ago to say that his movement was the Italian equivalent of Macron’s La France en Marche!
Much criticism, then, from established parties of left and right for the Italian government, but an ally of Farage, Conte is not.
The posturing, promises and predictions of populists are proving weak and ineffective in the face of the real challenges facing governments across Europe. At a time when the continent faces enormous environmental, global trade and human rights challenges, it is clear that sensible political cooperation, not facile reactionary solutions, will be the way that these complex problems are solved.