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    A political mountain to climb: why the Alps are such a commonly used metaphor in European thought

    È qui, su queste montagne, in queste valli … che la Repubblica celebra oggi le sue radici con la festa della Liberazione.

    It is here on these mountains, in these valleys, that the Republic today celebrates the day of its Liberation.

    With these words and evocative references, Italian president Sergio Mattarella recently marked the 78th anniversary of the end of the fascist dictatorship in Italy. He was speaking during a visit to Cuneo, in the north of the country.

    This was the first time Italy has celebrated the date under the leadership of prime minister Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia, a party that finds its roots in Mussolini’s fascism and often flirts with its ideas today. Mattarella used his status as a unity figure to elevate anti-fascism above party politics and to uphold it as a constitutive element of a democratic state.

    He quoted eminent Italian legal expert and a founding father of the Italian constitution, Piero Calamandrei:

    If you want to go on pilgrimage to the place where our constitution was born, go to the mountains where partisans fell.

    The location of Mattarella’s speech was evidently significant even before he uttered these words. As early as 1947, the Piedmontese province of Cuneo was recognised as one of the most symbolic sites of the Italian resistance against the Italian fascist and the German Nazi regimes.

    And Mattarella’s decision to specifically mention mountains is no coincidence. He was following a long tradition of using such imagery to make a political point. During my research for an academic monograph on this topic, I found that communists, Catholics and fascists alike have deployed images of mountains – and particularly the Alps – in their rhetoric, each ascribing them with their own meaning.

    In Italy, for instance, communist workers’ groups such as the Club Alpino Operaio and the Unione Operaia Escursionisti Italiani organised mountain stays for workers they wished to keep away from drinking and other vices. In an alpine setting, they thought it would be easier to instil solidarity among proletarians across borders.

    Fascists used the Alps as grounds on which to improve the health of the nation. Like the Nazis in Germany, they opened summer camps and colonies for children to increase their physical strength and to boost their fascist education.

    Catholics also organised hiking trips and camping stays for young people, stressing that class differences could be erased and moral and religious values be upheld more easily in an alpine environment.

    Literary trope

    From the 19th century, books such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi depicted mountains as healthy and conducive to friendship. But after the first world war, the Alps came to represent the violent fighting that took place on them. Indeed, as global warming melts the ice, some relics of the carnage that unfolded there continue to emerge.

    More than other geographical features such as seas or lakes, mountains came to represent higher political ideals. As famously noted by German critic Sigfried Kracauer, Bergfilm (or “mountain films”) by directors such as Arnold Fanck and his mentee Leni Riefenstahl pitted individuals against nature and immortalised the Alps as the embodiment of national “purity”. That aesthetic would go on to be appropriated by the Nazi regime.

    For other movements, the Alps expressed the imperative of avoiding another conflict after the first world war and ensuring permanent peace. The “Alpinist” Pope Achille Ratti (1857–1939), who reigned as Pope Pius XI from 1922 to 1939, in 1923 proclaimed Bernard of Menthon the patron saint of the mountains, and wrote about the Alps as a preferred place for peaceful interaction among people.

    Sergio Mattarella marks liberation day.

    The League of Nations, whose main site was in Geneva, often emphasised its proximity to the mountains. In its publicity, it often used alpine imagery to present itself as strong, clean and noble.

    Political metaphor

    Such references and associations are not simply decorative. Indeed, as my research shows, historically they proved quite powerful. The League’s choice of alpine imagery and overall “emotional style” proved long-lasting, though in the late 1930s it backfired as it allowed the institution to be stereotyped as distant and ill-equipped to deal with a gritty, real world.

    In modern times, localist movements like the Italian political party the Lega Nord, or Northern League, have appropriated mountain foods such as polenta as a means to question both national and European institutions. In their rhetoric, this quintessentially alpine dish serves as a marker of local identity and the embodiment of natural and artisan production. It is the opposite of the artificial, industrial, cosmopolitan goods coming in via global trade.

    Meloni’s own Fratelli d’Italia organised a large gathering in the Alps in 2020, a kind of general assembly aimed at developing specific measures to protect and support the mountain regions, including their “traditions” and “identity”.

    The party later campaigned against closing Italy’s ski resorts during the pandemic, arguing:

    La montagna è parte fondamentale dell’identità italiana e non può essere umiliata.

    Mountains are a fundamental part of Italian identity and cannot be humiliated.

    The use of the term “humiliated” is reminiscent of fascist rhetoric and slogans that often equated compromise with humiliation and often glorified pride – or “living a day as a lion” – as a marker of moral fortitude and strength. “Italian identity” refers to the fascist use of mountains as natural borders, as well as to the policies of forced Italianisation of the populations living within them.

    Seen against this backdrop, Mattarella’s choice to point out the symbolic value of mountains and to reclaim their significance in the history of Italian anti-fascism thus acquire new significance. By adopting a strong emotional style, the Italian president put forth an alternative version of pride and a bold response to growing far-right movements.

    As in the writings by Beppe Fenoglio, one of Cuneo’s landmark resistance fighters and writers, mountains in Mattarella’s narrative serve as a space to uphold the country’s moral fabric and a vantage point from which to ponder how to save the world in trouble down below. More

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    Eurovision 2023: why the stage itself is the silent star of the contest

    This week, Liverpool stages one of the world’s largest live televised events, the Eurovision Song Contest. I grew up watching it as an annual family get-together.

    Now, as a lecturer in theatre and scenography – the study and practice of how set, sound, light and costume work together in an event – I have come to appreciate the immense logistical effort this entertainment behemoth requires.

    More fascinatingly though, it is an extraordinary example of media and performance history, providing a yearly snapshot of pan-European national identities and politics.

    While the contest’s rules state that it is a non-political event, it undeniably puts international relations on display. But while looking at different countries’ acts and voting patterns offers interesting insights, there is a silent star of the event that often goes unnoticed – the stage.

    Staging a nation

    Since the contest’s inception in 1956, there has been no serious discussion about the way Eurovision is an exercise in staging nation, nationality and nationalism in the literal sense – namely how these ideas inform the scenography.

    2023 marks the first time Eurovision will be hosted in the runner-up’s country due to war, with the UK hosting on behalf of Ukraine.

    The host’s stage set-up must be everything and nothing at the same time. It needs to provide a flexible, adaptable canvas for the wide-ranging individual acts of up to 44 countries. At the same time, it must offer a memorable and distinct experience to measure up to previous iterations of the competition.

    The stage also needs to embody that year’s chosen theme, while meeting the extensive requirements of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises the event, in order to allow the competition to run efficiently.

    Inside Liverpool Arena as the Eurovision 2023 build got underway.

    2023’s theme is “united by music”. After the UK’s difficult departure from the EU, it now faces the challenge of staging itself as part of a united European community. Meanwhile, it also needs to give space to Ukraine to do the same.

    The Liverpool stage’s designer, Julio Himede, has repeatedly offered the image of a hug – of open arms welcoming Ukraine and the world – as central to the stage’s spatial configuration.

    The early days of Eurovision were a much smaller affair than nowadays. When the UK first hosted in 1960 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, it seated just 2,500 people. That’s less than a quarter of this year’s 11,000 at the Liverpool arena.

    And if you have been watching the semi-finals, you’ll already have a good sense of the sheer scale of this year’s stage. At 450m², it is almost as big as a basketball court. With an integrated lighting design through video-capable floor and ceiling tiling and huge LED screens, the only apt descriptor is “spectacular”.

    For Eurovision, the concepts, symbols and metaphors underpinning the design have to work in tandem with the creative vision of each delegation, as well as the 45 second turnover between acts in the live show.

    The design concept also has to be one that acknowledges the particular situation of this year’s contest and simultaneously unites the identities of Ukraine and the UK.

    Ultimately, the image of the hug that underpins the sweeping curve of the main stage space aims to offer a more universal theme, rather than one which is culturally specific. Viewers will notice the “open arms” of the stage are echoed in the arrangement of the “green room”, where the national delegations are located during the show.

    In this sense, Eurovision is a prime example of a “soft power” approach to international relations, which works by persuasion or influence, rather than the “hard power” of economic sanctions or military intervention.

    The UK after Brexit

    This year, it will be fascinating to see how much space the UK will give to Ukraine, not only last year’s winner but a nation in need of international recognition and support. And to what extent the UK will use this event, post-Brexit, to stage itself as a welcoming part of Europe.

    The UK does have a history of highly successful agit-prop events, which have engaged audiences emotionally to shape public opinion. Think back to the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, which strove to inspire a sense of national identity.

    In 2023, the UK sees itself in the middle of global instability and national tension over mounting authoritarianism and widening social divisions. Once again, it has the chance to use an international stage to put forward an idealised narrative.

    In any such example, the stage underpins the entire event. It is essential to the atmosphere for the live audience and fundamental to its appearance on television.

    There is no doubt that Eurovision 2023 is a staging extravaganza and will test the UK’s capability to shake off its “sick man of Europe” image. It is a stage which offers the UK the opportunity to adjust its global image in line with the contest’s welcoming theme.

    It will be interesting to see whether the image of open arms for the world is sincere or cynical. More

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    French governments’ long record of bypassing parliament: a brief history of article 49.3

    Emboldened by united trade unions, the tug of war between the street and the government over Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform had mostly taken on the form of strikes and demonstrations since mid-January.

    However, the government’s decision to bypass the lower chamber by invoking article 49.3 of the French constitution on Thursday 16 March has now sharply pitted Macron’s relative majority against opposition parties. On Monday 20 March, it survived a critical no-confidence vote by a mere 9 votes, precipitating the adoption of the bill and prompting thousands to pour into the streets in spontaneous protests.

    Meanwhile, an ever-growing majority of French people and protesters reject legislation, which would increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

    Far from constituting an exception, 16 March marks the 100th time under France’s Fifth Republic that executive chose to draw on special powers to force through an unpopular measure. President Macron used the article once in his first term (2017-2022), and 11 times since the start of his second term, in June 2022. Introduced in the Fifth Republic’s Constitution in 1958 authored by Michel Debré, article 19 paragraph 3 of France’s Constitution – known widely as “49.3” – was intended to “rationalise” the parliamentary system and resolve crises and deadlocks by handing over the reins to the executive.

    Regardless of their affiliation, successive French governments over the last 20 years have almost systematically resorted to it to pass projects that profoundly modify the country’s welfare system or labour regulations – even if it means backing down afterwards under pressure from the street.

    An occupied square in Toulouse during the May 1968 movement.
    André Cros/Wikimedia

    May 68 was also a parliamentary crisis

    A key reference in the history of protest movements over the past 50 years, the crisis of May 68 did not just take place in the lecture halls and in the streets. It also inspired opposition to Gaullism, the political thought spawned by the leader of French resistance during World War II and former president Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969).

    Worn out by 10 years in office, de Gaulle hung to power by a threadbare majority, be it in public opinion or the national assembly. On 24 April 1968, a vote of no-confidence on public broadcasting reforms failed to succeed for lack of 8 votes. As the executive grappled with how it ought to respond to the demands of students and employees, the opposition issued a new no-confidence vote, which was discussed in a climate of extreme tension on 21 and 22 May.

    Then the leader of the non-communist left, François Mitterrand (who went on to become president from 1981 to 1995), spoke of a regime crisis which undermined the “system” in power and called for a political “alternative” that he was ready to embody. Although critical of the government’s management of the crisis, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (president from 1974 to 1981) and his Independent Republican group stood by the executive. The no-confidence vote failed, with 233 deputies voting in favour – 11 short of the 244 required.

    Above: Michel Debré, prime minister from 1959 to 1962, was the author of the constitution of France’s Fifth Republic. Below: then-president Charles de Gaulle.
    Wikipedia, CC BY

    The parliamentary win didn’t suffice to restore the legitimacy of the government, however, amid unrelenting student and workers’ protests. On 30 May, de Gaulle therefore followed the advice of his prime minister, Georges Pompidou, by triggering new parliamentary elections after having toyed for a time with the idea of a referendum over the reform.

    Tapping into fears of revolutionary disorder, the Gaullists secured an unprecedented majority in the legislative elections of 23 and 30 June 1968. But the victory was then, once again, precarious, and all too tied to that particular context. In reality, the civil unrest of 1968 dealt a severe blow to the government, prompting de Gaulle to resign 10 months later following the failure of the April 1969 constitutional referendum on government decentralisation.

    Mass protests

    Mass demonstrations rocked the executive again in 1984. Led by Pierre Mauroy (prime minister under François Mitterand from 1981 to 1984), the predominantly socialist government faced virulent opposition over the Savary bill, which aimed to create a unified and secular national-education system.

    The government had the majority needed to adopt the text, which was part of 110 proposals put forward by Mitterrand in 1981. However, it succumbed to the use of article 49.3 on 23 May 1984 to push the bill after a first reading in the National Assembly.

    Pressure on the street and in public opinion was such that Mitterrand eventually announced the withdrawal of the bill on 12 July 1984, resulting in the resignations of Education Minister Alain Savary and Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy.

    Two years later, Jacques Chirac took the same decision amid large-scale protests against the Devaquet bill, which sought to allow universities to select students and introduce competition within higher education.

    1995: The mother of all protests against French pension reform

    Between 1988 and 1993, socialist governments only enjoyed relative majorities in the national assembly. But when they resorted to article 49.3 or faced no-confidence votes that sometimes nearly toppled them, it was never in a context of mass or radical protests over reforms.

    This changed in November-December 1995 with opposition to an austerity package known by the name of the then prime minister, Alain Juppé. Intended to tighten to public finances ahead of France’s adoption of the euro currency, the reforms would have – among others – raised employees’ contribution to retirement funds and aligned specialised retirement regimes with that of the general public.

    The bill provoked unrest on a scale unseen since 1968, even though the government held a large majority in the two assemblies. As in 1986, the government ended up withdrawing its bill on 15 December 1995 without consulting the national assembly.

    Demonstrators wave banners and a puppet at the effigy of Prime Minister Alain Juppé, on December 12, 1995.
    Derrick Ceyrac/AFP

    Socialist president François Hollande (2012-2017), too, made copious use of the article. To his great displeasure, the then Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron saw his framework bill deregulating work – including plans to extend night and Sunday work – shoehorned into law without a vote. Likewise, the labour law put forward by the Myriam El Khomri was forced through on the first reading (on 10 May 2016) and upon final adoption (on 21 July).

    Passing a law is not the end of the story

    Under Macron’s first mandate (2017-2022), Prime Minister Édouard Philippe resorted to article 49.3 once on 29 February 2020 to push through the pension bill which, at the time, intended to replace France’s special retirement regimes with a universal system. The government enjoyed the necessary majority to pass the text, but it wanted to bring a swift close to protests which, one year after the “gilets jaunes” movement, undermined its political and electoral base.

    On 16 March 2020, Macron nevertheless justified pausing deliberations over the reform on the grounds of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since taking up office, his uncompromising stance toward social demands has provoked the uproar of trade unions and undoubtedly contributed to the evolution of his electorate toward the moderate right.

    Elisabeth Borne’s government is not the first to use its authority in parliament to pass controversial reform and to try to put an end to a turmoil which, if it were to continue, would hurt the government’s reputation.

    However, a parliamentary victory acquired through Article 49.3 or the rejection of a no-confidence vote is not enough to regain legitimacy – Charles de Gaulle himself experienced this in May 1968. Several laws adopted in this way were not promulgated. Thus, in no way does the vote on Monday 20 March bring an end to a particularly delicate episode for the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. More

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    Giorgia Meloni's win in Italy proves even a seemingly successful government can fall victim to populism

    In a historic win, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy took 26% of the national vote in Italy’s latest election – the first time a far-right party will take the lead in government since the second world war. Meloni will become prime minister at the head of a coalition – although the make up of that government is yet to be decided.

    While this outcome was expected, it is still astonishing. In the 2018 elections, Meloni’s party took a mere 4.3% of the vote. But her fortunes rapidly changed. By February 2021, when former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi was forming a national unity government, 16.5% of the voting public was already saying they intended to vote for Brothers of Italy – the only major political party not supporting Draghi. Although respected internationally, Draghi’s government was perceived by many Italians as being the ultimate expression of the power held by the world’s financial elites. Meloni voiced this populist concern on many occasions, and her strategy has paid off.

    When the Draghi government fell apart in July 2022, after barely a year and half in office, Brothers of Italy had reached 25% while the League was down from 25% to 12.4%.

    By staying outside of the coalition, Meloni gave herself the opportunity to freely criticise the government and present her party as the only true opposition. More than a nostalgic vote for a distant fascist past, the Italian electorate’s support for Meloni reflects a discontent with the current economic and social situation.

    Salvini, Berlusconi and Meloni appeared together at a rally just ahead of the vote.
    EPA/ Giuseppe Lami

    Distance from the Draghi government also paid off for the Five Star Movement. The populist party currently led by Giuseppe Conte was floundering on 10% in July 2022 (having polled as high as 33% in 2018) but has rebuilt to somewhere more like 15%. During the electoral campaign, the Five Star Movement revived some popular policy measures, such as a guaranteed “citizen’s income”, which Draghi had criticised. They made a particularly strong showing in the south, thanks to policies of this kind.

    Parties that explicitly or implicitly (in the League’s case) opposed the Draghi government together took more than 50% of the vote while parties running on the “Draghi agenda” (Azione) or pledging their support to the Draghi government (the Democratic Party and More Europe) reached less than 30%.

    The revolt against Draghi’s government is all the more interesting since he was not pushing for austerity measures but rather drafting reforms and investment measures financed by the EU. The populist narrative of protecting the ordinary people from the financial elite still proved a successful tactic.

    What a Meloni government will look like

    Meloni is Italy’s first female prime minister. With the exception of Scandinavia, most other female prime ministers in Europe have also come from right-wing parties. This is somewhat ironic, given how it is often parties of the left who pride themselves on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. Ironically, the Brothers of Italy’s victory led to the replacement of a 75-year-old man belonging the establishment (Draghi) with a 45-year-old woman (Meloni).

    Nevertheless, forming a government will not be easy for Meloni. While the electoral results established her as the clear head of the coalition, a lack of expertise and experience will make populating ministerial posts a challenge. The highest level expert advisers in Italy are more commonly associated with moderate political parties, so finding people will be less easy for an insurgent party like Brothers of Italy. Who to put in charge of foreign affairs and economics are particularly pressing questions. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has already offered his support.

    A woman casts her ballot in Sicily.
    Orietta Scardino

    Meloni will have a chance to take a hardline approach on domestic policy and will certainly endeavour to be tougher on migration and on social rights, as her electorate appears to be demanding. But she will struggle to do much by way of radical economic change. The Draghi government already drafted a detailed plan of reforms and investments that will have to be carried out in order to secure EU financing. Although the Brothers of Italy is a statist, corporatist and nationalist party which tends to mistrust globalisation, Meloni can’t afford to put too much distance between herself and the European Union.

    She may follow the style of many Italian politicians before her by double dealing. There’s an old saying that Italian politicians hold two press conferences in Brussels: one on the top floor for business and EU partners, and another in the basement, for the public who blames Brussels for any reform measure.

    And given the complex international landscape, Meloni will find foreign policy just as difficult to manage.

    On campaign posters, Meloni asked Italians “Pronti?” (ready?) – the same question Draghi posed to members of the Italian parliament about his reform plans before it all fell apart. While her election has been received as a radical shift, the new prime minister would be wise to not overestimate how ready people are for change. More

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    Swedish election: triumph for the nationalist right leaves establishment parties in a quandary

    The nationalist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats are the major gainers of the 2022 Swedish national elections.

    Votes are still being counted but preliminary results show the party has gained 3.1%. This makes it the second largest party in Sweden, trailing only the the left-wing Social Democrats (albeit only by about 1.5% of the vote). And while the Social Democrats may be the largest individual party, the broader results currently make a right-wing coalition a more likely prospect.

    Importantly, the Sweden Democrats have become the largest party of the right, which will leave other, more established parties on that side of the political spectrum in a difficult position when negotiations over forming a government begin.

    The coalition game

    In Sweden, the parties stand individual candidates but, knowing that coalitions are the norm, they generally make pre-electoral alliances. Smaller parties inform the voters of their post-election plans during the campaign, including which other parties they see as their potential governing partners. They also make it clear which parties they would not consider acceptable partners.

    Sweden Democrats have historically been left out of such alliances. That, however, may have to change.

    Since the 1970s, Sweden has been ruled by minority governments (with a few notable exceptions, such as during 2006-2010). The coalition in power needs the support of other parties in the parliament to pass through legislation, in exchange for concessions on core issues to these parties.

    When looking at the election results, the most important element is the viability of the coalition and the willingness of non-coalition members to support the new cabinet when laws are passed in the parliament.

    A place for the nationalist right in government?

    With votes still being tallied, the race between the conservative alliance Moderaterna and the centre-left alliance Social Democrats is incredibly tight. There are fewer than 50,000 votes between them. It does, however, look likely that the right-wing coalition will secure the majority of seats in the Riksdag (parliament) once postal votes and votes coming in from Swedish nationals living abroad have been counted.

    Votes are still being counted in this exceptionally tight race.

    The question, now, is whether the Moderaterna bloc will create a minority government excluding the Sweden Democrats (as they implied they would during the campaign) or whether they will be forced by the results of the popular vote to award the right-wingers a ministerial post. If they do, they risk losing the support of the Liberal party, which agreed to join a governing coalition only if the Sweden Democrats remain outside the cabinet.

    Moderaterna is under extra pressure here since it performed less well in 2022 than it did in the election held in 2018 and has been overtaken by the Sweden Democrats. In fact, all the parties belonging to the conservative alliance have lost votes since 2018. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, performed better this year than in 2018, making them the only right-wing party to have made gains. This makes it all the harder to justify excluding them from a coalition.

    It is too early to call these elections, as negotiations will likely continue to weeks or even months. In 2018, it took until December to swear in a government and this year’s result may deliver similarly protracted negotiations.

    What we do know is that the left-wing Social Democrats did not receive clear support from Swedish voters. The recent prevalence of violent crime and gang activity were top concerns in this election, and Moderaterna has made law and order a core campaign issue for decades.

    And even though the message has not been explicitly framed as such, many voters make an association between crime and the question of migrant integration. This, of course, has been encouraged by the Sweden Democrats, the very people who have come out on top in the vote. More

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    Italian government collapse: the political chess moves behind Mario Draghi's resignation

    Political instability in Italy is nothing new – the country has had 67 governments in less than 75 years. Its politicians are often shortsighted, moved by special interests and career concerns, rather than by the common good. This is what’s behind the collapse of the most recent government – the prime minister, Mario Draghi, resigned after failing to secure the support of his unity coalition.

    To some, sending Draghi packing may appear irrational – his 17-month-old government was backed by all but one of the country’s main political parties. A period of inflation and a war on Europe’s eastern border doesn’t seem an ideal time for political instability. But this development is hardly irrational, or surprising.

    The current Italian parliament was elected in 2018. Its first government was led by a coalition of the two parties that received the most votes – the Five Star Movement and the League. The former is a relatively new populist movement, co-founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. Cashing in on social discontent, the party won support in the south of Italy by running on a combination of anti-elite messaging and promises to increase public spending. The League is an established right-wing populist party with most of its political constituency in the north.

    These two parties had a similar stance on some key issues: anti-immigration, pro-early retirement and the establishment of a basic income. They joined forces to appoint Giuseppe Conte, an unelected professor of law, as prime minister.

    This populist coalition broke down in summer 2019 when the League opted out and was replaced by the centre-left Democratic Party. The new government was still led by Conte, but now held his position thanks to the support of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. But this government was brought down during the pandemic in February 2021 and was replaced by a national unity government led by Mario Draghi, an independent and former president of the European Central Bank. This government was supported by all major parties, with the exception of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

    There are two other factors contributing to the current political climate. First, the parliament that came out of the 2018 election was substantially different from previous ones. The Five Star Movement obtained one-third of the overall seats, bringing to parliament many MPs with little or no political experience and from low-income jobs. The selection of these political amateurs as candidates was done through a private online platform.

    Second, the first Conte government passed a constitutional law, later confirmed by a referendum in September 2020, reducing the number of members in the Italian parliament from 630 to 400 in the lower house and from 315 to 200 in the senate. With the next political election, initially scheduled for 2023, the parliament will shrink by one-third. This has exacerbated each MP’s individual career concerns.

    Political movement and government collapse

    With elections scheduled for March 2023 at the latest, some parties have started to reposition themselves towards their electorate. After nearly four and a half years in parliament, MPs have also secured their parliamentary pension rights and may therefore be prepared to take more political risks.

    Conte, having established himself as leader of the Five Star Movement, was the first to make a move. He criticised Draghi’s government for being shy on social measures and presented him with a series of policy requests – essentially an ultimatum for the government to have the continued support of the Five Star Movement.

    Faced with internal division and declining support in the polls, Conte was clearly trying to mobilise the Movement’s base supporters. He did not expect this to be a risky move, as Draghi’s government held a large majority in the parliament.

    Giuseppe Conte, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, presented Draghi with an ultimatum, kicking off weeks of political chaos.
    Massimo Percossi / EPA-EFE

    Draghi refused to accept an ultimatum and resigned, despite having a majority in the parliament. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, refused his resignation, sending him back to the senate for a confidence vote, which coalition partners decided to boycott. Draghi won the vote, but lost enough support from his coalition to make his resignation inevitable. This time the president accepted and dissolved the parliament.

    Looking forward

    Meanwhile, parties firmly to the right of the political spectrum have also been repositioning ahead of the next election. Conte’s ultimatum gave the League (led by Matteo Salvini) and the more moderate Forza Italia (led by Silvio Berlusconi) an unexpected opportunity to drop their support for the government.

    Salvini and Berlusconi are now expected to join their parties together for a snap election, which, following the collapse of Draghi’s government, will take place on September 25. Given recent polling trends, they are believed to have a better shot at coming on top against the far-right Brothers of Italy in an early election, rather than next spring. The Brothers of Italy was the only party not in Draghi’s coalition, and has been rising in the polls at the expense of the other two right-wing parties.

    By withdrawing their support, Salvini and Berlusconi managed to send Draghi’s government home, and send Italy into its first summertime electoral campaign. Current polls predict a right-wing coalition government led by Giorgia Meloni – potentially the first female prime minister in Italian history. In all relevant issues, from economics to social policy to foreign relations, such a government would be a major change from the liberal, market-oriented, Nato-centric view of the Draghi government. Not quite the scenario Conte had in mind. More

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    EU sues Hungary over anti-gay law – what it could mean for LGBT rights in Europe

    The European commission is taking legal action against Hungary at the European court of justice (ECJ), escalating a longstanding dispute over the country’s anti-LGBT laws. This is an unprecedented step for the EU, but it isn’t a sure win for LGBT rights in Europe – and even has the potential to endanger them.

    Hungary (under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s leadership) and the EU have been at odds for years over the wider issue of the rule of law. This intensified in 2021 when Hungary adopted a new law banning the depiction or promotion of LGBT-related material to minors. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it “a shame” that goes “against all the fundamental values of the European Union”.

    In July 2021, the commission launched official infringement procedures against Hungary for failing to implement and comply with EU law. Later in the year, it also froze Hungary’s access to the COVID recovery fund. Unsatisfied with Hungary’s responses, the commission has now escalated the matter and referred the matter to the ECJ. This is the first time the EU has taken a member state to court over LGBT rights.

    In recent decades, Europe has seen an increase in the use of homophobia to score political points. Examples include the manif pour tous demonstrations against same-sex marriage in France, and Croatia’s referendum to constitutionally define marriage as a heterosexual union. Hungary’s law has also inspired other countries, like Romania, to try and ban so-called homosexual propaganda.

    The outcome of this case could have far-reaching consequences for LGBT rights in Europe. In effect, the commission is asking the court to enshrine LGBT rights as part of the EU’s fundamental values, on a par with other principles such as freedom of movement.

    The EU and LGBT rights

    Perhaps by taking legal action, the commission is enacting its own LGBTIQ equality strategy, launched in 2020. However, the commission’s claims frame the case as a breach of the EU’s internal market rules, rather than LGBT rights. This should not come as a surprise – the EU has very few direct laws on LGBT rights. By framing the case around core EU rules, the commission has a stronger chance of succeeding. In the past, the court has ruled on LGBT rights by invoking other fundamental EU principles.

    The EU claims that by enacting this law, Hungary is violating both the EU charter of fundamental rights and Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union.

    Here is where the case becomes interesting. Although the charter of fundamental rights has clauses that explicitly protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, it only applies to Hungary when it is implementing EU directives. Article 2, on the other hand, has much broader applicability, but does not refer to LGBT rights at all. By submitting this court case to the ECJ, the commission is not only asking the court to determine when EU rules have primacy over member state rules but also to clarify that the rather ambiguously defined European values explicitly include LGBT rights.

    European commission president Ursula von der Leyen has made her views on Hungary’s anti-LGBT law clear.
    Francois Walschaerts / EPA-EFE

    How the case could play out

    There are three possible outcomes of this case.

    First, the ECJ could rule (for the first time) that the values outlined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union also include LGBT rights. This would be the more activist ruling – going beyond established case law for a more political statement. Hungary would then be required to adjust the law and remove its discriminatory nature. More widely, this would also be a watershed moment in European LGBT politics – it would not only provide a strong mandate for the commission to take bolder steps on LGBT rights, but it might also lead to more challenges of discriminatory laws across Europe.

    Second, in a (unlikely) doomsday scenario, the ECJ could side with Hungary. This would provide nearly free rein for anti-LGBT actors in Hungary, and across the EU more widely, to enact more homophobic laws. This would leave the gains made in the last 50 years for LGBT people in Europe on shaky ground.

    Finally, in the most likely scenario, the ECJ would deliver a ruling that sits somewhere in between. Based on previous case law, we might expect that the ECJ would rule that the Hungarian law violates EU rules, but only to the extent where the law has cross-border implications. In this scenario, the ECJ ruling would signal to Hungary (and other countries) that is it acceptable to discriminate against homosexuality, as long as they are smart in their wording.

    Such a ruling would not clearly and unequivocally clarify that LGBT equality is a fundamental EU value, but rather leave LGBT rights as a secondary principle, subject to the more established EU principles of the internal market and freedom of movement. This would create ambiguity as to when homophobic laws are a matter of
    member state policy, or when the EU has to (or can) intervene, giving homophobic governments license to enact more laws like Hungary’s. More

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    Italy heading to snap election as unity coalition crumbles: Explaining the nation's fragmented party system

    Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigned for a second time in a week on July 21, 2022, after his earlier attempt to step down was rejected by the country’s president.

    _This time, President Sergio Mattarella responded by dissolving parliament. A new election is set for late September. In the meantime, Mattarella asked Draghi to carry on as caretaker leader. His resignation comes a day after Draghi won a vote of confidence in parliament, but in a way that signaled that the broad ruling coalition was fractured beyond repair.

    It’s a lot to unpack. So The Conversation called on Carol Mershon, an expert on Italian politics at University of Virginia, to explain the situation and what may come next.

    What is going on in Italian politics?

    It’s been an interesting few days. Mario Draghi, who was not elected to Parliament but was invited to form a government in February 2021 by the president, resigned twice. Draghi has been serving as a nonpartisan prime minister leading a broad coalition of parties that made up a unity government. But that coalition has crumbled. First, members of the populist 5-Star Movement refused to vote on a government bill over concerns that cost of living relief measures were insufficient, prompting Draghi’s first resignation.

    That led to a vote of confidence on July 20. Draghi won the ballot in the Senate with 95 votes in favor and 38 against. But it was by no means a ringing endorsement. The Senate has 315 seats – which means that many lawmakers opted to vote “present not voting, “abstain,” or were just absent for the vote. Thus, Draghi resigned again.

    Why did Draghi step down if he won the confidence vote?

    Although Draghi technically survived the confidence vote, it was not the sort of result he needed to stay on as prime minister. In addition to 5-Star, other members of the ruling coalition, including the rightist parties Forza Italia and League, were in dissent.

    Draghi has long emphasized that as a nonparty leader, he needs the support of a broad coalition, especially at a time when the country is facing serious economic and social challenges. He leads a unity government – and without unity among the parties, it would be hard for him to govern.

    Both the withdrawal of backing by parties and the fracturing of the parties themselves, with some members of parliament leaving coalition partners, suggest that the coalition is now past the point of being able to operate in unity.

    How many parties are in the coalition? Do they broadly share the same politics?

    As with much in Italian politics, that isn’t a straightforward question to answer. When the Draghi government was launched in February 2021, it had cabinet ministers from six parties – the populist 5-Star Movement, the right-wing League and Forza Italia, Democrats and its splinter party, Italy Alive, and finally the progressive Article One. But six became seven when former 5-Star members created another party, Together for the Future. Then, if you count junior ministers in the coalition, three more parties were included.

    Now you have more splintering of parties and departures of members as politicians maneuver for advantage with an election on the horizon, making it even more difficult to say just how many parties are in the coalition.

    Coalition governments are not uncommon in Italy; in fact, they are the norm. But the one under Draghi was particularly broad, going from progressive parties to far right groups.

    Why so many parties? And why coalitions?

    Italy has a fragmented party system. I have done research that shows the average number of parties represented in Italy’s parliament between 1946 and 1992 was 12 – more than most democracies. Since then, the country has gone through a series of electoral reforms, but the multiparty system has stayed in place.

    There are three factors behind Italy’s fragmented parliament. First, Italian post-World War II elections have always had a strong component of proportional representation – that is to say, the number of seats each party has is proportional to the number of votes it receives. So in Italy, a party that gets 5% of the national vote can reasonably expect to get 5% of the seats. Compare that to the U.K. system, in which a party that gets 5% of the national votes would likely get zero seats.

    One parliament, many parties.
    Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

    Under Italy’s proportional representation laws, a party cannot manufacture a majority of parliamentary seats out of a plurality of votes. And with so many parties, it is very unlikely that any one party can muster up a majority outright. So instead, the largest non-majority party must find alliances to form a coalition government.

    Second, electoral law reforms of 1993 created an incentive for Italian politicians to form or found new parties. After those reforms and the disintegration of the once-dominant Christian Democratic Party – which until that point had been the largest party in every post-war Italian government – political entrepreneurs found they could get noticed more by forming new parties, or splintering off from existing parties. We are seeing some of this now with high-profile departures from 5-Star. It tends to happen when politicians are looking to position themselves for the next election.

    Third, the creation of new parties was also encouraged by the breakdown of traditional politics in Italy. It used to be the case that what voters cared about was where a party stood on two areas: left-right politics, and whether they were secular or religious.

    That has changed. Now, voters are motivated by not only left-right politics but also a range of factors, such as whether a party is pro- or anti-European Union, or whether it is tolerant of immigration or is anti-immigration. So you get parties like 5-Star that are anti-immigrant and anti-EU, but don’t fit so neatly on the left-right political axis.

    Are coalitions prone to failure?

    Not necessarily. Italy has experienced a number of relatively stable coalitions. Romano Prodi’s coalition government lasted from 1996 to late 1998. It faced a lot of problems during that period, but Prodi managed to keep that coalition going. And back in the 1980s, the coalition put together by socialist Benedetto Craxi lasted four years. Craxi’s coalition faced a brief hiccup – it fell apart, then was quickly reconstructed – but was composed of the same parties.

    And if you scan the European horizon, coalitions are a fairly common form of government. A coalition is the norm in Germany, and they are fairly common in Scandinavian countries as Norway. And they are often long-lived.

    I don’t think coalitions are inherently unstable. Draghi is a relatively popular figure, but his coalition faced a host of challenges ranging from economic problems and Italy’s response to the pandemic, to an immigration crisis that will not go away. The tipping point was a fight over the government’s response to a cost of living crisis – 5-Star had been pushing Draghi to do more to support hard-pressed Italians. And Draghi has said he won’t govern without the support of 5-Star, the largest party in Italy’s parliament when parliamentary elections were last held in 2018.

    So what happens next?

    Elections are now expected in late September. Until then, it looks like Draghi will continue as prime minister in a caretaker capacity. In the meantime, it is likely that there will be some more splintering within the parties represented in parliament as politicians maneuver for electoral advantage. Yet politicians at this point also have to consider the risk of seeming irresponsible and fickle, with the parliamentary election sure to occur quite soon. More