The Relationship of Populism with Xenophobia: The Case of Italy

08.05.2023

The specter of populism, which gradually emerged on the stage of history in the middle of the twentieth century in Europe, began to affect almost the entire continent in the twenty-first century. However, the populism that swept over Europe today, unlike what was seen in the 1960s-1980s, often appears in the form of the far-right, although there are exceptions. One of the biggest factors in the rise of far-right populism is xenophobia. While some of them in Europe are in the government, some of them have gained representation in the parliament or are increasing their influence among the people.

Italy, which is governed by a far-right populist party, Fratelli d’Italia, is one of the most important examples of them that are in power and include xenophobia in their rhetoric. So much so that the German Stern magazine featured Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the party, with the headline “Europe’s most dangerous woman”.[1] For all these reasons, this paper will examine how the far-right Italian government included xenophobia in its discourse and practices, and its reflections. To do so, first the relationship between populism, especially far-right populism and xenophobia will be given briefly, then the populist rhetoric and practices of the Italian government will be mentioned and the reflections of this will be examined.

Populism

After the rise of populism following the second world war, although there are many articles and books on the subject, there is no consensus among scholars in the literature yet. Despite this, in this paper, the definition of populism developed by Cas Mudde (2004), which is one of the most used definitions in the literature; “a thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde, 2004, 543).

Populists, who describe themselves as the voice of moral people whose demands and grievances cannot be met by the government, mainstream political parties, and the existing institutions of liberal democracies, create an imaginary group called “our people”, which is completely separated from the others. In this context, populists oppose immigrants, minorities, and foreigners as well as corrupt elites because they see them as the cause of bad economic landscape (Canovan 1999, 2-5). Populists are against globalization outside and foreigners inside since they aim to establish a unity within the people which they see them as a whole nation. Their attitudes towards foreigners can be clearly seen in their rhetoric as in a heterogeneous environment it is difficult to create publics for populists to speak on their behalf (Canovan 1984, 324).

Populism as a thin-centered ideology, can easily be connected with other ideologies (Mudde 2004, 543). Especially in the far-right context, populism combines with authoritarianism and nativism (Mudde 2007, 22). Nativism used by far-right populists can also reach xenophobia. Therefore, their solutions to political and economic problems include xenophobia and discrimination (Yildirim et al. 2017, 57) because they accuse foreigners of stealing jobs from natives, increasing crime rates, causing living wages and deteriorating economic conditions. They strive to increase their support by mobilizing the masses through these discourses.

The increase in immigration to Europe and the rise of its politicization appear as one of the most important reasons for the tendency towards far-right populist parties (Castles et al. 2014, 1). Not accepting that European countries and the European Union have become a center of immigration and multiculturalism, far-right populist parties project themselves as guardians of national identity and “real citizens” against globalization and other alleged threats (Wodak 2016, 186). In this context, xenophobia was reflected in the discourses of these parties and turned into slogans such as, “Germany is for Germans; Italy is for Italians; Greece is for the Greeks” (Mudde 2007, 139).

The Italian Case

For Italy, which is the main subject of the study, the problem regarding foreigners encompassing immigrants, refugees, and others, started to show itself in the mid-1990s, reached quite serious dimensions after the 2011 Arab Spring and especially with the 2015 refugee crisis seen all over Europe, and finally in 2022 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to statistics, the total foreign population in Italy in 2022 was determined as 5,030,716.[2] On the other hand, while the number of immigrants arriving in the country in 2022 was 105,129[3], the number of refugees from Ukraine was determined as 171,739[4] as of February 2023.

Underlining that sea migration is the most urgent crisis for Italy[5], the law, which is prepared by the government of the far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to restrict non-governmental organizations (NGOs) carrying out search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean, entered into force at the end of 2022. Speaking about the law, Meloni stated that they are now starting to protect their national interests.[6] As explained above, this discourse emphasized a national identity in accordance with the rhetoric of far right populism, and created a common enemy (immigrants) against whom it had to be united. Therefore, they claim that they protect the people against threats towards the interests of the nation.

This law includes the return of rescue ships to their ports after each rescue operation. This leads to the conclusion that after the first rescue, if there are survivors at sea still waiting to be rescued, they cannot be saved.[7] This situation envisaged by the law was criticized by the German NGO Mission Lifeline on the grounds that it caused high fuel costs and a waste of time.[8] In addition, this law prevents the transfer of immigrants to larger rescue ships, and regardless of their location, the ships must go to the predetermined safe port, not the nearest port.[9] This law, which argues that the country to which the rescue ship belongs should take responsibility for the rescued migrants, provides for fines and even seizure of the ship if the law is violated.[10]

The ruling populist parties tend to weaken NGOs and often argue that civil society is not true civil society. They often claim that they are ruled by foreign powers and accuse them of harming the nation (Müller Jan-Werner 2016, 33-34). In one of her speeches, Meloni claimed that the ideological actions of some NGOs helped human smugglers[11], and by doing so she tried to establish the legal basis of the law and aimed to direct the people against a common enemy. Additionally, this restriction on NGOs can be seen as a way of punishing those who disrupt this homogeneity in some way by far-right populists, who aim to protect the national identity and the homogeneity of the nation.

Conclusion

For the rise of populism and especially far-right populism, xenophobia is one of the most important, if not the only condition. Populists aim to mobilize the masses by separating the moral, pure people from groups that do not belong to it, and demonizing the corrupt minorities outside the group by claiming that they are the majority, and to gain their support by presenting themselves as the voice of the people. They aim to unite and mobilize the masses against a common enemy, by blaming foreigners for poor economic landscape, high crime rates, high cost of living and unemployment. However, an important paradox arises here. Unlike other ideologies, populism does not develop a systematic solution to political and economic hardships. In other words, since it does not have any program, its discourses are mostly developed through accusation and criticism. Foreigners, one of the most important subjects of populist rhetoric, will be deprived of the most important subject that they can scapegoat for bad conditions, if a truly homogeneous nation is formed, as the populists claim to do and develop practices for this. Of course, foreigners are not the only subject they use to accuse, but in an environment where the most accused subject has disappeared and the conditions are still not improving, it will not be as easy to mobilize the masses again.

 

Bibliography

Canovan, M. “‘People’, Politicians and Populism.” Government and Opposition 19, no. 3 (1984): 312-327. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44484266.

Canovan, M. “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies 47, no. 1 (1999): 2–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.00184.

Castles, Stephen, Hein de, Haas, Mark J, Miller. The age of migration: international population movements in the modern world 5. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Mudde C. “Populist zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 543–563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.

Mudde, C. Populist radical right parties in Europe 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jan-Werner, M. What Is Populism?. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Wodak, R. Wodak. The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: SAGE Publications, 2015.

Yildirim, Y. “The Right-Populism and the Rising of Far-Right in Europe in the Context of the Crisis of Liberal Democracy.” Amme İdaresi Dergisi 50, no. 2 (2017): 51-72. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318909719_Liberal_Demokrasinin_Krizi_Baglaminda_Avrupa%27da_Sag-Populizm_ve_Yukselen_Asiri-Sag_The_Right-Populism_and_the_Rising_of_Far-Right_in_Europe_in_the_Context_of_the_Crisis_of_Liberal_Democracy.

[1] https://www.italianpost.news/elections-meloni-on-the-cover-of-stern-europes-most-dangerous-woman/

[2] https://www.tuttitalia.it/statistiche/cittadini-stranieri-2022/

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/migrant-arrivals-italy-rise-despite-high-danger-2023-02-26/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20105%2C129%20migrants%20reached,were%20registered%20as%20unaccompanied%20minors.

[4] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

[5] https://maritime-executive.com/article/italy-s-parliament-approves-measures-to-restrict-ngo-rescue-vessels

[6] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/italy-wants-flag-state-of-ngo-ships-to-handle-relocations/

[7] https://maritime-executive.com/article/italy-s-parliament-approves-measures-to-restrict-ngo-rescue-vessels

[8] https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/45513/italy-introduces-new-rules-for-ngo-sea-rescues

[9] https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2023/02/06/its-a-shame-ngos-blast-italys-compulsory-code-of-conduct-for-rescue-ships-in-the-mediterra

[10] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/italy-wants-flag-state-of-ngo-ships-to-handle-relocations/

[11] https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/45060/ideological-activity-of-some-ngos-helps-traffickers-meloni

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