Rahim Mohamed: The rise of the far right in Italy foreshadows Canada's path
Young people will eventually tune out mainstream politicians if they fail to see tangible improvements to their lives. And that will mean tackling the demographic crisis.
By: Rahim Mohamed
Italian voters shocked the world late last month by electing the country’s first far-right government since the end of the Second World War. The Brothers of Italy — a post-fascist party that describes itself as conservative, nationalist and Eurorealist — won the popular vote by a seven per cent margin in the September 25th election (receiving just over a quarter of all votes cast) and is now poised to lead a powerful right-wing legislative coalition. Giorgia Meloni, the party’s 45-year-old leader, is expected to become Italy’s first female prime minister when the country’s legislature reconvenes later this week.
While Meloni’s ascension has drawn predictable concern and outrage from her opponents, there is a lesson for Canadians to be learned from the politics of the old world. Meloni’s success can be traced in part to systemic economic and political problems baked into Italy’s demographic decline — a decline that parallel Canada’s. As in Italy, young Canadians now know that their prospects will be poor compared to those of their parents; and a country that fails to address this will soon find its young people will ignore mainstream politicians in favour of those who promise material improvements. Meloni understood this; and, by all accounts, so does Pierre Poilievre.
The Italian election drew a record-low turnout (fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters showed up to cast ballots), and the campaign period was dominated by pocketbook issues — ballooning energy bills could push 12 million Italians into poverty in the coming months. The cost of electricity in Italy is the second-highest in Europe, behind only the United Kingdom. Italy, already home to one of the eurozone’s weakest economies, is highly exposed to the continent-wide economic shocks that have been unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meloni will face her first major test as prime minister when she decides whether to proceed with an E.U.-sponsored 200-billion euro economic recovery plan negotiated by her predecessor Mario Draghi.
Outside of the campaign’s economic discourse, migration resurfaced as a major political fault line. Meloni, who as a member of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies once called for the country to expel all “illegal migrants”, and tweeted a video clip that purportedly depicted an African asylum seeker sexually assaulting a white woman in late August. (The post was taken down two days later for violating Twitter’s terms of service).
Campaigning on the slogan “God, country and family,” Meloni proposed retooling Italy’s immigration laws to favour the entry of Christians and people who are “culturally compatible” with Italy’s native population.
Italy, which at its southernmost tip lies less than 100 nautical miles across the Mediterranean from Africa, has become a preferred landing spot for African migrants seeking asylum elsewhere in Europe. The number of migrants who reached Italy by sea averaged over 150,000 per year between 2014 and 2017 and is on pace to exceed 85,000 this year. The E.U.’s policy of processing asylum applications on-site at holding centres in southern Italy — a process that can take several months — has been a persistent source of tension between Italy and Brussels; Meloni has stated that the policy has made Italy Europe’s de facto “refugee camp.”
As prime minister, Meloni has promised to use Italy’s navy to block “the trafficking of human beings” from Africa and to continue to press the E.U. to set up migrant vetting “hot spots” in Libya and other sites in Africa. She will be under constant pressure from anti-immigrant coalition partner The League (formerly Northern League) to match her tough talk on migration with action.
While Italy’s economic woes and strained southern border dominate the headlines, the country’s worrying demographics are at the root of last month’s election result. After declining steadily since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, Italy’s birth rate hit a record low in 2020, when just over 400,000 babies were born (7.2 births per 1,000 people). To put this figure into perspective, deaths outnumbered births by over 340,000 that year, constituting the widest gap between births and deaths recorded in Italy since the Spanish flu ravaged the country in 1918. Italy now lays claim to the lowest birth rate in Western Europe — a region not known for its fecundity — at 1.2 births per woman (bpw). Pope Francis has even chimed in on Italy’s demographic woes, urging Italians to have more children in a 2021 address from his balcony in the Vatican.
Italy, home to the world’s second-oldest population (behind only Japan), is already drowning in the “silver tsunami” that’s expected to roll through aging Western societies in the coming decades. Unsustainable public spending on health care and generous old-age pensions have helped make Italy the second-most heavily indebted country in the eurozone (trailing perennial basket case Greece); leaving experts fearful of an Italian debt crisis on the horizon. With over 600 pensioners for every 1,000 workers, Italy has one of the lowest rates of labour force productivity in the OECD. Italy’s economy has not grown at an annual rate of more than two percent in two decades.
The burden of Italy’s long economic stagnation has fallen disproportionately on the young. 30 per cent of Italians under the age of 25 and 14 per cent of those between the ages of 25 and 34 are unemployed (compared to just under 10 per cent unemployment among the general population). The average Italian lives with their parents until they are 30. Italians who are currently in their thirties earn 17 per cent less than their parents did at the same age. Italy’s bereft young workers have been all-but-ignored by the government; just 3 per cent of total public social spending in Italy goes to working families and children (over three quarters of social spending is tied up in old age benefits).
Young Italians have, predictably, responded to their grim economic prospects with anger, making them susceptible to Italy’s rage-baiting far-right parties. A poll conducted just over a year out from last month’s election found the Brothers of Italy in the lead among 18-to-21-year-olds. Heading into the election, nine out of 10 voters under the age of 30 told pollsters they had “little or no trust in the nation’s ruling class.” While detailed exit data is hard to come by, a number of signs indicate that Italy’s nascent right-wing youth movement helped push the Brothers of Italy over the top. Membership in the party’s youth wing has swelled by over 500 per cent since Italy’s last general election in 2018.
What does this mean for Canada?
Pierre Poilievre — a pro-immigration admirer of European Union architect Margaret Thatcher — is a far cry from Giorgia Meloni; but one thing the two politicians hold in common (outside of their relative youth) is a proficiency in what The Line contributor Colin Horgan calls “the language of societal decline.” Like Meloni, Poilievre plays on the broken dreams of disaffected young Canadians; pointing to the reality that they will be hard-pressed to attain the middle-class lifestyles enjoyed by their parents’ generation. One of Poilievre’s most repeated lines from the campaign trail is “35-year-olds are living in their parents’ basements.” Polls indicate that Poilievre’s rhetoric is resonating with its target audience.
Another trait that Poilievre shares with Meloni is his willingness to confront longstanding sacred cows of liberal democracy. Poilievre has most visibly challenged the universally recognized principle of central bank independence, promising to fire Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem for his failure to keep inflation under control. The same willingness to buck political and economic orthodoxy propelled Meloni past her predecessor Mario Draghi (who coincidentally served as president of the European Central Bank prior to his foray into politics).
But where Meloni and Poilievre part ways is in the latter’s unwillingness to address the demographic underpinnings of Canada’s own economic challenges. Canada’s birth rate hit a record low of 1.4 bpw over the pandemic and now sits in the bottom quartile among OECD countries. We are the oldest country in the Anglosphere, with nearly one fifth of our population over the age of 65 (compared to 16 per cent in the U.S.). We also have the Anglosphere’s second-worst labour productivity rate. Immigration and natural resource revenues have kept Canada’s economy from falling into Italy territory, but neither is a reliable driver of economic growth in the medium to long term.
While his counterpart Giorgia Meloni has spoken ad nauseum about Italy’s “demographic ice age,” promising to introduce a raft of policies designed to help Italian parents have more children, Pierre Poilievre has stayed mum about Canada’s comparable baby bust. Poilievre’s platform has, in fact, been conspicuously light on family policy (even though Poilievre himself was the face of the Harper Government’s pre-election Universal Child Care Benefit expansion in 2015). So far, Poilievre has not said whether he will honour the Trudeau Government’s “$10-a-day” child-care agreements with the provinces (a significant, albeit flawed, investment in young Canadian families). Poilievre may be sidestepping the topic of fertility to avoid being lumped in with the purveyors of the racist Great Replacement Theory on Canada’s far right.
Pierre Poilievre has admirably brought the frequently overlooked grievances of Millennial and Gen-Z Canadians to the forefront of federal politics, initiating a long-overdue national dialogue about generational inequality. However, so long as he turns a blind eye to the true source of the problem — Canada’s aging population and declining birth rate — the solutions he offers young Canadians will be half-baked and generally ineffective.
If there’s one thing that Canada can learn from Italy, it’s that young people will eventually tune out mainstream politicians if they fail to see tangible improvements to their lives — here’s where Canada risks falling down its own slope to radicalism. Poilievre has struck a chord with young Canadians but will need to match his words with concrete measures to tackle generational inequality. It’s difficult to see how he can flesh out this agenda without first acknowledging Canada’s lopsided demographics.
Pierre Poilievre has shown himself to be an uncommonly gifted communicator but talk without action will only lead to further alienation for already disaffected young Canadians. The next silver-tongued populist that young Canadians gravitate toward will likely be even more untethered from mainstream politics. Here’s where Italy presents a cautionary tale for Canada.
Rahim Mohamed is a freelance writer based in Calgary. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has taught at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) and Centre College (Danville, Kentucky).
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