Certain ghosts have never left

Listen To Europe Analysis


The Italian election represents a watershed moment for the country and for the rest of Europe. There is growing concern in Brussels that the victory of the far-right coalition may turn Italy into a disruptive member state of the European Union (EU) with authoritarian trends and a reactionary political agenda antithetical to the Union’s fundamental values and priorities. At the same time, as war keeps ravaging Ukraine, support for democracy and democratic institutions has been shaken in Italy by the ongoing conflict 

But how much has the war influenced the way Italians perceive and support democracy and the Ukrainian cause? Is democracy in danger in Italy? 

In the weeks after the Russian Federation initiated its war on Ukraine, the European Movement International launched nine country surveys to assess the public’s reaction to the invasion and gauge baseline and future public support for Ukraine. Together with Italy, the countries surveyed included Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Romania. 

Democracy in Italy is in decline. As our findings show, fewer than half of Italians consistently support democracy and 47% are dissatisfied with the way democracy works in Italy. A majority of Italians (56%) say their country is on the wrong track, while only 26% are satisfied with the way democracy works in Italy — of them, only 3% are very satisfied.  

This sense of disaffection and dissatisfaction has worsened since Russia’s invasion. For 29% of Italians, for instance, support for democracy and democratic institutions has decreased since the outbreak of the war.  

And Italy is not an isolated case. Consistent support for democracy remains in steep decline across Europe — it is below 50% in all countries surveyed. By contrast, nearly one third of Estonians say their satisfaction with democracy in Estonia has increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

And how do Italians perceive Russia’s invasion and the ongoing escalation? 

Two-thirds of Italians (67%) say Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine are not legitimate. While this is a good number compared to the overall group of countries surveyed, let there be no mistake: this means that one third of Italians find Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine legitimate. Only Hungary and Greece scored higher than Italy, as almost half of Hungarians (46%) and Greeks (44%) think Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine are legitimate. 

It is also alarming, to say the least, that only 43% blame Putin directly for the war, while only 21% of Italians strongly agree that Russian aggression is a threat to Italy’s democracy. To make a comparison, only 27% of Greeks blame Putin for the war in Ukraine – the lowest percentage of the nine countries surveyed. 

Until recently, Italy, especially its political elite, has always held a very positive attitude towards Putin’s Russia. Berlusconi’s everlasting friendship with Putin is legendary and his very recent outrageous comments in defence of Putin and against the Ukrainian people have caused dismay. Salvini and Meloni’s adoration and admiration for the Kremlin are also no secret.  

There is now growing concern over the position the new far-right government will hold towards Russia. Could Italy’s alignment with the EU’s unconditional support for Ukraine change in the future? Will Meloni and Salvini hold hostile positions towards the EU and undermine European values and important legislation and policy initiatives? It’s hard to tell.  

What’s clear, though, is the way Italians perceive the EU and European solidarity within the context of the war in Ukraine. 

While just 9% of Italians have a very favourable opinion of the EU – the lowest score, tied with Hungary – they want further European integration in those areas that are directly linked to the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

For instance, 72% of Italians agree that the EU needs to do everything possible to help countries in need. Worryingly, it is striking to see that the lowest support for European solidarity was reported in founding European Union members, France (57%) and Germany (58%).  

Moreover, the vast majority of Italians agree that the Russian attack on Ukraine demonstrates the need for a strong, common EU defence and migration policy — moreover, 62% agree that a joint EU army is needed. With respect to the more pressing challenges facing the EU, 75% of Italians agree that the Russian attack on Ukraine demonstrates the need for strong, common EU policies on food security and energy. 

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds (65%) support sanctions against Russia. No matter how hard Russia’s response, to the detriment of Italians’ wallets, especially ahead of a very long and expensive winter, Italians want sanctions to be maintained. It’d be wise for the new government to keep this in mind, especially for Salvini who recently questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions. 

This Listen to People report depicts a fragmented and contradictory picture of Italian citizens. The rise of a nationalist Eurosceptic right is at the gates, whose ambition isn’t really to directly attack the EU but to infiltrate it and change it to something more dangerous and destabilising. “Their intention isn’t so much to attack the EU; their intention is to take over from within and transform it into something closer to their ideas – a nightmare for all of us here in Brussels”, as highlighted by Petros Fassoulas, European Movement International’s Secretary General.  

Much is at stake. One hundred years ago, Mussolini’s Fascist regime seized power in Italy in a moment of internal turmoil and instability in the international arena. One hundred years later, global unrest has shaken the liberal order we live in.  

This is not the time to take democracy for granted. Democracy, freedom and fundamental rights must be defended. 

Now is the time to stand up together and uphold those very values we hold dear. 

By Federico Terreni – Policy & Advocacy Manager, European Movement International