The center-left can't hope to compete under those terms, and it hasn't. It has lost ground to the far-right almost everywhere.
Take Italy. Its politics have always been a bit dysfunctional, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that its major center-right party is led by billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who has a penchant for corruption, sex scandals and corruption involving sex scandals. That, though, almost seems like a quaint concern with the way the country's political center has been imploding lately. Consider this: Italy's two mainstream parties have gone from combining for 70 percent of the vote in 2008 to 47 percent in 2013 and now just 33 percent in the elections last Sunday. The center-left Democratic Party, in power until now, was particularly hard hit when you consider the fact that it didn't even have any big rivals on the left to contend with.
In their place have come populists of various stripes. The first is the Five Star Movement, an ideologically inchoate protest party founded by a comedian that supports a universal basic income, is against mandatory vaccinations, is vaguely opposed to immigration, has toyed with the idea of leaving the euro and — with the way it studiously refuses to join any coalition government despite the fact that it has become the country's single largest party — stands above all else for giving the finger to what it perceives as a self-dealing political establishment. The second is the League, a onetime northern separatist party that has reinvented itself as a stridently anti-immigrant one. It has toned down some of its euroskepticism — the euro “was, is, and remains a mistake,” its leader Matteo Salvini has said, but it would be “unthinkable” to hold a referendum on getting rid of it now. But it wants a 15 percent flat tax, and, as is practically de rigueur among today's far-right, wants closer ties with Russia. It also wants to end sanctions against North Korea, which Salvini has said has a “splendid sense of community.”
None of this should be too surprising. What else do you expect after two lost decades? Italy, you see, is poorer now than it was when it joined the euro in 1999. Which is to say that its GDP per capita, adjusted for local prices, has actually fallen over this time. But as incredible as that is, what's even more so is that it isn't really clear why this has happened. There wasn't the same boom-and-bust cycle that there was in, say, Spain. Instead, Italy just ... stopped growing. Part of it is that Italy has a lot of inefficient small businesses, another is that it has a lot of red tape that keeps businesses small, and the last is that there's just a lot of corruption. But, in any case, there's no debating the results: Italy has done even worse than Greece the last 20 years.
Now, there are two things you'd expect here. The first is that a zero sum economy would lead to zero sum politics. In other words, a shrinking economic pie would make people fight more about who's getting how big a slice — especially if they think someone, like, say, an illegal immigrant, doesn't deserve one at all. That has indeed been the case with the way that the League's extreme anti-immigrant and pro-Christian rhetoric has helped turn it into the second-biggest party in the country.
The second is that you'd think the center-left would respond by calling for some kind of stimulus to jump-start the economy — but it's not. The euro won't let it. Or, more specifically, the European Central Bank won't. The important thing to understand is that it's what is keeping the country's borrowing costs down and its banks afloat, so it could crash Italy's economy if their government ever tried to defy the euro zone's deficit rules. This is no idle threat. The ECB basically forced Berlusconi out of office back in 2011 by allowing Italy's borrowing costs to soar after he ignored their strongly worded letter, well, suggesting he cut the budget. All the center-left can do, then, is say it would do a better or more compassionate job pushing through the tough cuts and reforms that Europe wants. Austerity with a human face, though, isn't much of a platform.
This means that euro zone politics usually goes something like this. First, the center-left and center-right take turns discrediting themselves by following the unpopular policies that the E.U.'s budgetary rules require. Then a new party of the left — sometimes more populist, other times more centrist — gets a chance in office after it promises that it can change things. Except it can't. Not unless it's willing to take the country out of the euro, and, in the process, set off the mother-of-all financial crises. It's at this point that the far-right becomes a threat. It rails against the way the E.U. forces them to accept refugees and won't let them spend as much money on “real” Italians or French people or what have you. It's been enough to send them near the top of the polls but not actually form a government. That's because the other parties have teamed up, like they did in France last year, to keep the far-right out of power.
The problem, though, is that might not always be possible — especially in Italy. The Five Star Movement and the League control just over half the seats in the new parliament, and the other parties are too ideologically antagonistic to probably even form a minority government. So the next government will need at least one of these populist parties in its coalition, which, considering that the Five Star Movement has historically ruled out joining any, probably means that the League will be in charge.
Empowering xenophobes wasn't exactly what the E.U. had in mind when it set out on its goal of “ever closer union” 60 years ago. The idea of Europe was supposed to cure, or at least temper, nationalism, not cause it. But it won't work as long as they make it impossible for the center-left to offer up an alternative vision to the far-right other than doing what Brussels says in the most efficient way possible.
That's a pretty big oops.