The historical roots of challenges to European integration: La Sapienza University’s “Anti-Europe” Conference

From Andrea Carlo Martinez, PhD researcher at the German Historical Institute Rome 

The European Union is in the midst of a profound crisis, as huge swathes of its population – harnessed by powerful political movements – are challenging the very legitimacy of the integrationist project. Eurosceptic parties are forming governments and getting unprecedented results in both national and European elections. The United Kingdom, or the Community’s “awkward partner”, as Stephen George so famously described it, has finally left the Union. So how we do explain this phenomenon?

It’s this question which formed the nexus of the “Anti-Europe. Populism and anti-Europeanism from the interwar period to the EU crisis (1920-2020)” (Anti-Europa. Populismo e antieuropeismo dal period interbellico alla crisi dell’UE) Conference hosted by the Sapienza University of Rome on 21-22 October. A wide array of academics and scholars convened to examine why and how EU-critical and populist movements gained such a foothold throughout the continent, exploring the matter within a variety of different national, historical and disciplinary contexts. Despite the plethora of perspectives espoused by the conference’s presentations, they were bound together by one common view: that the origins of anti-integrationist contestation lies at the heart of the European project’s history, and represents a multifaceted phenomenon, rather than being a mere consequence of a perceived failure of the Brussels institutional machinery – as most contemporary media narratives would suggest.

Anti-Europe. Populism and anti-Europeanism from the interwar period to the EU crisis (1920-2020)1

The first session was opened by Alberto Marinelli, La Sapienza’s director of the Department of Communication and Social Research, who highlighted the importance of the media in shaping public political debates and noted three distinct phases or ‘epochs’ in the evolution of mass media structures: the era of centralised, traditional channels and outlets; the growth of sensationalist ‘television politics’, best exemplified by Silvio Berlusconi’s use of his private networks for his own electoral propaganda; and finally, the “disintegration” we are currently witnessing, where individually-catered social media algorithms are finessed by the likes of Matteo Salvini and co., often through posts as banal as a photo of a Nutella sandwich.

Following on from discussions on populist media strategies, the convention’s co-organiser, Daniele Pasquinucci, from the University of Siena, theorised why populist and anti-European (preferring such a term to “Eurosceptic”) movements have come to converge in their distrust towards the Brussels establishment: namely, he opined, owing to the history of the European project itself. Viewing anti-integrationist sentiments as intrinsically intertwined with the Community’s development from its earliest days, Pasquinucci argued that anti-Europeanists and the (loosely-defined) populists, the latter of whom are fuelled by an anti-establishment ethos, are united in their distrust towards the perceived elitist supranationalism and “democratic deficit” of the European Community/Union.

Subsequent presentations from the first half of the session also focused of conceptualising Europe-wide populism and Euroscepticism. Paris IEP’s Marc Lazar explored the various possible definitions of populism or “populisms”, such as it being a “thin ideology” (in Cas Mudde’s words), a style of politics, and/or a strategy. He eventually concluded by arguing how European countries, especially the supposedly “weak” Southern European democracies, like Italy, could be more resistant to “absorbing” the populist challenge due to their own history of having been forced to grapple with such political forces within governments and mainstream party coalitions. Moreover, La Sapienza’s Andrea Guiso, the convention’s organiser alongside Pasquinucci, looked at the impact of economic crises on populism and anti-Europeanism, seeing both of these as being embedded in the fundamental dilemmas arising from the imbalance between the global scale of markets and the contrasting national dimension of democracies.

The second half of the first day delved into the national milieus in which anti-European and populist movements emerge and operate. Kicking off the discussion was the University of Bologna’s Michele Marchi, who explored the neo-Gaullist “revolt” of the 1990s, when Philippe Séguin and Charles Pasqua diverged from the pro-European, Gaullist tradition of their party, with the latter eventually forming the souverainist “Rally for France” (Rassemblement pour la France). Marchi’s key argument is that their anti-Maastricht Euroscepticism was actually inherited from the Gaullist pro-Europeanist vision itself, namely its model of Europe as a “third force” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Moving back a decade and across the Channel, Lucio Valent, from Milan State University, questioned the degree to which Margaret Thatcher could be described as a “populist” and a Eurosceptic – noting her place within a country which, in Churchill’s words, saw itself as “with, not of, Europe” – and found three phases which can be used to adumbrate her overall attitude towards integration: initial disagreement and confrontation over issues such as the budget and Common Agricultural Policy in the early 1980s; growing enthusiasm over economic cooperation in the middle of the decade; and increasing hostility towards Europe by the time of her resignation in 1990, as she condemned Jacques Delors’ federalist and centralising tendencies. Carrying on discussions on Thatcher were Laura Chiara Cecchi from the University of Bologna, who looked at the late former prime minister’s influence on the Euroscepticism of subsequent Conservative Party politicians and noted how some of her key ideological themes (such as the fear of Britain being subsumed into a European “superstate”) were recycled; and LUISS’s Domenico Maria Bruni, who assessed the degree to which “Leave” voters could be described as “Thatcherite”, and found three key factors behind the Brexit vote – opposition to immigration; the idea of “taking back” money and investing it in public services such as the National Health Service (the former being a Thatcherite idea, unlike the latter); and an attack on the ‘establishment’.

Moving on to Germany, Turin University’s Federico Trocini explored the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its place within the country’s political context. He found that, despite being an “anomaly” within the party system as a result of it being a new movement, it was by no means anomalous in its existence, being part of a post-1989 sense of disillusionment. Trocini argued that the AfD captured the imagination of the “marginalised” middle class of young adults from former East Germany who feel they are the bearers of the “true” German identity, one that has not been corrupted by the Americanised, liberal influences of the former FRG – an attitude comparable to that of right-wing nationalists in East-Central European countries Lastly, Maria Elena Cavallaro from LUISS concluded the day by looking at how Spain and Portugal represent an “exception”, in that common drivers of Euroscepticism in other European countries (such as anti-establishment sentiment) do not have such an effect within an Iberian contextm, with European institutions having been positively linked to the process of transition to democracy in the 1970s.

The second day started with a presentation from John Hopkins SAIS’s Mark Gilbert on Euroscepticism in Britain. He analysed the arguments of the early anti-Marketeers – namely the liberal socialist Douglas Jay with his internationalist, proto-‘Global Britain’ narrative, and the conservative nationalist Enoch Powell’s celebration of British parliamentary sovereignty – and claimed that they ended up influencing contemporary, pro-Brexit narratives. He concluded by noting that British Euroscepticism is largely centredon questions relating to the country’s identity rather than a meaningful discussion on and with European institutions.

Heading over to Italy, Siena’s Gerardo Nicolosi looked at the hesitancy expressed by Italy’s diplomatic class towards the European project in the late 1940s and 1950s, which he claimed was a result of its members’ largely aristocratic roots, as they sought to preserve pro-monarchist, colonialist ideas. Enrico Serventi Longhi, from Roma Tre University, went back to before the Second World War period, exploring how critics of the ‘European Order’ instituted by the Treaty of Versailles had attacked the ideas behind representative democracy, and conceptualised “people” and “sovereignty” in new ways. Also researching the Italian interwar period was Saverio Battente from Siena, who analysed nationalist ideas and visions of populism in Fascist Italy, as well as La Sapienza’s Antonello Folliero, who examined two conflicting visions of Europe which came to blows in the 1930s: the federalist “Pan-Europa” of Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi and Aristide Briand, on the one hand, and the Italian Fascist vision of Dino Grandi, on the other. Folliero commented on how the Fascist vision, while positioning itself as “anti-European”, essentially offered its own reference model for Europe

The last part of the second day brought attention back to the post-war period and contemporary crisis. Lucrezia Ranieri from Tuscia University looked at nascent criticisms of the integration process in Italy during the first attempts of monetary cooperation (also known as the “snake in the tunnel”) in the 1970s. Such criticisms, she argued, were largely borne from the perception that the European project was failing to sufficiently integrate countries such as Italy. Furthermore, examining the relationship between immigration, welfare chauvinism, and anti-Europeanism from the 1990s to 2020 was Francesca Frisone from the University of Messina. She found that immigration has been perceived as weakening the welfare system, with souverainist parties holding the EU as responsible for failing to manage the migrant crisis and lacking real legitimacy. Following on from this, a joint presentation from La Sapienza’s Alessandro Barile and Luca Alteri compared the anti-Europeanism of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1940s and ‘50s, with the populist Five Star Movement, noting how the latter had adapted the former’s criticism of “big bank” capitalism to the context of the Eurozone crisis. The dichotomy between the Euroscepticism and “Europhoria” of the Refounded Communist Party (Rifondazione Comunista, PRC) and Left (Partito della Sinistra, PdS) parties in 1990s Italy formed the basis of the presentation of Tuscia’s Simone Polidori, which ultimately brought the conference to a close.

If there’s one common theme that emerges from the seminars, it’s that fundamentally futile to try to understand the current challenges being faced by the European project if one does not root them within the history of Community. Anti-Europeanism, “Euroscepticism”, populism, populisms – all nebulous terms which elicit significant controversy – encompass a set of movements whose actors are embedded within longstanding political traditions; whose narratives are recycled and re-adapted over time; and whose influence crosses borders. Indeed, while most presentations focused on specific national contexts, the importance of transnational links was not overlooked. Antonio Varsori, who provided some informal remarks at the end of the first day, argued that the history of European integration cannot be properly appreciated without embedding it within a broader, global context. Perhaps most importantly, anti-Europeanism and populism – however one wants to define them – must be viewed as part of the European integration process. Failing to do so would not only result in a flawed, presentist understanding of contemporary “Eurosceptic” movements, but in an incomplete picture of the European Union itself.























Cite this blog post
Editorial Board (2021, November 10). The historical roots of challenges to European integration: La Sapienza University’s “Anti-Europe” Conference. (De)Constructing Europe. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

  1. Retrieved from; 10th November, 2021 []

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