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Who said populism had peaked? Plus Global Compact, steel tariffs & more

Following the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in 2016, many feared that a populist wave would sweep through Europe. But with the decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election last year, anxiety quickly morphed into complacency. Yet France came perilously close to a presidential run-off between far-right and far-left anti-EU populists. Austria’s election was won by a conservative party that has adopted much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the far-right, which is now the junior coalition partner. Populism never really went away.

And now it’s back with a vengeance. In Italy’s election last Sunday, various populist parties won 54.4% of the vote. Topping the poll by far was the anti-establishment Five Star Movement on 32.7%. In third place, on 17.4%, was the far-right Lega (League, previously Northern League). Another far-right party, the Brothers of Italy, got 4.3%. Lega outpolled Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and thus dominates the right-wing alliance that together won 35.7% of the vote. As it stands, no parliamentary majority is possible without the involvement of a populist party. In a worst-case scenario, Five Star and Lega might end up in coalition together.

For sure, the populists aren’t all alike. Five Star (now led by Luigi Di Maio, pictured) started off as an anarchic plague-on-all-their-houses internet movement with a pick and mix of policies from across the political spectrum, some sensible, some barmy and others inoffensive. But regrettably, it has evolved in a more unpleasant direction, becoming more explicitly anti-immigrant and cosying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Northern League was always nasty: it began as an anti-immigrant regional separatist party in northern Italy. And now it is a particularly vile, racist, far-right outfit. Its leader Matteo Salvini recently blamed an incident involving one of its former candidates shooting innocent and defenceless refugees on immigrants themselves. Brothers of Italy is a far-right party with fascist origins that is stronger in southern Italy.

Italians have every reason to be disenchanted with often-corrupt establishment parties that have mismanaged the country for decades. Most Italians are no richer than at the turn of the century. Public debt is astronomical. Opportunities for young people without political connections are limited.

It’s possible that Five Star will moderate in government, potentially with the centre-left Democratic Party as a junior partner. An alliance with Lega, though, would be toxic. Whatever happens, anti-immigrant populism in Europe isn’t going anywhere. We must continue to fight it.


The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the talks last December. Hungary’s authoritarian nationalist government threatened to pull out too. But the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) is going forward without the US – and its current draft is a surprisingly progressive document.

For the first time at at international level, governments have recognised the need to new create legal pathways for regular migration, Rebekah Smith points out in a brilliant piece for OPEN.

The draft Compact also recognises the need to create pathways for predictable movements of people in response to climate change. New Zealand became the first country to introduce such a scheme when late last year it introduced a climate refugee visa for Pacific Islanders likely to be displaced in the near future.

The GCM also supports the decriminalisation of irregular border entry (making irregular entry an administrative, not a criminal, offence). It also commits states to save lives and prevent migrant deaths regardless of legal or entry status. This extends to relegating migrant detention to a measure of last resort (hello Australia!).

Read Rebekah’s piece in full here.

“Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” according to Donald Trump. Yesterday he imposed punitive tariffs on US steel and aluminium imports on the bogus grounds that those imports, often from Nato allies such as Germany and the UK, endanger US national security. The EU is already preparing to retaliate, as is China. A trade war may be on the cards.

Philippe Legrain explains in Foreign Policy what’s at stake for the global economy, the battered transatlantic alliance, trade politics, Brexit Britain, the World Trade Organisation and much else.

The bottom line is that trade wars are never good. Nor do they have winners, let alone easy ones. And they certainly won’t make America great again.

Read Philippe’s article in full here.

Out and about: Philippe Legrain and OPEN’s Step Up report are quoted in a Reuters piece by Julie Carriat on Macron’s asylum reforms in France.

Philippe Legrain provided an expert international contribution on how to get refugees into work quicker at the inaugural meeting of the Intergovernmental Council on Economic Integration for Refugees in Melbourne on 22 February. The meeting was organised by the Council’s secretariat, the Centre for Policy Development, a leading Australian think-tank whose excellent Settling Betterreport sets out how to improve refugee employment and settlement services in Australia.

Immigrant of the week: On a more personal note, last week I got stuck in Edinburgh where I was due to speak about the business case for diversity at a conference that was cancelled due to a snowstorm known as the “Beast from the East”. Trying to get back to London the next day all trains and flights ended up cancelled. So a group of us hired an Uber to try to get to Newcastle to catch a train from there.

Thank goodness we had the good fortune to end up with Michael, a former rally driver from Poland. Because the trip ended up taking nearly six hours and involved repeatedly pushing the car uphill in the snow, out of snow drifts and clearing other obstacles from the road. Without the expert driving skills and determination of that Beaut from the East we would never have made it. Thank you, Michael. Where would I – and Britain – be without hard-working, dynamic immigrants like you?


Stat of the week:

140,000: the number of people employed in the steel industry in the US

17 million: the number of people employed in steel-using industries in the US

Have a good weekend


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