ROME — Italy’s leftists think they’ve found their Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Former MEP Elly Schlein, 34, has emerged as the rising star of the Italian left after last month’s election in the northern Emilia-Romagna region, where she won the most preference votes. Her movement, Coraggiosa (« courageous »), is barely three months old but won nearly 4 percent of the vote, helping the center left defeat a far-right attempt to take control of the region.
That’s not only won her praise and attention in Emilia-Romagna — whose governor named Schlein his deputy on Tuesday — but also from the top echelons of Italy’s main progressive force, the Democratic Party (PD), whose secretary, Nicola Zingaretti, was impressed enough to offer her the party presidency spot left vacant by European Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni’s move to Brussels.
Yet Schlein has no intention of returning to the PD, which she quit five years ago in protest against the line of the party’s then-leader Matteo Renzi. She believes Italy’s fragmenting left is losing ground to far-right parties such as Matteo Salvini’s League because it lacks courage, and thinks it ought to move away from the center and further to the left.
« She’s the Italian version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. » — Emiliana De Blasio, professor at Luiss University in Rome
« There’s shyness on the left, this is why we called the movement Coraggiosa; we are facing historic battles that need to be dealt with courage, [the center left] will never win by running after the center, » she told POLITICO in a phone interview from Bologna.
« We must unite around a few clear left-wing pillars: solidarity toward migrants, gender equality, LGBT rights, climate change and labor rights, » she added.
It’s an ambitious goal — not least because Italy’s left-leaning parties have lost ground to right-wing populists on many of these issues even after the PD returned to power last year in a coalition with the anti-establishment 5Stars.
The coalition has, for example, taken an ambiguous position on migration: So far, the parties have failed to find an agreement on abolishing Salvini’s flagship immigration policy banning NGO rescue ships from entering Italian waters. The government also recently renewed a deal with the abusive Libyan coast guard to block migrants from setting sail. Schlein has called for both measures to be slashed.
The matter of Italian left-wing unity is equally ambitious. The coalition, which also includes the new PD splinter party Italia Viva, has been unable to agree on a number of crucial policy issues including pensions and justice reform. The PD itself is made up of many different factions, most of which feel closer to the center or the 5Stars than the left wing.
Reinvigorating the left
Schlein’s optimism and left-wing focus, along with her sudden rise to prominence, has earned her comparisons to a fellow leftist across the Atlantic.
« She’s the Italian version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, » said Emiliana De Blasio, a professor at Luiss University in Rome.
While Schlein rejects the parallel with the U.S. Democratic congresswoman, she has — much like Ocasio-Cortez — called for a « Green New Deal » and is very popular among millennials and women. Schlein, who was born and raised in Switzerland before moving to Bologna 15 years ago, also volunteered on Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns in the United States.
Schlein’s left-wing approach might just be what the Italian left needs to reinvigorate itself, De Blasio believes. « The progressive, pro-EU, reformist left wing Schlein pitches is Italy’s center left’s only hope for resurgence, » she said, noting that the PD has not managed to win an election since shifting to the center.
But Schlein is under no illusion that her positions are universally popular in Italy, where the far right’s hard-line stance on issues such as immigration continues to dominate. « Of course, the right wing’s stances are popular, inequalities have increased, people’s fears are real and we have to listen to them, » she said.
That measured attitude hasn’t stopped her from calling out the far right, though. Last month, a video of Schlein asking her former European Parliament colleague Salvini why he skipped 22 parliamentary meetings on the Dublin Treaty reform during his time as an MEP went viral on social media.
« The PD is rebuilding itself, it’s opening up, debating, we’re calling [ourselves] into question and I hope that we can walk part of the way with progressives like Schlein. » — Filippo Sensi, PD lawmaker
The video, which shows Schlein patiently waiting for an answer while Salvini fidgets with his phone before walking away from her, further raised her profile across Italy.
The PD, meanwhile, has signaled it’s open to working with Schlein even if she doesn’t return to the party.
« The PD is rebuilding itself, it’s opening up, debating, we’re calling [ourselves] into question and I hope that we can walk part of the way with progressives like Schlein, » said PD lawmaker Filippo Sensi.
He added: « Elly is a natural talent. I don’t know if she is the single biggest hope for Italy’s center left, but I know we terribly need people like her. »