• Sean Young

Protests over Italy’s Green Pass and the Ascendency of Neo-fascist Parties

When Italy’s Green Pass was first rolled out in June 2021, Prime Minister Mario Draghi introduced it as a preventative measure. As the Italian Ministry of Health website defines it, the Green Pass “is a Certification in digital and printable format, issued by the National Platform of the Ministry of Health, which contains a QR Code to verify its authenticity and validity.” All citizens and residents can obtain a pass through the EU digital COVID Certificate Regulation, as long as they show proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test, or recent recovery from the virus. Those without a digital device can request a physical certificate. The Green Pass policy was designed so citizens could safely gather in large crowds while, at the same time, encouraging more of the population to get vaccinated.

Photo Courtesy: Wanted in Rome

Despite these measures, July saw more than 5,000 new cases daily, most of these cases being from the highly contagious delta variant. In response to this new wave of cases, Draghi’s administration decided to extend Italy’s state of emergency, first implemented in January of 2020, until December 31, 2021. This allows the government to quickly introduce new health measures without the long parliamentary process. Draghi argued that these measures were necessary for Italian regions to “stay in the white zone” and “to keep economic activities open.” On a scale of four tiers, a red zone has the most restrictive COVID-19 measures while white zones have the least and allow for most, if not all, businesses and activities to remain open.


On October 15, Italy's administration imposed further restrictions, making the Green Pass mandatory for almost all workers in the public and private sectors. Unvaccinated workers can still enter their workplace on the condition they provide a negative covid test every 48 hours. This is an expensive condition when considering that COVID-19 tests cost 15 euros apiece. Adding to financial stress, business corporations are also required to issue penalties — employment suspension and fines between 600 and 1500 euro — if a worker shows up without the pass or is absent from work because of the refusal to get one. Businesses who fail to carry out these measures will also be fined between 400 and 1000 euros.


According to a local attorney of Italy’s Campania region Luciano Ricciardi, “the general sentiment of most Italian citizens is of…acceptance” to the vaccine and the Green Pass. Ricciardi argues that this is mainly the result of a population wanting to “‘return to ‘normality’ as soon as possible,” even if it’s under more restrictive measures. According to Italy’s Ministry of Health, the end of October saw positive vaccination rates amongst the eligible population, with 86% of people over age 12 having at least one dose and 81% fully vaccinated. The government estimates that about 600,000 people were motivated to get vaccinated in the last month due to the pass’s workplace restriction. Because these rates are “faster than the EU average,” Draghi believes his measures will influence other European countries.


When Draghi was sworn in earlier this year, Italy was facing its worst economic crisis. Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister and leader of the left-wing party Italia Viva had faith that Draghi could be “the European who can save Italy,” just as he saved the euro at the height of the eurozone crisis. Despite receiving a wide range of support, both from the Italia Viva and the more centrist Pentastellati (5 Star Movement), Draghi has identified his platform as an expression of liberal socialism. His policy focus, as he defines, it is on winning the pandemic, completing the vaccination campaign, responding to citizens' problems and [economically] relaunching the country.”


One leg of this platform, his now-infamous Green Pass measure, has led to an uproar of controversy across the broad political spectrum, with most parties in the destra sovranista (the sovereign right) calling it anti-constitutional. Criticism over Draghi and his COVID-19 regulations has been prevalent throughout the pandemic. Even within the government, division was expected as conflicts and instability have marked Italy's political landscape since the end of World War II. Its current parliament consists of 16 different parties, and its central government, headed by the ex-head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi, contains ministers from both political sides. Though the majority of Draghi's administration is from the center-left Democratic Party, “over the years this group has experienced quarrels, tensions and splits.” These splits have led to the formation of other leftist parties like Italia Viva, Article One, and Sinistra Italiana.


The government’s experience with partisan bickering was still not enough to prepare it for violent and out-of-control crowds protesting the latest workplace restrictions. Throughout October and leading into the first week of November, Italy experienced massive demonstrations that resulted in the destruction of public property and violent altercations with police.


The “most controversial” protests occurred the weekend of October 9 in Rome with a raid at the headquarters of CGIL (Italy's General Confederation of Labor). A crowd of 10,000 people broke into the headquarters. The prefect of Rome, Matteo Piantedosi, claims he had expected some form of protest to take place but was not prepared for the amount of people and violence that ultimately occurred. Roberto Fiore, founder of the extreme neo-fascist group Forza Nuova, was arrested at the raid, along with his lieutenant Giuliano Castellino. Castellino justified their involvement, saying, "this battle is strategic for us. We will respond to any new lockdowns with civil and even uncivil disobedience.” Fiore and Castellio's participation indicates a larger trend; many on the far right side of the political spectrum are enthusiastically supportive of these protests. Although these protests have no official ties to fascist groups, their violent nature suggest otherwise. Far-right groups like Forza Nuova have had a history of using violence as means of achieving their political agenda.


While there is no universally accepted definition of fascism, mass mobilization and violence are among the several common characteristics that have been used to distinguish historical fascist movements. Others elements typically include opposition to political and cultural liberties, conservative social values, militarism, extreme nationalism, and populist economic policies.


The president of the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI) Gianfranco Pagliarulo claims that the violence and sentiments displayed during the protests show the emergence of fascist ideals. "We haven't seen such violent attacks since the end of the war," he says, making comparisons to Mussolini's Squadristi, or militias used by the Fascist party. Simone Alliva, a progressive journalist and author, says that the rising threat of the far-right is at the "heart of Italian society." According to Alliva, "the neo-fascists haven't infiltrated these anti-Green Pass protests, but have been a part of them from the start." As Alliva sees it, these neo-fascists have been able to integrate themselves within large moderate and far-right parties, such as Lega (the League) and Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy).


However, not everyone is concerned about the growing influence of fascism. Italian attorney Luciano Ricciardi believes that the major issue is the bias of Italian newspapers and news shows "linked to the center-left power." According to Ricciardi, the media tends to exaggerate the sentiments and actions of far-right parties. Many sympathetic with the protesters' hostility to further Covid restrictions claim that such exaggeration is used to distract from the "real issues:" the Green Pass and its "infringement on their rights."


Although the emergence of fascism is speculative, center and far-right parties expressing similar radical views have increasingly gained momentum. According to July polls conducted for the 2023 election, the Italian far-right accounted for at least 40% of electoral preferences, while the center-right coalition accounted for 48.2% preference. And although Draghi’s left-leaning administration is supported by about 72.3% of the Italian population, preference for the center-left coalition is only at about 39%.


A podcast about right-wing authoritarian and extremist movements, Right Rising, hosts worldwide leading experts on the radical right to explain the development and rise of extremism in the last couple of years. In a recent episode, guest speaker Alessio Scopelliti, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, notes that the 2018 premier election was the first with “clear, populist, Eurosceptic parties in government.” Moreover, as July's polling suggests, the upcoming 2023 election may see an uptick in groups containing these ideologies, with stronger support for radical right-wing parties like the League. According to Scopelliti, the League, a party whose primary focus was the northern region of Italy, is now "trying to propose itself in a more national perspective." Such a move indicates its intent to spread populist ideals throughout the country.


Meanwhile, the government remains under constant pressure to control over this rising tide of right-wing extremism. Draghi tried, with the help of the Italian Senate, was able to pass a motion aimed at dissolving the most notorious and outspoken neo-fascist group. The Italian Senate was able to pass a motion in late October aimed at dissolving the most notorious and outspoken neo-fascist group. This measure was justified on grounds that the government is taking preemptive action against “serious threats to democracy and constitutional liberties.” Ultimately, the ban did not pass clear the Chamber and the Senate, as center-left voters in government—the only side that voted in favor—did not have a majority.


Despite these efforts, many are skeptical of the government's ability to handle the influence of the far-right in its political scene, and such hesitancy is not unwarranted. Neo-fascists have indeed forced their views into the national sentiment against vaccines, seeking to "make political capital from the pandemic, infiltrating violent anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests since the early days of lockdown." Thus, it would seem COVID-19 is not the only thing spreading in Italy. Much like a virus, the transmission rate of neo-fascist ideas is high and the Italian government must now take prompt action curb it.