Time For Change: How Volt Wants To Fix Europe

We interviewed Andi Shehu, Florence city coordinator for Volt

Andi Shehu studied chemistry and he had never thought to go into politics, but eventually he did. Now he is the city coordinator for Volt Florence.

Andi was born in Albania and moved to Italy when he was 12. Then, when he was doing all-nighters on the books for his master in Pisa, he happened to have a second thought that pushed him to change his field of study, shifting towards economic history and sailing up the Arno. After years of sacrifice, choosing a completely different path sounds like a pretty courageous decision. From what follows, it seems quite clear that Andi is not afraid of making brave decisions at all. In particular, as for the movement he represents, he is not afraid of embracing change.

Andi Shehu, Florence city coordinator for Volt

Andi, what is Volt and how did you get to know it?

To explain what is Volt, it might be useful to say how I first met Volt. To begin with, for my perception and feelings, I realized that we were starting to witness a serious deterioration of the quality of the everyday discourse, something that was also affecting politics. Then, after the last March elections, I was disappointed by the general result, as I did not expect such a success for Matteo Salvini’s League. Hence, I felt the need to do something more and get actively involved in politics. That was a real shock and a triggering moment for me. In fact, I consider as very problematic the forces that emerged from the elections, not only because of their political programs, but also because of the way they talk to the electorate.

“Italy’s euroscepticism is motivated by too little Europe, and not by too much Europe.”

Thus, I started looking for something more. First, I tried to join the local Democratic Party, but they did not show particular interest and were not so “welcoming”. Then, by chance, I found out about Volt on Facebook, so I spontaneously went to their general assembly. I immediately felt attracted by their ideas. Indeed, although Volt prefers not to be classified in the usual left-right dichotomy, it is a party that leans towards the center-left. At the general assembly indeed, I perceived a concrete will to change things in positive terms. While the Five Star Movement succeeded in channeling people’s anger and the League was able to convey fear and anger, Volt wishes to channel people’s hope. This is what Volt means to me and this is the reason why I joined this party.

What were the difficulties encountered in the launch of Volt?

Well, what I personally find a little challenging is to work at the local level. Previously, I had directly approached the European level because I thought that, according to my studies and my knowledge, I would have been more suitable for the European level of action, as I do not know precisely the local reality of Florence. However, at the general assembly (July this year), it emerged that there wasn’t a local team in town. Thus, many members asked those who were in Florence to launch the local experiment. Although I was not sure I was be able to make it, I decided to try. It wasn’t easy. I had never even thought to do politics and entering in a local dimension that I did not know so well was not effortless. Of course, I was living and I am still living in Florence, but doing politics at the local level is not an easy task. I am not afraid of saying that I am learning by doing, because I never had this kind of experience before. Volt is a challenge, but we are trying to do our best to get to know our local realities.

I guess the Brexit played an important role in the birth of Volt. Is there a real risk of an Italexit from the EU?

I believe that it might potentially happen, due to the government’s stance. However, I think it is extremely unlikely. In any case, if that happens, it would be due to a governmental decision, not to a popular one. Indeed, in Italy there’s always been a different type of euroscepticism compared to that of other European countries. Italy’s euroscepticism is motivated by “too little Europe”, and not by “too much Europe”. Here, the EU is criticized because of the lack of more interventions. We complain because Europe has not fixed the migrant and the financial crises. Today, there is more trust placed in the European institutions than in the national ones. This means that there is still hope for the European Union in Italy.

While for many young people it is a dream, for a majority of voters speaking of European federalism seems to be empty rhetoric, especially for that segment of the population (even among the youth) that seems to support sovereign and nationalist positions. How can Volt become a great pan-European popular party?

As any long-term, idealistic goal. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, all peoples in Europe began to revolt to ask for more civil and political rights. Those who did not agree, saw political rights like universal suffrage as something impossible and unacceptable. Nevertheless, philosophers and thinkers developed and spread these ideas and democracy became a real thing, but it did so with time. Even if our democracies are not perfect, many of these goals have been reached over time. Despite those positions were held by a minority of the population, ideals became reality through long-term fights (and not only in literal terms). If you do not try, you will never know.

A Volt rally in Brussels

The rhetoric of the so-called populist parties gives a great advantage to those political forces that use it: simpler and instinctive messages, capable of identifying problems that actually exist and refer to the day-to-day sensations indicated by the citizens. How can leaders who use empathy be defeated?

They can be defeated by using another type of empathy. I began by saying what is Volt for me and what the DP failed to do. If you are not able to channel empathy in terms of hope, rather than in terms of fear and anger, you allow populist parties to win. Talking about Europe does not necessarily mean talking in difficult and fancy words. Volt tries to use simple words and discourses. We offer a broader vision, and that’s exactly what the political discourse of the left was lacking. They did not speak the easy way about what was going on. They chased the popular will, but through contradictory measures.

“Leaders who use empathy can be defeated with another type of empathy.”

By contrast, Matteo Salvini is extremely consistent. He offered a clear political vision form the very beginning and he is now pursuing it in a coherent way. It was a minority vision and, in the previous elections, the Northern League obtained only 4 percent of votes. However, after just one parliamentary term, he was able to bring it up to 17 percent and now, according to recent surveys, the League has support around 36 percent.

This is linked to my next question. Many argue that the social right seized the most important left-wing subjects and that the low participation of the working class represent a huge limit for the rebirth of new progressive movements. How do you plan to involve this disillusioned part of the electorate? Can Volt be defined as a leftist party?

Well, these are two different questions. First, the model that now seems to be commanding greater success is the one they adopted in Bologna. Indeed, Volt Bologna is the best-structured team in Europe, thanks to the local members and their experience. They are constantly designing their strategy on the Obama campaign’s guidelines, whose main objective was to reach as many people as possible. This was done through hearing tours and door-to-door meetings, all with a capillary network of volunteers. In Bologna, they are doing something similar in order to avoid too much involvement of the few Volt members. We will apply this method to other local realities in the next future.

For now, in Florence we are not enough to implement this type of strategy, thus we need to engage some volunteers. The Obama campaign managed to catch two million volunteers, which is a crazy number: we should learn from this positive experience. This type of method allows us to reach all the sections of the population. Moreover, even though the social composition of the party seems to reflect a minority, Volt’s ideas and projects do represent the whole population. The pary allows many people from every background to take part to its political project, and this is what the FSM did so well. However, a balance between competences and representativeness needs to be found. It is impossible to govern with just one of the two.

So, I will insist. Can Volt be defined as a left-wing party?

Volt is a party that fights for the rights: social rights such as LGBTQ and minority rights, but also economic rights like redistribution, reduction of inequality and welfare state. We still don’t know whether we will be able to create a rightful society. This is up to us, and this is the main challenge. But we will try to talk to everyone. However, this is just a matter of commitment and will. For example, we are different even from +Europa in terms of the language used and of the way we address the issues of those who are excluded from the Europeanization process. Indeed, we try to use a language other than their own — which sometimes results to be “offensive” —, a more inclusive and accessible language for everybody. Many of our members are extremely well prepared, but this cannot represent a fault. We still talk to listen to everybody.

Many argue that the European project, despite the resulting great opportunities, has also irreversibly discouraged many social classes in economic terms with its austerity policies. What benefits does Europe bring to those who do not travel or speak foreign languages and therefore risk being further excluded from the process of European integration?

That is a difficult question, and I need to pick up on our Amsterdam Declaration. In its first part, we looked at how we can improve and reform Europe. The second part is more about the economic issues. More Europe means more fiscal room for manoeuvre, which in turn implies more European capacity to fight inequalities at both the geographical and individual levels. Our main aim is to give Europe greater welfare capacities and enable citizens to get closer to the European Institutions. Clearly, this is a long-term project that requires structural reforms. Nevertheless, something can be implemented even now.

A Volt assembly

In our program there is a set of measures that make those instruments allowing local investments visible. In turn, this needs to be combined with another element, which is what we lack at the moment. Many areas in southern Italy receive substantial resources, but they are not able to convey these resources to concrete programs, hence they are not able to use them effectively. In the Amsterdam Declaration, Volt highlights the fact that not only resources are needed, but we also need the tools to use such resources. Volt wishes to develop training courses with European funds that, in the long term, can help those areas to use funds efficiently for the benefit of all. Just to provide an example, considering the budgetary period between 2014 and 2020, at the end of 2017 only 10 percent of European funds for the south of Italy has been used. This shows to what extent the problem is not so much getting the available resources, but rather about the real capacity to use them.

The other big social cleavage dividing pro-European and eurosceptic people unfolds along the urban-rural divide: how can you convince those who are relegated to the edge of large international centers that Volt is the right solution?

With two concrete answers: first, by creating more accessible transport services and by obtaining the investments needed for these infrastructures in the backward regions. Additionally, investments need to be “smart”, namely they should foster technological and digital instruments which are available already now and useful for facilitating commuting from the periphery to the center. However, these instruments have been barely used so far. Second, since technology provides the possibility of working remotely, a number of our proposals are aimed at providing real digital capacity, starting with the backward regions. Then, these would have the opportunity to create jobs in the periphery without the need for people to move to the capitals. To do all this, there is a compelling need to reform broadly the way we conceive labor. Any kind of work indeed, should include one day a month to allow people to improve their capabilities and make the reintegration into work easier, despite the fact that the labour market needs more and more professional training.

The next European elections are approaching. Are you going to compete as a party, in a coalition, or you are not going to stand at all?

We have decided to try to launch a pre-campaign with two main objectives. First, we will start working on the territory and learn how to do things at the local level, because many of us have never done this before. In this way, we can actually understand what is our real dimension and if it is worth getting the 150 thousand signatures needed in Italy to stand in the elections. This is one of the highest thresholds set out in Europe to take part to the European elections. Once we conclude the pre-campaign, we will decide what to do based on the feedback that we will receive from the voters. In February, there will be the national congress right here in Florence. That will be the moment of truth.

Last question. To what extent the legacy of failure and rejection of the old pro-European parties — now deemed part of the establishment — reflects on a new party like Volt? And how do you distinguish yourselves from them?

I believe that Volt can have great political impact by providing a concrete example of political coherence in the political spectrum. In fact, Volt is the first pan-European party with a consistent program. Thus, I hope that other parties from both sides will start to think in these terms. Because only in this way Europe can become a real democratic space. As long as the other parties will conceive the European elections as local or national polls, we cannot talk about a real European space. In this sense, we are innovative.

“We have liberal and social elements: this might represent a fourth way.”

In addition, unlike the traditional parties, we take globalization and technological innovation seriously. We recognize the grievous problem that this process represents for a significant part of the population and what this means for many people. By recognizing that these changes tend to exclude a part of the population, we think about concrete policies which can help everybody, without closing ourselves within the national borders. Finally, we combine economic proposals aimed at creating jobs with other welfare measures; these two components are both essential and they must be coupled. We have liberal and social elements and this might represent a fourth way.