Like Oil Floating on Water: Italy’s Olive Crisis and the Politics of Backlash against Transnational Legal Orders


How do failures to reconcile international law with local knowledge in moments of political crisis frustrate compliance, foment conspiracy, and foster backlash? This article illuminates this puzzle through a case study of the law and politics surrounding the destructive outbreak of xylella fastidiosa amidst the olive groves of Italy since 2013. The epidemic prompted interventions by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice to limit the pathogen’s diffusion by applying EU environmental regulations and mandating the eradication of thousands of trees. Yet given limited consultations of local stakeholders and lackluster local knowledge, the EU’s containment efforts backfired, sparking a farmers’ revolt and prompting Italian judges to traffic in conspiracy to obstruct compliance. Drawing on theories of legal mobilization and political sociologies of contentious events, Italy’s olive crisis exemplifies the rise of a contentious politics of resentment that can desiccate the on-the-ground authority of even well-entrenched transnational legal orders.



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