If asked if Italy could be the next country to leave the EU, an Italian European loyalist would likely answer the question: “Certo che no. Che idea sciocca!“Of course not. What a stupid idea!
They were going then propose a list of reasons why not: the European flag flies alongside the Italian tricolor outside all public buildings; the founding treaty of the European Economic Community – which later became the EU – was signed in the Italian capital in 1957; and Italy was a founding member of the European Monetary Union, replacing the lira with the euro in 1999. Would it certainly be unthinkable for Italy to leave the EU?
But five years ago, it was unthinkable for the UK to leave the EU either. Italy has just had (yet another) new government. In his inaugural speech, the new Prime Minister, the former President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, assured the Italian Senate that his unity government was born “in the tradition of the EU and the Atlantic Alliance. … Without Italy there is no Europe, but outside Europe there is even less Italy. We must be proud of the Italian contribution to the growth and development of the European Union ”.
Why did Draghi need to reassure? In his insightful book They first took Rome: how the populist right conquered Italy, David Broder describes Italy’s romantic break with Europe: “Yet in 2020, Italians’ Euroscepticism rivals that of their British counterparts even today.” Is Italy the last country to have been placed under European surveillance against suicide?
Let’s go back to the UK for a moment for a few lessons. The main reason the UK left the EU was because no one thought so. He left the EU by accident. The UK was only ruled by Brexiteers more than three years after the country voted ‘out’ in a referendum and less than six months before its transition began. When David Cameron included a pledge for an ‘in-out’ European referendum in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election, he did not do so to articulate his vision for the UK’s future relationship with the UK. ‘Europe and the rest of the world. . He did so to silence a small but noisy wing of his party (the Europe-obsessed wing), to stem a drift of traditionally Conservative voting nationalists into the British Independence Party (UKIP) pro Brexit and to get the main opposition on the wrong foot. , the Labor Party. Cameron only did so because he had convinced himself (and he was not alone) that the British people would never opt for sovereignty over prosperity. It was a miscalculation that ended the career.
Similar, if not more extreme, conditions now exist in Italy. In the last Italian general election, in 2018, five parties won 600 of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and all five hold ministerial positions in Draghi’s unity government. They also hold Italy’s political future in their hands. Euroscepticism is now the dominant position in three of them and, above all, in the party which has jumped in recent years. The offer of a European referendum could easily find its place in the political bargaining by which Italian coalition governments are formed and defeated.
Let’s take a look at the makeup of the current Italian coalition. There are two main pro-European parties, the most important being the dominant left party, the Democratico Party (PD) or Democratic Party, residual legatee of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI), the Italian Communist Party – famous “Eurocommunist” even during the Cold War. In 2018, it was the third largest party, winning 112 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. With 104 seats, the other major pro-European party is Forza Italia (FI), Forward Italy, the vehicle that made the mercurial, Now in his eighties, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister just three months after he “entered the field” in 1994. FI has continued to make him the longest-serving post-war Italian prime minister. It has been described as “Europe’s darling” and as a bulwark against the rise of anti-European populist parties. The problem for Europeans in Italy is that it is not the political parties that win the Italian elections; political coalitions do, and Berlusconi did not hesitate to enter into a coalition with the Eurosceptic parties of the right; it remains to be seen how long his pro-Europeanism will survive a power offer.
The other three main parties in Draghi’s coalition are all anti-European populists.
The biggest party in 2018 was the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), the five-star movement, with 227 seats. Formed in 2009 by a comedian, he was the product of growing popular resentment and repulsion against the entire Italian political class. Like other delusional monster-type parties, none of the above, yee hah, hard to define politically except that it’s clear what he’s against: he’s anti-establishment, anti-globalist, anti- immigration and, of course, anti-EU. He is also anti-politician and entered the 2018 general election with a condition of joining any coalition government – that the number of politicians should be reduced by a third. As Italy’s general elections usually do, the 2018 elections resulted in a suspended parliament and a coalition agreement was reached that included the Five Star political cut condition. In the following referendum last year 70% of Italians agreed; the reduction should be made in the next scheduled general election (the reduction in the number of parliamentarians is something David Cameron also tried, and failed). Developing its politics by voting its members online, the M5S is a politically unstable party in an unstable political environment. Now that he faces a decline as meteoric as his rise, his anti-Europeanism could easily erupt in his next round of concrete proposals.
But the most powerful threat to Italy’s European project is another populist party – the Lega, or League. He started life as Lega North, Northern League, created in 1991 from a group of regionalist parties that had emerged around the Lega Lombarda, the Lombard League, founded ten years earlier. This played on the popular perception in the region that the wealth generated in industrial and efficient northern Italy was being drained into the pristine, lazy south by the ploys of disconnected and idealistic politicians in Rome.
The demagogic Matteo Salvini became the leader of the Lega North in 2013 and, realizing that his populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric had moved beyond narrow regionalism to achieve electoral success, he transformed his party into a national right-wing party by abandoning the “North” and simply renaming it the League. His stance towards Europe has fluctuated so much that academics have distinguished five distinct phases in his European thought, but Salvini has now decisively shifted the center of his hostility from Rome to Brussels.
Salvini is good at hostility. He called the EU and the euro “crimes against humanity” and the League’s 2018 manifesto included a commitment to “renegotiate all treaties that restrict our full and legitimate sovereignty”. In this election, it became the second largest party, with 125 seats. But it is also the booming party of Italian politics. In the last national electoral test, the 2019 European elections, he swept the board, easily overtaking the ballot, garnering 34.3% of the vote compared to his closest rival, the 22.7% of the PD, and eclipsing its declining populist rival, the M5S, by 17.1%.
The fifth of the major parties is another rising star of the Italian right – the Fratelli d’Italia (Fd’I) Brothers of Italy. Created in 2012, it can trace its antecedents directly to the post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the Italian social movement. In the 2018 general election, he quadrupled the number of his seats, winning 25 and bringing his total to 32. Then, along with the League, he was the other big winner in the 2019 European elections, taking seats for the first time – six of them – and he is now third behind the League and the PD. The Fd’I won its first major electoral victory in last year’s regional presidential elections, when its candidate won Abruzzo with 48%. Its leader, Georgia Meloni, reminds us that Italy gave us the term “fascism” and that it is extreme enough to call for the sinking of immigrant ships. But she’s looking good and has been hinted at as a possibility for Italy’s very first female prime minister. While her euroscepticism is reformist and not as loud as Salvini’s – she said “the euro is not working as is” and that if “Italy should not leave the EU, Germany should”. But she’s riding a global nationalist wave and if the mood of her electoral base changes, so will her.
Are the conditions in Italy conducive to questioning its Europeanism? In the early 1990s, the First Italian Republic collapsed under the weight of the city of Tangentopoli. scandal. Half of Italy’s parliamentarians were under criminal investigation and a former prime minister, who fled the country, was sentenced in his absence to 27 years in prison for corruption. He never returned to Italy.
The Christian Democrats, the party that had ruled Italy for half a century, was so mired in scandal that it was dissolved – and it wasn’t the only party to leave. Public confidence in Italy’s post-war political class, which was never particularly robust, collapsed. The door was open for opportunists to create new parties and join the race for power; it hasn’t closed since. If the maturity of political parties acts as a brake on thoughtless political artifices, this constraint has long since disappeared from the Italian political scene.
Confidence in politics has been increasingly reduced now by the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. This time, however, it was the EU that became the center of the Italians’ anger. In the four months to March 2021, the proportion of Italians seeing EU membership as a disadvantage increased by 20 percentage points, to more than two-thirds. One of Italy’s oldest statesmen, former Prime Minister and President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, considers the threat to the EU greater than the debt crisis of 2009. Italy is a major recipient of EU funds for post-pandemic reconstruction, but it was a spending dispute that brought down the previous Italian government. What for some is a desperately needed injection of European funds is, for others, unwanted and unnecessary political interference.
Does Italy’s continued membership of the EU have something to offer? Soon all he could have left to ward off “Italexit” may be the age-old Italian rhyme: “No c’e spiaggia senza mare, ma c’e say senza fare. There is no beach without the sea, but we talk without action.
A message from TheArticle
We are the only publication that is committed to covering all angles. We have an important contribution to make, which is needed more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please donate.