Italexit: Will Italy be the next to leave the EU?

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“Italy got drunk on the idea of ​​the European project and fell in love with it. But now people understand that we were better before.”

This is what Gianluigi Paragone, a former journalist and senator of the Italian anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said in a recent interview, explaining why he forms the rebel Italexit party, hoping to reignite the latent debate on the possible withdrawal of Italy from the European Union. Will the Italexit movement gain momentum?


The pain of Italy. The experience of the pandemic in Italy was a horror story. One of the first epicenters of COVID-19, it has now recorded more than 35,000 deaths, mostly in the northern Lombardy region where hospitals have been overrun and doctors have been forced to make heartbreaking decisions about who lives and dies .

The economic pain has also been acute. The Italian economy, which has the second highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the EU, is expected to shrink by at least 11.2% this year, according to the European Commission, the worst projection among the 27 member states of the ‘EU. Its tourism-dependent economy is shaken as overseas travel has come to a halt. (Tourism accounts for around 13% of Italy’s GDP, while some 4 million jobs in Italy are attributable to tourism, the highest number of any country for which Eurostat has collected data.)

Worse yet, poverty and inequality have long risen in Italy, while upward mobility sags. Meanwhile, a cranky coalition government has failed to improve the lives of Italy’s declining middle class. So it’s no surprise that millions of Italians are frustrated, insecure and worried about their future.

This pessimism has helped Matteo Salvini, the fire of the far right, to carve out a prominent place in Italian politics in recent years. Despite his nationalist Lega party leading the polls, Salvini himself has moderated his views on the European project in recent months, creating a political vacuum that Italexit supporters may seek to fill.

A populist’s dream. Gianluigi Paragone was in London recently, meeting with Brexit mastermind Nigel Farage for advice on how to build support in Italy for a Brexit-style referendum. And he’s not the only Italian trying to take the Eurosceptic mantle. A mayor of the northern city of Verona has launched a petition for Italy to leave the EU, the first step in the complex referendum process, while Vittorio Sgarbi, art critic and libertarian politician who served in the government of the ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also pushing for a vote on Italy’s withdrawal from the Union in the short term.

Seize the moment. These anti-establishment office seekers are capitalizing on the growing feeling among Italians that the EU has abandoned them at their darkest hour. When the epidemic in Italy increased at the end of March – hospitals were flooded and protective equipment was scarce – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte turned to Russia and China for medical supplies (although many turned out to be unusable) while the European bloc was at an impasse on how to collectively respond to Italy’s woes.

The slowness of the reaction of Europe annoyed an Italian electorate who for years harbored resentment towards the European project because of the stagnation of the standard of living in this country. A poll in April found that 70% of Italians have little or no confidence in the EU, while 50% of those polled in another survey said they were in favor of leaving the bloc altogether.

The referendum process is complex. International treaties cannot be ratified (or annulled) by referendum in Italy. Euroscpetics therefore seems to be proposing a popular initiative bill to organize a referendum, which requires at least 500,000 signatures and the approval of the Supreme Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeal) to be voted on by Parliament. This is a convoluted procedure made more complicated by Italy’s growing political polarization, but the process could still hold Italian populists accountable whether or not a referendum is actually held.

The timing of Italexit’s surge is curious. Last week, the European Union reached agreement on a massive economic stimulus package, accepting Rome’s demand for its faltering economy to get the lion’s share of relief funds, alongside Spain.

While this may have allayed the concerns of some Italians, the disbursement of funds could take up to two years, giving the Italexit camp more time to tap into growing discontent with the EU. (An Italian poll already has the party’s vote that has yet to be launched at a staggering 7 percent.)

The bottom line. An Italexit referendum will be difficult to organize anytime soon, but ardent Eurosceptics will try to use this anti-EU momentum to play a power game.



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