Even on the night of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, most people didn’t expect Farage – so much the hated outsider – to smile triumphantly at dawn the next day. But Brexit did happen anyway.
Likewise, no one seriously expects Italy – Europe’s fourth largest economy and eighth in the world – to step down. In the cold light of day, the economic consequences for Italian bonds and banks could be far more brutal and immediate than for Britain. Yet: if Brexit were unthinkable in Britain, could Italexit confuse us in the same way?
Opinion polls detect a strong wind in the sails of Paragone. A Tecne poll of 1,000 people in April revealed Italexit supporters would be on the verge of winning: with no-knowledge excluded, 49% of Italians would vote to leave, up from 29% at the end of 2018.
In a Termometro poll of 2,200 Italians around the same time, 39% wanted to leave the EU and the euro area, and 41% wanted to stay. Another 15 percent were evenly split between leaving one of the two and staying in the other.
And a Euronews poll in May found 61% of Italians believed COVID-19 had weakened the EU’s cause, with 70% saying the bloc had not done enough to help their country during the crisis. In that poll, only 47% said they would definitely vote âStayâ in a referendum.
There is still a current of Euroscepticism running through Italy. âBrusselsâ is a practical and remote target to blame.
– Mike Rann, former Australian Ambassador to Italy
“Brexit has, in many ways, shown the way in political terms,” ââsays Paragone, pointing to the close ranks of the establishment which refuses to take this apparent popular groundswell seriously.
A different model
Like Farage, he speaks in emotional and demagogic terms. âWe have an amazingly beautiful country, we have great food, great wine, great places, great industries that are successful all over the world. What the EU, and to some extent Germany, have tried to do with their austerity and deindustrialization policies is try to break this, âhe says.
âItaly has a different model, it is a model based on quality, on beauty – it is not compatible with financial accounting which only takes into account financial balances.
Italy has been at daggers drawn with Brussels since March 2018, when the new M5S and Lega coalition government took power. Led by non-partisan Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – but de facto controlled by charismatic Lega leader Matteo Salvini – the coalition thumbed its nose at eurozone fiscal rules as it tried to return to growth.
Just as both sides appeared ready to move on, Italy became the first European country to bear the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic in February, as the virus swept through the region surrounding Milan – the business capital – with devastating speed and ferocity.
Other European countries reacted initially by closing borders and accumulating medical supplies. There was also little initial enthusiasm for any kind of unconditional economic bailout, even as the Italian bond market faltered.
Late, the EU, and the Germans and French in particular, woke up to the extent and potentially seismic repercussions of the crisis and responded to Conte’s pleas to turn on the bloc’s tax taps.
Although a 750 billion euros ($ 1.2 trillion) stimulus fund was agreed last month, Italian hearts – still marked by the lingering love of Berlin during the eurozone crisis ago ten years – had hardened themselves towards Brussels and the flintlocked Northern Europeans.
âIt was the European Union‘s long-term plan from the start: to relieve nation-states of responsibility, disempower national governments and disempower national constitutions. The latest stimulus package is just one more step in that direction, âsays Paragone.
His plan is not to push for a referendum – he says he would have no legal status – but to challenge the upcoming Italian elections, which in theory aren’t due until May 2023 but still seem imminent. And he thinks he’s going to be a winner anyway.
âIf, as we imagine, a sufficient number of citizens vote for us, it means that this is a real political issue. If, on the other hand, the citizens do not give us their vote, it means that the brainwashing of the Italian people by the European Union has paid off, âhe says.
He says he’s not interested in working with the Eurosceptic right. Salvini de la Lega has not hesitated to stir up anti-EU sentiment in recent years, but has backed down from threats to leave the euro. This means Paragone is potentially operating in free space, mixing outright Euroscepticism with what looks like promises to print money if freed from the eurozone regime.
The skeptics of Euroscepticism
There is a lot of skepticism about the depth of anti-European sentiment in Italy and how real Paragone’s party is.
“There is still a streak of Euroscepticism in Italian discourse. ‘Brussels’ is like ‘Canberra’ – still a practical and remote target on which to blame and demonize,” said Mike Rann, former Australian ambassador to Italy, from his house in Puglia.
âDeep down, Italian politicians and voters know that without the EU and the European Central Bank imposing financial discipline on big spending budgets and impossible promises, Italy would be an economic hopeless case.
That’s why most Eurosceptics in Italy end up supporting the euro when they come to power, Rann says. They don’t want to have to make the tough decisions themselves.
“Euroscepticism has increased, but no one I know, in politics or in business, seems nervous about Senator Paragone or his party.”
Rann suspects Paragone has other motives. He’s fallen out with Five Star, so he needs the new party to leverage Italy’s complex multi-party politics and electoral system. Launching the party during the silly summer season has maximized the attention of bored reporters, and there is speculation that he could finally talk about his new prominence as a bargaining chip with the Lega.
It is true that Paragone’s plan to deliver Italexit seems vague. He says he won’t “knock on doors” for support and is not looking to build a party infrastructure just yet.
But it’s easy to be skeptical, until you remember again how marginal the Brexit movement seemed to be, as recently as 2015.
âPeople will come to us,â Paragone predicts, to the Farage. “History is really on our side.”