Italy has felt the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 290,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths. And now, as the country tries to return to some semblance of normalcy, a new threat to the status quo is emerging.
Italians have lost faith in the EU since their country became the front line of the European migrant crisis in 2015, with Eurosceptic parties gaining ground in the last election.
But the last straw for many voters could be the EU‘s perceived failure to help Rome at the height of the health crisis, with some commentators arguing that Brussels’ response was nothing less than an “abandonment”. ” from Italy.
How badly has Italy been affected by Covid?
Italy was the first country in Europe to impose widespread restrictions on its citizens in response to the global pandemic, after the country’s health services were overwhelmed by outbreaks in the north.
In what news site GZero Media describes as a “horror story”, Italian hospitals have been overrun and doctors “forced to make heartbreaking decisions about who lives and dies”.
At the height of the crisis, in March, army vehicles were brought in to move dozens of coffins from the northern city of Bergamo to other areas, after morgues and crematoriums were overwhelmed, as Sky News reported at the time.
The economic ramifications were also acute.
Before the pandemic, Italy already had the second highest public debt to GDP ratio in the EU, behind Greece. But as Covid-19 wreaked financial havoc, Italy’s GDP fell 17.3% in the second quarter of the year, following a 5.4% drop in the first, City AM reports.
Has the EU helped?
Italian Ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari wrote an article in Politico in March calling for help from the bloc to help his country solve three major problems in the fight against the virus.
âTo begin with, we must ensure, under the coordination of the EU, the supply of the necessary medical equipment and its redistribution among the countries and regions most in need,â he wrote. âToday that means Italy; tomorrow, the need could be elsewhere.
Massari also said it was “crucial” for the EU to take a “common approach to detecting and reporting coronavirus cases, with common guidelines for the whole bloc,” to “ensure fairness and transparency “.
Finally, Brussels was to offer “a courageous economic vision and measures” to help mitigate the devastating effect of the pandemic on the economies of member states.
âRome should not be left alone to manage this crisis,â Massari wrote. âThis is a crisis that requires a global response and – above all – a European response. “
But despite requests from other member states for help with the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), Italy has encountered almost total “silence”, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The EU’s failure to provide much needed medical equipment led the government in Rome to seek help from China. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio then greeted the arrival of a Chinese plane loaded with medical supplies and doctors, “in what appeared to be a scathing rebuke to the EU,” according to Politico.
Critics say the EU has left Italy in financial trouble as well.
Italy took a heavy blow when the bloc voted to reject Rome’s suggestion to introduce “coronabonds” – a form of EU-backed debt to lift member states out of a recession. The day after the vote, in April, The Guardian reported that “the Germans and the Dutch have systematically opposed the idea of ââpooling the debt, despite the precarious state of Italian public finances”.
Italian perceptions of the block
The EU’s response to the pandemic did little to bolster pro-Brussels sentiments in Italy, which was already struggling with its identity as part of the EU27. In recent years, the country has seen an increase in support for anti-European populist parties such as the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League.
In an April survey of 1,000 Italians, “42% of those polled said they would leave the EU, up from 26% in November 2018,” according to the BBC.
Political analyst and polling expert Renato Mannheimer told Al Jazeera in July that “the bloc’s perceived failure to respond quickly to the coronavirus pandemic” had “angered and disappointed the public.”
“We remain the country which trusts Brussels the least,” he added.
Mannheimer was speaking after Italian Senator Gianluigi Paragone launched “Italexit”, another political party that aims to get Italy out of the EU. The launch took place despite Rome reaching a multibillion-euro coronavirus recovery fund deal with the bloc in the same week.
This push to leave the bloc appears to have been fueled, in part, by Brexit. in August, Euronews reported that among voters in the EU’s “big four” Italy, Germany, France and Spain, polls found Italians “most in favor of leaving the EU in five years if Brexit is seen to benefit the UK, with 45% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the idea â.
However, Euronews-Redfield and Wilton Strategies’ survey of 6,000 people in the four countries provided “some crumbs of good news for the EU,” the site added. The percentage of Italians who said they would vote to stay in the bloc “for now” was 43%, compared with 31% who would vote to leave.
It remains to be seen whether they will feel the same when the coronavirus crisis takes its course.