Can Europe Make It?

Italy's unhappy marriage with Europe

In May, Italy will choose its European representatives, just a few weeks before starting its presidency of the EU. But for many Italians, Europe has never been so grimly distant as at the present time. Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Michele Barbero
29 January 2014
The new PD leader Matteo Renzi. Flickr/Il Fatto Quotidiano. Some rights reserved.

New PD leader Matteo Renzi. Flickr/Il Fatto Quotidiano. Some rights reserved.

In Italy, the popularity of the European project has hit record lows. According to a recent poll, only 33.5 percent of voters declare themselves to have “a lot of trust” in the EU. In 2000, the figure was 56. And it's not just a vague feeling. Such attitude also shape policy preferences: almost one Italian out of three would like the country to drop out of the Eurozone.

Of course, opinions about Europe vary across the political spectrum; however, in the past months the barrage of criticism against Brussels has become surprisingly homogeneous. Broadly speaking, in the Italian public discourse, Europe is targeted with two main sets of complaints. First and foremost, as in many other Mediterranean countries, it is accused of excessive rigidity in controlling the member states' public finances, in the name of an austerity strategy that is believed to be choking growth. 

The other issue is immigration. Since the Arab Spring began, the number of people trying to reach the Italian shores from the other side of the Mediterranean has grown higher. In Italy, the idea of having been “abandoned” by Europe in managing the phenomenon has been repeatedly expressed by many politicians, especially (but not only) on the right. Among others, Roberto Maroni, a top member of the Northern League party and Interior minister when the Arab revolutions started, relentlessly highlighted (and exaggerated for political reasons) the scale and impact of migration flows towards the peninsula. He thus contributed to the country's attitudes, the idea that the European institutions were too ineffective, indecisive and uninterested to tackle the phenomenon properly.

This kind of criticism has always tended to be associated with right-wing sets of priorities and beliefs; but recent, dramatic events have made immigration-related criticism against Europe more common among the left, too. Indeed, the October 2013's capsizing of a boat in the Strait of Sicily, which killed several hundreds of migrants, has partially reframed the complaints against the EU regarding immigration. Across the political spectrum, Brussels has started to be blamed, not only for “not helping keep foreigners out”, but also for not being able to prevent such horrible tragedies. 

Therefore, in the months ahead of the elections, Italian voters have found plenty of reasons to be unhappy with the EU. And the same goes for their political representatives. Party leaders have at the same time chased after and reinforced these attitudes. To be sure, Europe is not as dominant in the political discourse as its immense influence on Italy's legislation and economic policies would suggest. The role and structure of EU institutions remain largely unknown to most Italians, and politicians are not encouraged to address a set of topics of which voters have such little grasp. When they do, however, criticism seems to be the dominant stance. 

Silvio Berlusconi's relationship with Europe has always been quite troubled. The centre-right leader historically had to balance his need to be recognised by the international community and his antipathy for a European political class that never fully accepted him. Recent polls confirm that center-right voters feel particularly detached from Brussels, and Berlusconi has responded to such feelings in two ways. On the one hand, he has tended to reserve only a marginal space for European issues in his political communication. In the manifesto of his recently refounded party, Forza Italia, the word “Europe” hardly ever appears. 

On the other hand, the former prime minister has sometimes made the headlines giving 'Europe' a dressing down, especially with respect to its currency. In late 2012, Berlusconi famously called the euro a “swindle”, a position that contributed to his deteriorating relationship with the European People's Party. Furthermore, from the opposition benches, Berlusconi has often stressed the negative impact of the austerity measures implemented in Italy under European pressure: a strategy aimed at undermining support for his adversaries in government, particularly prime ministers Mario Monti and Enrico Letta.

But of course, in Italy, skepticism towards the EU is not only confined to the centre-right. Also on the left, although from a far more pro-Europe perspective, criticism has not been spared. Matteo Renzi, the recently elected leader of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), a person who knows how to interpret the public's mood, has always expressed his support for the idea of a united Europe; however, he has also attacked the EU on several fronts, namely the remedies put in place to end the economic crisis. Renzi's online manifesto reads that “euro-austerity policies have proved themselves short-sighted and inadequate to relaunch growth.” Also another sentence of the same document is worth reporting, as it combines rejection of both the austerity and immigration regimes: “We don't like a Europe that tells us everything we have to do with our public finances, but turns her back to us when it comes to immigration.”

In any case, in recent months the harshest critiques against Europe have perhaps come from the big newcomer of the current legislature: Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Often labelled a populist demagogue, Grillo has regularly described EU officials at all levels as mean, little accountable bureaucrats, committed only to defending austerity and the interests of major banks. 

However, in spite of his radical proposals - such as a referendum against the euro currency - Grillo's proclaimed goal is a drastic reform of the EU, not its abolition. “The Five Star Movement will enter Europe to change it, making it democratic, transparent” he writes on his popular blog. There, he also presents the M5S campaign for the elections in May as a “crusade” to put an end to what he considers to be the unacceptable influence of the European Central Bank.

Will this “crusade” persuade voters or not? - this is one of the big question marks surrounding the upcoming elections. More generally, with Europe remaining just a distant entity in the minds of many citizens, Italian public opinion will be looking at this vote mainly as an indicator of the country's internal political balances, rather than for its impact on European policies. Indeed, Italy is characterised at the moment by great uncertainty as to where real power and influence lie.

Beppe Grillo will aim at repeating his extraordinary success in last February's political elections. For almost a year now, the M5S has stubbornly remained in the opposition, refusing any compromise to form a government with the Democratic Party. Some supporters have praised Grillo for his coherence; others blame him for forcing the country into a stalemate. The vote in May will be the first assessment of whether this strategy is paying or not from an electoral point of view.

Another player who is probably looking at the EU elections with particular anxiety is Angelino Alfano, leader of the “New Center-Right” party. The movement was created in November, after the refusal by a group of right-wing MPs to become part of Berlusconi's Forza Italia. In the polls, Alfano's share is stuck at around 6-7 per cent, but only the elections will reveal whether this figure is accurate, and how much support his new political creature will drain away from Berlusconi.

The latter question is particularly relevant at this moment. In May, Berlusconi will face one of the toughest adversaries he has ever met in his political career: Matteo Renzi. Although fiercely opposed by the left wing of his party as too moderate, the new secretary of the Democrats is probably the best communicator that the left has seen since Berlusconi first took power, twenty years ago. Renzi appeals to a large centrist area of the Italian electorate, and in polls the PD has already benefited from his new leadership. With a share of 30 per cent of voters, the Democrats now have a 10-point advantage over Forza Italia.

Renzi and Berlusconi belong to two different generations, but their skills in connecting with public opinion are equally impressive. Therefore, in spite of the polls, the result of this competition couldn't be more uncertain. But in a time of candidate- rather than policy-driven electoral campaigns, their proposals on Europe will hardly play any role in the coming election.

In Italy, the 2014 European vote will therefore be remembered mainly as the first, face-to-face duel between the main, but now weakened protagonist of the country's last 20 years, and a man who may have what it takes to finally oust him from his throne.

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