Over the past few weeks a rift has emerged and deepened between the Italian government, led by Matteo Renzi, and European institutions, most notably the Commission. Disagreements between the two sides span many areas, including immigration, energy policy and banking. The latest chapter in the saga is being played out in the budgetary field, in which Italy claims the right to more flexibility (and a higher deficit) than the Commission is willing to concede.
The clash between Italy and the Commission is as communicative as it is political. From the start, the ways in which both sides have addressed one another have been as important as the substance of their respective grievances. In an unusually sharp exchange, for instance, Renzi recently reminded the Commission that the times in which Italy would be “remote-controlled” from Brussels are over. As a reply, the Commission let it be known that it actually struggles to find any institutional interlocutor in Rome.
As with any communications battle, much of the row between Italy and the Commission is taking place in and through the media, including social ones. Here we want to analyse the effects and resonance of this clash in the Twitter sphere. In particular, we focus on the recent war of words between Renzi and Jean-Claude Juncker, triggered by the latter’s critical remarks towards Italy during the Commission’s new year’s press conference. The Renzi-Juncker quarrel is the latest, and certainly one of the most visible episodes in what some have called a new fault line in European politics.
An all-Italian affair
Given the highly personalized nature of the incident, our research strategy was to collect all tweets mentioning both Renzi and Juncker, on January 15 (the day of Juncker’s press conference) and for the following five days. Over the monitored period, a total of 8,724 such tweets were written across languages. The figure below shows their temporal flow.
Fig 1: Renzi-Juncker - tweets over time (click to enlarge)
As the chart shows, after a very brief moment, on January 15, in which the numbers of tweets in Italian and other languages were close, the Renzi-Juncker Twitter conversation became an almost exclusively Italian affair. Overall, of the tweets collected, 7,839 (89.9% of the total) are in Italian, 574 (6.6%) in English, 90 (1%) in Spanish, 57 (0.7%) in French and 9 (0,1%) in German. That German users ignored the Renzi-Juncker exchanges is particularly remarkable given that in these sorts of debates their country is often accused of being the Commission’s favourite—if not its puppet master.
The lack of a foreign reaction to the Renzi-Juncker clash is consistent with the view, held by many (in the first place in Brussels), that Renzi’s motives and objectives in the quarrel are largely domestic in nature. Weakened by Italy’s still underwhelming economic performance and some scandals involving his government, the argument goes, Renzi is for one thing trying to divert attention towards a “foreign enemy” and rally support around himself in time for next spring’s local elections. For another, he is preparing for a possible infringement procedure against Italy by pre-emptively shifting the blame onto the Commission.
That the quarrel was followed only in Italy is, in a sense, an advantage for Renzi as it insulated the debate from those audiences - primarily the German one - that might not be too sympathetic to Italy’s complaints. Granted, it also insulated it from (potentially) more benevolent audiences, such as the Spanish or the French one.
A gamble that backfired?
Generating a domestic debate might be a good strategy if one’s objective is simply to distract voters from other topics. It can, however, backfire if the debate ends up being dominated by negative sentiments. Following a method outlined in a previous article, we have tried to answer this question by separating, in the subset of Italian tweets, those expressing criticism of Renzi from the neutral or positive ones. Overall, 4,759 (60.7%) tweets belong to the former camp, while 3,080 (39.3%) are in the latter. For a politician well versed in the use of Twitter like Renzi, this was not a very good performance.
Fig 2: Renzi-Juncker - negative tweets word cloud (click to enlarge)
The above word cloud illustrates the frequency of terms in text-only anti-Renzi tweets (i.e. excluding re-tweets of URLs). Some recurring criticisms concern the uselessness (inutile) of Renzi’s attacks on the Commission, and the suspicion that his “song and dance” (manfrina) was largely for domestic purposes. In addition, many did not see Renzi’s fight for flexibility as credible, coming from a “puppet” (burattino) of powerful financial lobbies.
These last accusations are quite interesting because to a significant degree they are levelled against Renzi and Juncker at the same time. More generally, tweets that are negative towards Renzi are often also critical of the Commission president and the EU. If gaining some support among Italian Eurosceptics was among Renzi’s goals in the quarrel, his strategy—at least judging from the Twitter sphere—did not work too well.
This article is published as part of an openDemocracy editorial partnership with EuVisions, an online observatory on social Europe established within the ERC-funded REScEU project, based at the University of Milan and the Centro Einaudi of Turin.