Could Covid-19 see a break-up of the EU? Italy thinks so
Italy has long been critical of the bloc, but still expected the EU would come to its aid as the coronavirus struck; it was wrong
Rome — The foundations for the EU were laid six decades ago in Rome and some officials in the Eternal City are starting to think they might just be seeing the beginning of its break-up.
After Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers laid to rest the carefully cultivated myth of the EU’s irreversibility, Europhiles argued that Britain was a special case, an island nation that could never fully commit to the continent. It’s different when Italy turns against you.
The bloc’s third-largest economy has flirted with Euro-scepticsm before as it railed against budget rules or struggled to cope with successive waves of refugees heading north from Africa. But when Covid-19 struck Lombardy, Italians still expected Europe would come to their aid with no questions asked.
Instead, what they think they got was fine print and a cold shoulder.
Germany and France hoarded protective gear for themselves and Christine Lagarde at the European Central Bank (ECB) brushed off their financial distress. Since then money has been promised and apologies were made, but that initial hesitation left a wound.
“Italy was in love with the European project and it has fallen out of love,” said Marc Lazar, a history professor at Sciences Po University in Paris. “I don’t know if Europe will be able to regain that trust.”
Senior figures from across government, from the central bank and even in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s office talk of an unprecedented wave of anger towards the EU that is surging through a country watching thousands die each week and their economy implode. Several even confessed to sharing that feeling themselves.
In one survey this month, 59% of respondents said the EU as it is now makes no sense any more. In another, most Italians described China as a friend and almost half said Germany was the enemy.
Even an arch pro-European such as Matteo Renzi is disillusioned.
Five years ago the former prime minister courted Germany’s Angela Merkel in front of Michelangelo’s David in his native Florence. Now a junior — yet crucial — partner in Conte’s coalition, he expresses his dismay. Renzi said the problem in Italy is that both part of the right and part of the ruling coalition “says everything is Europe’s fault”.
Conte will join his fellow leaders for another summit by video conference on Thursday and repeat his appeal for the joint bond issuance that has come to symbolise for Italians the solidarity that northern Europe has denied them.
“If Italians don’t see a positive outcome, Euro-scepticism will grow, also an anti-Germany policy which could be rooted in our country’s deep psychological past,” Pier Paolo Baretta, undersecretary at the finance ministry, said. “In our historic memory, Germany has always been an adversary in times of difficulty.”
Conte almost certainly won’t get what he wants — the political costs for Merkel and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands would just be too great at this point — and that leaves Italy heading down a dangerous path. French President Emmanuel Macron says the EU could collapse as a result.
There’s an element of brinkmanship in that rhetoric, of course. The last time the EU threatened to split, the Greeks capitulated in the end. And officials in Rome will recognise that the package the Germans and the Dutch are offering is a good one in financial terms.
Too little too late
But they hate the way it’s been done.
They remember that moment in February when the Carnival of Venice was canceled, the coronavirus was spreading through Italy’s prosperous heartland and the rest of Europe turned its back.
Germany and France banned the export of face masks and gloves. Other partners imposed border controls. Lagarde at the ECB triggered a historic sell-off in Italian (and European) markets and the Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra revived the arguments of the debt crisis, managing to imply that Italy was to blame for its plight.
Those policy settings have all been adjusted since then as it became apparent that Italy has been the victim of a global pandemic. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen even offered an apology for not “being there”.
But the damage was done. And it’s not hard to imagine how things unravel further from here.
Conte governs at the head of an unstable coalition led by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the establishment Democratic Party that only came together last year to keep out their mutual foe, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing populist League.
The League is the most popular party in Italy, now leading the Democrats by about eight percentage points and Salvini is waiting for another chance to seize power.
In the past, he has toyed with the idea of ditching the euro. But as he rose to national prominence he read the mood of the country and went out of his way to play that down.
Not any more.
“This isn’t a ‘union,’Fiv” Salvini said on March 27. “This is a nest of snakes and jackals.” Then he set out his pitch to Italians. “First we defeat the virus, then we have a rethink about Europe. If it helps, we say goodbye. Without even a thank you.”
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