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Italy and Europe "now"

In a fresh effort to shore up his Democratic Party’s faltering position in the opinion polls less than 2 months before the March general election, Matteo Renzi has now decided to play the “Europe” card. In a specially-convened “mini-convention” in Milan, the former Prime Minister called on his party’s Europarliamentarians to follow the example of Emmanuel Macron in France and Martin Schulz in Germany,and demand a grand new sweep of reform to modernize, democratize and re-energize the European Union. “The future”, Renzi proclaimed, “is called The United States of Europe”.

This is a courageous bet. While the worst tensions between Italy and the EU over management of the banking crisis and the immigrant influx seem to be over, Eurobarometer polls show that pro-European sympathies among Italians have never been lower, a dramatic break with traditional habits of mind and loyalties. The un-hesitating support for “Europe” of the present Democratic Party government, under the mild-mannered direction of Paolo Gentiloni and his technocratic Treasury Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, has not been able to shift this trend.

It’s not hard to see where the familiar signs of Euroscepticism – in particular rejection of the Euro – have come from. In the last ten years the country has undergone three massive shocks to its economy, its organisation and sense of self: the financial crisis, the immigrant wave and the devastating series of earthquakes which hit central Italy in 2016. The EU might have made a big, positive contribution to the management of any of these. Instead it seems to many Italians to have made them worse.

Monetary life in the Eurozone is tough for those who will not or cannot follow the rules. Although no Greek-style panic has emerged, the "financial water-boarding" (Varoufakis) to which Greece was exposed made a big impression in Italy, coupled as it was – and is – with constant, daily, exortations and pressure from Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin for more “rigour” in the management of the public finances to control the debt, currently standing at 130% of GDP (the 3% deficit benchmark has been respected).

While outsiders, particularly in Germany, have seemed totally unaware of the austerity and cuts which all public services have known now over many years, they could not ignore the weaknesses which have appeared in the sprawling, confused banking sector, some of whose difficulties clearly came from bad if not corrupt management, and poor regulatory supervision. But the main problems for the banks came from their bad debts, 60% of which came from the construction sector alone, that part of the economy which suffered most from the never-ending effects of the financial crisis. By now, under pressure from the European Central Bank particularly, three quarters of the “non-performing loans” have been removed from the balance sheets of the banks by financial manuevers, but the daily reminders of the banks’ obligations under the Eurozone rules have inevitably produced calls for the Euro to be abandoned or – from Berlusconi – flanked with a parallel national currency, the old Lira. As the overall economy has recovered strength recently, this kind of talk has gradually disappeared.

Since 2014 over 625,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and war zones in the Middle East have arrived on Italian shores. Italian authorities have tried hard to apply EU procedures to this mass of unexpected humanity, and have mobilised unprecedented public and private resources to cope with what to them looks much like a natural disaster. There are no Calais-style camps in Italy. From the beginning they repeatedly called on their European partners for assistance in dealing with this emergency, and have invariably been disappointed with the response. Since EU members such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic made clear their absolute refusal to accept immigrants of this type, right-wing parties in Italy have attempted to take control the issue with ever more severe warnings of what they will do to suppress the phenomenon if they come to power. In reality Mrs Merkel’s unilateral decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into Germany in 2015-16 authorised every national government to deal with the situation as it saw fit, leaving the wretched EU to watch from the sidelines. Now that the flow has diminished significantly, no-one imagines that “Europe” can take the credit.

The result of all this is that anti-Europeans have been able to mobilize emotions and language in a fashion which the traditional, pro-EU governing élite finds impossible to match, as a former Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, acknowledged in a fine speech in Milan. Italy may have three of its people in key positions, said Letta, – Draghi at the central Bank, Tajani President of the Parliament, Mogherini High Representative for Foreign Affairs – but none of them seems willing or able to convince Italians that the EU is not just the preferred instrument of a cosmopolitan élite for pushing globalisation.

Veteran Europeanists such as former Prime Minister Prodi and former President of European Commission from 1999 to 2004, former President Napolitano and former EU Commissioner Bonino continue to preach that “Europe” is much more than a functional economic construction, that peace and prosperity in the region have a moral dimension derived from history, as well as hope. Inspired more by Macron than by these old-timers, Matteo Renzi has now renewed their passion. Italy is not a secessionist country from globalisation like Britain or the US (or Poland and Hungary), but until the majority recovers its conviction and its confidence that Italy has a genuine role to play in Europe’s reform and reconstruction, one in which the rest also acknowledge the country’s special outlook and needs, the “Europe” proposition will remain one which is very hard to sell.

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