EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The abrupt and unexpected advent of the Coronavirus health crisis has certainty impacted the European Union internally, threatening the already fragile cohesion between its Member States. The never-ending issue of an allegedly missing European solidarity has made its reappearance in both public and political debates, with expressions such as abandonment, lack of unity, self-interest being prominently featured in the statements of politicians and journalists versus the EU. While it is possible to argue that this has become the common attitude of numerous countries (notably of those that are struggling the most against the virus), the case of Italy merits special attention. Italy has been the first European state to suffer heavily from the spread of infections: by the end of February, more than 1,000 people had been already tested positively, with the majority registered in Lombardy, the region hosting Milan. The Italian government thus had to face this challenge earlier than its European partners, and a rhetoric arguing against the absence of a European response to Italy’s call for help propagated within the public opinion.

However, the European Union had acted weeks before the crisis broke out in Northern Italy: at the end of January, the Union addressed the issue of Covid-19 publishing a risk assessment on the threat that this virus could come to represent for the continent. At the same time, the EU offered Member States assistance. Member States declined. Furthermore, public health does not fall within the scope of exclusive competences conferred upon the EU by its Member States, making the Union’s action limited in the healthcare domain. It remains in the sovereign competence of the twenty-seven European Member States to decide on their health policy choices.

In the case of Covid-19, however, it seems that the warning coming from the EU was underestimated and met with lack of comprehension, despite the ECDC’s abundantly clear risk assessment. Italy was no exception to this. Within a few weeks after the outbreak, its health care system collapsed, paradoxically leading to accusastions of inaction against the EU rather than the Italian government responsible for the response to it, or fellow Member States. As the emergency escalated, domestic politicians ramped up their scapegoating of the EU, which inevitably led to a stark rise in Euroscepticism in Italy since the beginning of the outbreak.

According to a Monitor Italia poll conducted at the middle of March (when at this point the authorities were reporting about 15,000 cases throughout the nation), 88 percent of the Italian population felt that the EU was failing in providing support, with about 67 percent of Italians judging the EU membership as a disadvantage. This comes as no surprise, irrespective of how misplaced such sentiments are, when considering the sense of abandonment spread in the initial phase of the crisis, when infections were mostly confined to the Italian state only. Eventually, support was given by the Member States, whether efforts were made individually (by sending masks or medical staff), or together as the European Union, which managed to approve (not easily) plans to help mitigating the dire effects of the emergency. With a “comprehensive economic policy response”, the Institutions agreed on multiple initiatives like the Emergency Support Instrument activated by the Commission, SURE (a temporary loan-based instrument) and a Recovery Fund. In addition, on March, 18th the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion package as the “Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP)”. Nonetheless, this assistance may not be sufficient to positively affect the public’s opinion the Union. A more in-depth analysis of the Italian case shows the presence of reasons fuelling Euroscepticism that go beyond the dynamics of the present crisis and are actually based on pre-existing trends.

The relation between Italy and the EU was already complicated prior to the Coronavirus crisis. Once, Italy used to be one of the most pro-European nations, pushing in favour of the integration process and occupying some of the most influential positions in Brussels’ Institutions (Romano Prodi as the President of the European Commission in 1999, for example). However, the feeling of trust and confidence placed in the European Union began to overturn at the beginning of the 2000s, when Brussels became target of a blaming game by various Italian governments. In what appears as a basic element of Eurosceptical rhetoric, the EU is the easy target to put the blame on when a country is faced with domestic difficulties. Silvio Berlusconi was the first to make use of this strategy while the Union was going through some of its most important recent changes, for instance the introduction of the Euro in 2002. More was demanded from the national to the European level even in domains where the Institutions do not possess the authority to act: where requests were left unsatisfied, the logic of “blaming the EU” became convenient rather than engaging in necessary domestic political reforms. Shifting responsibility to the Union soon became the standard practice in Italian politics with evident negative implications on the Italy-EU relation.

Nevertheless, Euroscepticism only truly began permeating – and eventually becoming endemic to – the higher strata of Italian politics with the two major crises of the 2010s: the Eurozone and migration crisis. Both events have weakened the relations between Italy and the EU on the basis of claims of lack of sufficient aid and of European solidarity (both echoing in the current Covid-19 debate). As a result, over the past decade, a strong anti-EU narrative has emerged in the country and has become the slogan of far-right politicians, most notably the leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini. Over the years, Salvini has carried out all of his campaigns to the cry of an Italexit, blaming alleged EU bureaucracy and an alleged German control of the EU machine at the expense of the Italian people. Eventually, this strategy paid off and the League won last year’s European Parliament elections, when Salvini’s party obtained about 34 percent of support. Clearly, today’s unexpected emergency allows the anti-European narrative to expand quickly, but the current phenomenon of Euroscepticism in Italy requires further attention: it is threatening the political equilibrium of a state playing a significant role in the balance of power in Europe as well as in the rest of the world. Not only Italy is one of the six founding members, but it seats in some of the most important political fora (for example, the G7). An Italian reorientation away from multilateralism and towards unilateralism would thus have wider ramifications both geopolitically and regionally.

The above-mentioned poll from March has to be observed carefully, as it gives evidence of new aspects of today’s Italian Euroscepticism. The current anti-EU trend differs from Salvini’s traditional one, otherwise the League party would be gaining more and more preferences, which is not happening at the moment. Curiously, traditional Eurosceptic parties are losing traction during Covid-19 across the EU. While the long-term consequences of the crisis on the political preferences of the Italian populations are better and more accurately observed once the crisis abates, a few tendencies at present appear striking; the premises of Salvini’s rhetoric and popularity remain unchanged: demands for more help combined with claims of lack of spirit of community by the European partners, yet his support has dwindled. The Euroscepticism has been more widely appropriated by traditional pro-European parties during Covid-19, and surprisingly successfully so. With the Coronavirus crisis, Italy has, at least judging by the present situation, experienced a seismic shift within its public opinion towards a more foundational Euroscepticism traditionally only seen in countries such as the Czech Republic or Greece.

Prominent Italian pro-Europeans, such as Enrico Letta or Carlo Calenda, have manifested their concerns in recent interviews. Letta, former Prime Minister and now professor at SciencesPo University in Paris, has referred to the emergence of a dangerous “narrative of firsts” by the European Member States. According to Letta, the current crisis has displayed a strategy based on “Italy first”, “Germany firsts” which weakens once again the spirit of Europeanism, already fragile after the previous crises. Carlo Calenda has even been more critical in his analysis. As a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the S&D group since last year’s elections, Calenda is known for being a Euro-enthusiast politician, and yet has been very judgemental towards the EU. The politician calls the lack of a common and unified response by the Member States during the Coronavirus crisis as an “existential threat”, one which he’s unsure the Union will manage to survive from. Following his reasoning, this time the feeling of non-protection and of inefficiency of the Union has gotten to his pro-European Italian colleagues. Although it may seem like an oxymoron, this argument rings an alarm bell because as the Monitor Italia survey shows, this tendency has manifested in most of the Italian public.

The amount of speculations surrounding the EU’s fate is substantial. In this respect, the rise in Italian Euroscepticism will be crucial to monitor once the crisis abates, and whether the assistance of the EU institutions will had a measurable effect, be it positive or negative. The European Commission, the Parliament, the Council and the European Central Bank have approved plans to support the countries in overcoming the consequences of the outbreak, yet their impact can only be properly assessed from a perspective of public support once the immediate public health concerns have been addressed by the respective Member States.

Francesca Canali

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