Italexit: could Italy be next to leave the European Union?

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Italexit: could Italy be next to leave the European Union?

May 2020: Piazza del Popolo, Rome. (Shutterstock)

If asked whether Italy could be the next country to leave the EU, an Italian European loyalist would probably answer the question: “Certo che no. Che idea sciocca!” Of course not. What a daft idea! 

They would then offer a list of reasons why not: the European flag flies alongside the Italian tricolour outside all public buildings; the founding treaty of the European Economic Community — that later became the EU — was signed in Italy’s capital in 1957; and Italy was a founding member of the European Monetary Union, replacing the Lira with the Euro in 1999. Surely it would be unthinkable for Italy to leave the EU? 

But five years ago, it was pretty unthinkable for the UK to leave the EU either. Italy has just got (yet another) new government. In his inaugural address, the new Prime Minister, the former President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, assured the Italian Senate that his unity government was born “in the tradition of the EU and the Atlantic alliance…Without Italy there is no Europe, but outside Europe, there is even less Italy. We must be proud of the Italian contribution to the growth and development of the European Union”. 

Why did Draghi need to make that reassurance? In his insightful book First They Took Rome: How The Populist Right Conquered Italy, David Broder describes Italy’s falling out of love with Europe: “Yet in 2020, Italians’ euroscepticism today rivals even that of their British counterparts.” Is Italy the latest country to be put on EU suicide watch?

Let’s look back for a moment to the UK for some lessons. The principal reason the UK left the EU was because nobody thought it would. It left the EU by accident. The UK did not come to be led by Brexiteers until more than three years after the country voted “out” in a referendum and less than six months before it started transitioning out. When David Cameron included a commitment to an “in-out” European referendum in the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election, he didn’t do so to articulate his vision for the future relationship of the UK with Europe and the rest of the world. He did so to silence a small but vocal wing of his party (the wing obsessed with Europe), to stem a drift of traditionally Tory-voting nationalists to the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) and to wrong-foot the main opposition, the Labour Party. Cameron only did it because he had convinced himself (and he wasn’t alone) that the people of the UK would never opt for sovereignty over prosperity. It was a career-ending miscalculation. 

Similar, indeed arguably more extreme, conditions now exist in Italy. In the most recent Italian general election, in 2018, five parties won 600 of the 630 seats in the House of Deputies and all five hold ministerial positions in Draghi’s unity government. They also hold Italy’s political future in their hands. Euroscepticism is now the dominant position in three of them and, most importantly, in the party that has surged in the last few years. The offer of a European referendum could easily find its way into the political horse-trading by which Italian coalition governments are made and unmade.

Let us take a look at the composition of Italy’s current coalition. There are two main pro-European parties, with the largest being the party of the mainstream Left, the Partito Democratico (PD) or Democratic Party, residual legatee of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI), the Italian Communist Party — famously “Eurocommunist” even in the Cold War. In 2018, it was the third largest party, winning 112 seats in the House of Deputies. Taking 104 seats, the other major pro-European party is Forza Italia (FI), Forward Italy, the vehicle that made the mercurial,  now octogenarian, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister just three months after he “entered the field” in 1994. FI went on to make him the longest-serving post-war Italian premier. He has been described as “the darling of Europe” and as a bulwark against the rise of anti-European populist parties. The problem for Europeans in Italy is that it is not political parties that win Italian elections; political coalitions do, and Berlusconi has had no qualms about entering into coalition with Eurosceptic parties of the Right; it remains to be seen how long his pro-Europeanism would outlast an offer of power.

The other three major parties in Draghi’s coalition are all anti-European populists.

The largest party in 2018 was the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), the Five Star Movement, with 227 seats. Formed in 2009 by a comedian, it was the product of mounting popular resentment and revulsion against the whole Italian political class. Like other monster raving, none-of-the-above, yee hah-type parties, it is difficult to define politically, save that it is clear what it is against: it is anti-establishment, anti-globalist, anti-immigration and, of course, anti-EU. It is also anti-politician and it went into the 2018 general election with a condition for joining any coalition government — that the number of politicians should be reduced by a third. As Italian general elections usually do, the 2018 election resulted in a hung parliament and a coalition-making deal was struck that included Five Star’s politician-cutting condition. In the resulting referendum, last year, 70 per cent of Italians agreed; the reduction is due to be made at the next scheduled general election (reducing the number of parliamentarians is something David Cameron also tried, and failed). Developing policy by online voting of its members, M5S is a politically unstable party in an unstable political environment. Now that it faces a decline as meteoric as its rise, its anti-Europeanism could easily erupt into its next set of concrete proposals. 

But the most potent threat to Italy’s European project is another populist party – the Lega, or League. It started life as the Lega Nord, Northern League, created in 1991 out of a group of regionalist parties that had emerged around the Lega Lombarda, the Lombard League, founded ten years before. It played to the popular perception in the region that the wealth generated in efficient, industrial northern Italy was drained into the feckless and lazy south by the schemes of out of touch and idealistic politicians in Rome. 

The demagogic Matteo Salvini became leader of the Lega Nord in 2013 and, realising that his populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric had overtaken narrow regionalism in delivering electoral success, he is transitioning his party into a national party of the Right by dropping the “Nord” and rebranding it as simply the League. Its position towards Europe has fluctuated so wildly that academics have distinguished five distinct phases in its European thinking, but Salvini has now decisively shifted the focus of his hostility from Rome to Brussels. 

Salvini is good at hostility. He has called the EU and the Euro “crimes against humanity’” and the League’s 2018 manifesto included a commitment to “renegotiate all the treaties that restrict our full and legitimate sovereignty”. In that election it became the second-largest party, with 125 seats. But it is also the surging party of Italian politics. In the most recent nationwide electoral test, 2019’s European elections, it swept the board, easily topping the poll, taking 34.3 per cent of the vote compared to its nearest rival the PD’s 22.7 per cent and eclipsing its declining populist rival, the M5S, on 17.1 per cent. 

The fifth of the major parties is another rising star of the Italian Right – the Fratelli d’Italia (Fd’I) Brothers of Italy. Created in 2012, it can trace its antecedents directly back to the post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the Italian Social Movement. In the 2018 general election it increased its number of seats more than fourfold, gaining 25 and taking its total to 32. Then, along with the League, it was the other big winner in the 2019 European elections, taking seats for the first time — six of them — and it now polls third behind the League and PD. Fd’I scored its first big electoral victory in last year’s elections of regional presidents, when its candidate won Abruzzo with 48 per cent. Its leader, Georgia Meloni, reminds us that Italy gave us the term “fascism” and she is extreme enough to call for the sinking of immigrant ships. But she presents well and has been talked about as a possibility for Italy’s first ever female Prime Minister. While her Euroscepticism is reformist and not as vociferous as Salvini’s — she has said that “the Euro is not working as it is” and that although “Italy should not leave the EU, Germany should”. But she rides a global nationalist wave and if the mood of her electoral base shifts, hers will as well.

Are conditions in Italy ripe for a challenge to its Europeanism? In the early 1990s, the Italian First Republic collapsed under the weight of the Tangentopoli back-hander city scandal. Half of Italian parliamentarians were under some form of criminal investigation and one former Prime Minister, who fled the country, was sentenced in his absence to 27 years in jail for corruption. He never returned to Italy. 

The Christian Democrats, the party that had governed Italy for half a century, was so mired in scandal it was disbanded — and it wasn’t the only party to go. Public confidence in the post-war Italian political class, never particularly robust, collapsed. The door was opened to opportunists to set up new parties and join the scramble for power; it has not closed since. If the maturity of political parties acts as a check on rash, knee-jerk political gimmicks, that constraint has long since disappeared from the Italian political scene. 

Trust in politics has been reduced ever further now by the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. This time, however, it is the EU that has become the focus of Italians’ anger. In the four months to March 2021, the proportion of Italians seeing membership of the EU as a disadvantage rose by 20 percentage points, to over two-thirds. One of Italy’s elder statesmen, the former Prime Minister and President of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi, considers the threat to the EU greater than the debt crisis of 2009. Italy is a major beneficiary of EU funds for post-pandemic reconstruction, but it was a row over spending that brought down the previous Italian government. What to some is a desperately needed European cash injection is, to others, unwelcome and unnecessary political interference. 

Does continued Italian membership of the EU have anything going for it? Soon, all that it might have left to stave off “Italexit” may be the time-honoured Italian rhyme: “Non c’e spiaggia senza mare, ma c’e dire senza fare.” There is no beach without the sea, but there is talk without action.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 71%
  • Interesting points: 83%
  • Agree with arguments: 62%
58 ratings - view all

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