Italy is one of the founding members of the EU and the third-largest economy in the eurozone. But in recent years Euroscepticism has been on the rise, as discontent about a deep recession, weak recovery and the migration crisis on the country’s southern shores grows.
Italians currently hold crucial senior positions in European institutions; four of the 33 seats around the EU summit table are held by Italians, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni plus Draghi, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But as much as Italy may export talent to the EU, that doesn’t secure the country much influence. Rome has been iced out of the inner circles of EU and NATO decision-making, only included when absolutely needed.
The subconscious and subtle freezing of Italy clearly has been happening over an extended period of time; at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011, Berlin, Paris and the European Central Bank stepped in after Italian bond yields hit danger levels, forcing Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation as prime minister and helping install Mario Monti. German policymakers view Italy a source of problems rather than opportunity, concerned that should Italy fall apart, then this would be enough to bring down to entire eurozone. Once it was clear that Italy would be fine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel left Monti to quietly deal with his position as an unelected head of Government in the Rome political machine.
The French too view Italy as a source of conflict. In a recent interview, Marc Lazar, professor of history and political sociology at Paris’ Sciences-Po university and president of the school of government at LUISS in Rome said that:
“The French think of Italy either when they have problems with Germany, or when Italy has an election that could spell trouble.”
There has been no follow-through with Italy since the eurozone crisis and Italy has felt largely ignored by the trading bloc. Former Prime Minister Enrico Letta, Monti’s successor, who is now president of the Jacques Delors Institute, a pro-European think tank recently said:
“Italy was for a long period during the financial crisis the ‘naughty boy’ in the eurozone class that risked bringing the whole system down and was too big to save, unlike Greece…we were put in a corner and couldn’t get a hearing for our ideas.”
So what have been the consequences of this freeze? Voters in Italy feel that the EU’s major powers take their country for granted. They been left alone by their European Union partners to cope with a flood of migrants across the Mediterranean, after being forced into austerity during the eurozone crisis that prolonged their economic stagnation. Is it any wonder this election is producing vast amounts of Euroscepticism?
Marc Lazar has given this thoughts on this sense of isolation:
“The great transformation in Italy is that a country that was once the most pro-European has now become Eurosceptical…Italians felt abandoned by Europe over the migrants…They haven’t seen any European solidarity.”
Brussels, it now seems, smells fear; terrified that the long-term freezing of Italy could create a serious problem. Brussels is implementing the Italian Job, aimed at de-escalating the Euroscepticism that is now rife in the Italian political system.
Prime Minister Gentiloni was conveniently placed next to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Macron is now moving to repair ties with Rome. He settled the shipyard dispute with a mutually accepted deal and promised a bilateral treaty to build Franco-Italian cooperation along the lines of the 1963 Elysée treaty that governs the Franco-German partnership. The question Italian’s need to be asking is, is it too little, too late?
There can be little doubt the European elites will be looking closely at the result of the election on March 4. It is a litmus test for their modus operandi and should the Italian’s reject it, it will be a serious problem for the longevity of the European Union. The question however must be asked, why does it take a crisis for the European Union to pay attention to its members.