EU shock analysis: Devastating reason Italy could push for MORE integration exposed
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At the end of May, France and Germany announced they would back the creation of an EU bond to raise €500billion (£447billion) to boost the European economy, severely weakened by the coronavirus pandemic. The two leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, unveiled their proposal in a joint video press conference. If approved, it would be the first time the bloc has pooled its debt in this way.
Despite the unprecedented package, there are still doubts that it will quash anti-EU feelings completely, and put an end to political risks in the region.
A recent poll shows that 67 percent of Italians believe that being a member of the bloc is a disadvantage for Italy.
Moreover, this week, Italian Senator Gianluigi Paragone announced that he will soon launch a new party – and that the word “Italexit” could figure prominently in the new group’s logo.
He told Bloomberg: “The EU and the euro were imposed from on high.
“They’ve hurt the real economy, families and workers and small and medium-sized businesses.”
According to unearthed reports, though, while Italians might be critical of the direction the EU is taking, they are in fact the more supportive of further political and economic integration in Europe compared to those from other member states.
In an entry for the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, Catherine De Vries, Professor of political science at Bocconi University, argued that being dissatisfied with what the EU does currently, does not mean rejecting the idea of European integration.
Ms De Vries wrote: “Italian citizens, deeply wounded by the suffering caused by the pandemic and fearful of their livelihoods with a deep economic ahead, were taken aback by Europe’s lacklustre response.
“Commentators were quick to cite polls showing that Italians are losing faith in EU institutions and their European allies and might eventually turn their back on the EU, just like UK citizens had done in 2016.
“While this no doubt creates interesting headlines, I would urge caution discussing public euroscepticism in this fashion.
“Public opinion cannot be simply characterised as eurosceptic or not. It is not that black and white.”
When we wish to understand the nature of public euroscepticism in Italy, Ms De Vries suggested, it is important to keep two things in mind: euroscepticism is multi-dimensional and euroscepticism is not a stand-alone phenomenon.
She explained: “When we look at the evaluations of Italian respondents of the current direction of the EU, they are indeed quite pessimistic.
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“Italian respondents are also more sceptical than those from other member states.
“That said, by comparison, Italian respondents today are less sceptical than they were in the past. During the height of the refugee crisis in July 2015, for example, 90 percent of Italian respondents were of the opinion that the EU was moving in the wrong direction.”
Ms De Vries continued: “If we check the preferences of Italian respondents about more political and economic integration, a quite different picture emerges.
“Italian respondents are in fact the more supportive of further political and economic integration in Europe compared to those from other member states.
“In March this year, 71 percent of Italians respondents stated that they wanted to see more political and economic integration in Europe.
“The data thus far suggest that Italians are ambivalent about the EU: they are unsatisfied about the current direction, but wish to see more, not less, integration in the future.
“Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see how Italian respondents will react to the recent Commission recovery plans.”
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Moreover, the Professor noted that next to multi-dimensionality, we need to think about euroscepticism in relationship to how people view their own country.
Ms De Vries’ work suggests that euroscepticism becomes more pronounced when people are very satisfied with their own country.
She added: “This is because they think there would be a viable alternative to EU membership.
“When we look at how Italian respondents evaluate the direction of their own country, it becomes clear that they are relatively less satisfied with their own country.
“Only 18 percent of Italian respondents think that their country is moving in the right direction in March this year.
“The same is true when we look at how satisfied Italian respondents are about the state of democracy in Italy. Only 31 percent of Italian respondents are satisfied with democracy in their own country.”
On the other hand, there are other countries who might follow Britain out of the EU.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the so-called Frugal Four, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden, have been at the forefront of a campaign not to “give gifts” to Southern European countries and have rejected all the emergency financial measures that would lead to “debt mutualisation”.
According to Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, the EU Recovery bond put forward by France and Germany might spark a Brexit domino effect – at least, in attitudes towards the bloc.
In another recent entry for the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, Mr Bergsen wrote: “The similarities with previous British positions in the EU are clear.
“The Frugal Four Prime Ministers value their rebates as much as Margaret Thatcher once did.
“It is not too much of a stretch to say that the current proposal would never have even made it to the table had the United Kingdom still been a member of the EU, as London would have almost certainly vetoed it.
“One of the arguments often put forward in favour of Brexit was that the UK should leave before it would inevitably get roped into the eurozone’s mess.
“During the euro crisis, the UK largely avoided this fate, only contributing to the bailouts of Portugal and Ireland.
“But having to pay for economic support for the southern euro countries is exactly what is now being asked from non-euro countries like Sweden, Denmark and Czechia.”
Moreover, Mr Bergsen argued, the comparison with the UK is also instructive because the Frugal Four were often closely aligned with London in EU debates.
They broadly share the British focus on free trade and on the EU as an economic project, as opposed to its political dimension, as Germany more often tends to focus on.
The academic noted: “Just like the UK, the Frugal Four also tend to have relatively eurosceptic electorates, albeit ones that continue to indicate in polls that they would vote to remain in the EU if asked.
“Governments and politicians in the Frugal Four largely continue to talk about European integration in the way most British politicians used to, using it as a handy scapegoat for unpopular policy and blustering in Brussels mainly to satisfy their domestic audience.
“In the short run, this strategy has led them to clash with, not just most of the rest of the bloc, but also their previous ally within the EU – Germany.
“In the long run, such a strategy raises questions over how the Frugal Four will deal with the secular pressure for more integration within the eurozone, particularly for the Netherlands and Austria as Denmark and Sweden are unlikely to join the single currency anytime soon.
“Even in areas other than the euro, there will be a push for more integration.
“This will create conflict with the vision of the EU that many of these member states share with the UK, which is now no longer in the club helping them to push back against this direction of integration.”
Mr Bergsen concluded that a clear appreciation of their small size and heft in the world and their deep economic integration with the rest of the EU might discourage them from following the UK out of the union.
However, the current episode once again highlights “the difficulty of deeper integration” between countries with a very different vision for the future of the EU.
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