Photo: Luis Diaz Devesa
Overall it was a good European election for pro-Europe parties. The populist bloc in the European Parliament can count on no more than a quarter of its 751 seats, a goal that the head of the Italian Lega, Mateo Salvini himself set for the grouping that is still in the process of being formed – and now counts less than 60 deputies.
Apart from France (and Hungary that is not a major European power), Italy was the only country to elect a majority of a populist party (the UK Brexit Party is a different case). The Lega does not necessarily want to get out of the EU, no ‘Italexit’ at this stage, but certainly wants an Europe where national interests override a European one as a whole.
There is now a possibility that Italy will be excluded and isolated from the EU’s top jobs. And consequently will lose even more influence. How a foundation European Community euro enthusiastic nation was turned into an euroskeptic one and on the outer could be described in Italian as a ‘tragedia annunciata’ that is an announced tragedy.
As an Australian citizen (who does not have double citizenship) I observe European and Italian politics from a distance. But I always believed that the European project was a good idea. But looking at how Italy has been treated I can understand why Italians started to be wary of the EU.
One reason is the Euro. There was no popular referendum or plebiscite. It was all planned in Bruxelles especially from the then French and German governments. Italy sort of followed and many Italians suffered from its introduction and perceive it, right or wrongly, as a Deutsche Mark in disguise. While many will attribute the blame to Italy’s poor economic planning, this doesn’t mean that Italians who have lost wealth or jobs may not be angry at how the introduction of the euro has disadvantaged them by taking away measures that helped Italy’s economy when it had its own currency.
2011 military intervention in Libya
While the 2011 military intervention in Lybia was a NATO initiative, many Italians believe that it was initiated by France after consulting with the UK and the USA. Not with Italy who shares a maritime border with it. This decision is perceived to be one that the French initiated because they saw gains in getting its oil when Italy six months before the raids signed had already contracts worth billions with Lybia. But after the French started bombing, Italy had to follow because of its NATO commitments but felt undermined.
This was the start of Italy turning against Europe. It understood that a founding EU member could be hit in its interests by a fellow EU member and the rest of the EU standing by.
Subsequent migration crisis
But worse was to come. The war in Lybia created a power vacuum and political instability that allowed an uncontrolled migration stream to Italy. The distance between the Libyan coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa is only 300Km.
While Italy had to deal with waves of migrants from Italy, the other EU members did little to help. In fact, in certain cases, they closed their borders with Italy. In 2017 Austria closed its borders with Italy (which is not in the EU Schengen Agreement) to stop migrants and refugees from entering. While France in 2018 entered Italian territory to return migrants that entered Europe from Italy.Embed from Getty Images
Basically Italians felt that re rest of EU washed its hands and left the problem solely to Italy to solve. Adding to this there have been volunteers ships from other European countries travelling the Mediterranean between Italy and Africa searching for migrants, picking them up and taking them to the closest Italian port.
Merkel welcomed one million Syrian refugees, and she deserved all the credit she got. But many Italians were not enthused by the fact that while Merkel was getting accolades, she was also able to stop migrants coming from the Balkan region by paying Erdogan in Turkey 6 billion Euros to keep its Syrian and other Middle East refugees. This was Germany money, but also European money. Italians saw this as the EU favouring its strongest member while leaving countries such as Italy and Greece to fend for themselves.
Italexit? No it won’t happen
Many anti EU proponents would be delighted if Italy was to exit from the European Union. Even if Italy’s economy is in the doldrums it is still the fourth largest in the EU (and will go to third when the UK leaves). The exit of a foundation member would be a very hard blow to the EU. But it won’t happen,
Even if Italy is now on the outer, getting out from the Union would be disastrous for a faltering economy. Despite everything the damage which would be caused by an Italexit would be much greater than the issues faced by Italy by staying.
Even in his press conference after the European Elections Matteo Salvini talked about reforming the EU from a body looking after the banks to one looking after the people. Whether that will be achieved is to be seen, but there was no mention of leaving.
So Italians will do what they have done for eons. Will complain and go on with their lives the best they can. But ironically the more Italians get angry with the EU and vote for populist parties, the more Italy will be distanced from the EU.