Italy's uncertain romance with Europe

Italy's faith in the European project has been badly shaken by the Greek crisis. But the Eurozone's third largest economy is not about to quit. Italy is locked in a strange and contradictory romance with both Brussels and Berlin

Fellini's Dolce Vita
Tim Hedges
On 21 July 2015 06:29

Any opinion poll conducted in Italy since 1957 would have told you the same thing. Italy sees itself as part of Europe and is happy that way. The reasons are not hard to find.

When Mussolini took power in 1922, the country had been united for only sixty years or so. Before Mussolini had come the First World War and before that the era of the Great Powers, of which Italy was not one.

Any feeling of national identity had been slow to take root. The first Prime Minister, Cavour, had spoken French, and thought Italian rather vulgar.

The Mussolini years were something which the vast majority of Italians (not all, though!) would like to forget.

It was only in the early years of the EEC that, for many people, life was good. Italy seemed to have a purpose: while Germany provided the industry and France provided the agriculture, Italy provided the style, La Dolce Vita of Fellini’s 1960 film.

And, of course, Italy received its monthly cheque from the north.

The second reason is that if it is honest with itself, and occasionally it is, Italy has never perceived itself as a well run country. Its politicians have largely been thieves and scoundrels but there was never the will to change that: your cousin might get on the local council; there could be a crafty job for your son.

Deep down, Italy does not really trust itself with its own management, and a little German influence, 1/28th let’s say, is perceived as a good thing.

And lastly, Italy is the land of La Bella Figura, where you always look your best in public. Italians like the idea that they are part of a major player, whose founding treaty was signed in Rome. And if they are in that, they are in the Single Currency, another top table engagement.

So if there’s one place there’s never been any doubt about Europe, it’s here in the Bel Paese. Until now, perhaps. A poll conducted by Demopolis for l’Espresso magazine showed that only 28 percent of Italians had confidence in the EU, down from 51 percent in 2006 and 41 percent in 2012.

An unease has been growing all over Europe for several years now, particularly as regards the role of Germany, and Italy is not immune from it. Significantly, this unease has grown from the political left.

La Repubblica, the left-wing broadsheet roughly equivalent to The Guardian, describes it as having two sides: ‘A Europeanism which feels itself betrayed and an anti-europeanism which sees in Germany the real cornerstone of a dictatorial Europe.’

And whilst this feeling has been slowly burgeoning, it is of course Greece which has brought it to the fore. Free marketeers believe that this latest crisis was bound to happen, that these cultural and economic differences are inherent to the European Project and will be its downfall.

Believers in a social Europe think the Germans and others have a responsibility to look after the Greeks (and, presumably, Romanians and everyone else who signs up).

Both are disappointed by Europe’s inability to say what it stands for. It is no secret that France and Italy, with left of centre governments, united against Angela Merkel and the German bloc to keep Greece in the single currency.

The reason is, partly, that their vision is of the social Europe, the Europe of ‘no one left behind’. Also, it is, again partly, that they thought Germany was getting too important.

Most of the papers here gleefully carried footage of Angela Merkel’s recent suicidal attempt to wrest the International Bogeyman of the Year Prize from Vladimir Putin. Her aides allowed her, incredibly, to appear on a television show and explain to a tearful Palestinian child why she had to be deported (‘We can’t take you all’).

The girl was subsequently allowed to stay. If she has any dignity she will reject the offer and apply to Bulgaria.

But behind it all, a major factor in Hollande and Renzi’s stand was a niggling uncertainty: the fear that dare not speak its name.

What if it were us? Matteo Renzi may be too young, but many remember 1992, when Britain and Italy, the then two sick men of Europe, were booted out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

There was no attempt by Germany -- led by Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel’s mentor --  to help. Britain subsequently prospered because it had instituted far reaching labour market reforms. France and Italy have not.

This week’s cover of l’Espresso magazine has a picture of Wolfgang Schaeuble with the caption ‘This man is scary. He scares us, too.’

And the Greek debacle is not over yet, not by a long chalk.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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