Italians watch Brexit. Election heralds more chaos for EU
Italians are watching Brexit closely. If all goes well, Italexit could be on the agenda in 5 years time. For now, the forthcoming elections merely herald another gigantic headache for the EU, with the outcome sure to mean yet more chaos for the deep integrationists in Brussels. It's all kicking off in Rome
Martin ‘Monster’ Selmayr, EU-crazy chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, has the staring eyes of a counter-reformation monk condemning Galileo for his heresy.
He has recently been promoted to Secretary General of the Commission and the news has been treated with horror by the British pro-Brexit press.
What is less known is that it is regarded with equal horror in Italy. Selmayr is no friend of the Bel Paese; it is believed he has been urging for sanctions to be imposed for breaking the budget ceiling, and there are stories that he has passed privileged information to the Merkel government.
Indeed a growing number of Italian commentators believe that there is too much German influence in the Commission. Brussels, meanwhile, is aware of the growing restlessness in Italy and holding its breath in advance of the general elections here on 4th March.
A headline in the British press caught my eye: ‘Will the future of Europe be decided on 4th March?’ It asks whether Italy, a founder member of the European project, is turning against the EU. If true, it would be a devastating blow, an earthquake felt from Belgium to the Black Sea.
Something is indeed happening here. Italy used to be one of the most steadfast European members, poll after poll finding that almost everyone thought it a good idea. I think it is possible to identify where the change happened, even if there is confusion over its extent.
First, with the former eastern bloc countries joining the EU in 2004, Italy became for the first time a net contributor to the European coffers. This concentrates the mind. A country is entitled to ask what it is getting for its money.
Second came the euro. Ordinary Italians were suspicious of this from the start. They hate the coins: in 2000 a coffee cost a 1000 Lire note. The lowest value euro note was €5, around 10,000 lire so your pockets were full of heavy change.
And they have noticed the prices: that coffee can no longer be bought for less than €1.20 (although that price shames Starbucks in London), nearly two and a half times as much and 5 percent per annum inflation. The widespread view is that prices for everyday commodities have risen shockingly with the advent of the euro and that this has somehow been concealed.
The last nail in the EU coffin was the recent mass immigration: Italy has born the brunt because if its location. There has been no solidarity from other nations; they have simply closed their borders, left Italy to cope. This is not the spirit that supporters believe should exist in the EUtopia. Italy feels let down.
So the elections may result in a bloodbath for the pro-European Democratic Party. Will the fate of Europe be decided? No. Most of the people are too conservative and too afraid of their past. To have been an adult in Italy when it joined Europe, you would now be 79 years old; hardly anyone remembers life outside the European fortress. Various politicians have made noises, but none yet dares promote Italexit.
The euro is another matter. Both 5-Star and Berlusconi have flirted with the idea of a referendum on the euro, but it is complicated. The Italian constitution provides for referenda but not in respect of international treaties. So the lengthy rigmarole of making it constitutionally sound would have to be gone through. It would take several years.
Where all the parties agree, however, is that they will ignore the 3 percent deficit limit imposed by the EU (in fact by Germany). They may exceed it greatly. What can Europe do? France has been in breach of it for years and the first country in breach was Germany itself. Fining an offender seems daft; it would go further into debt.
But a clear refusal of the Stability Pact will weaken the idea of further economic integration. Germany will not step in to defend Italy if it is not playing by Germany’s rules. Herr Selmayr trusts Italy less than he does France but Italians will think they are being singled out for criticism.
Thus will the fate of Europe be sealed on 4th March. Doomed to abandon further economic and therefore political integration, the train, not quite derailed, will grind to a halt amidst widespread rancour.
And Brexit? Italy’s weak, timid politicians know that the people are watching Brexit very closely indeed. If Britain prospers there will be murmurs about exit in five years. The Italians will be supportive of a good deal for Britain, quietly willing us on.
Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here
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