EU heads deeper into crisis over Italy and France

In a certain sense Brexit was never the real issue for the European Union. The real issue is that it is a failing superstate, mired in hypocrisy and self-delusion

The flag is falling
Tim Hedges
On 12 February 2019 14:40

I have been much intrigued by the coverage in the British press of the spat between Italy and France, which has resulted in the French ambassador to Rome being recalled for the first time since 1940.

This portentous date tells us nothing, however. Italy will not be allying itself with Germany to declare war on France. It will be allying itself with a number of others.

In truth, there has been a certain amount of badinage between the two European neighbours for some years. ‘The French! Nobody likes them’ said a local barkeeper. We were witnessing the departure of a busload from the village we were twinned with. I smiled: it could have been a scene in an English pub.

The twinning system, much encouraged by the European Union, in my experience is just a wheeze for the local political class to make merry at the taxpayer’s expense giving the occasional pompous speech about Peace. But in fact it just highlights differences. Two years ago no one from our side could be found to go to France, those on a previous trip having found the food inedible and the people rude.

The French have never really taken Italy seriously, particularly during the Berlusconi days, and since the early days of the German economic miracle have sought to cement their place as Germany’s coequal, joint leader of Europe. It is the kind of Grand Projet which looks good on the presidential CV.

This, quite naturally, has got Italy’s back up, but matters did not really come to a head until the explosive issue of immigration dominated the political scene and the two countries elected mutual opposites. Italy’s choice was for populists, ready and willing to make their views known and resentful of the way Italy has been treated. France by contrast has chosen an old school autocrat, dismissive of lesser folk, who wants to play on the world stage.

From there it was downhill all the way. France closed its borders with Italy to keep the migrants out but criticised the closing of Italian ports to migrants. France wanted an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci and Italy refused to lend the pictures. Now deputy PM Di Maio has offered to lend his direct democracy computer system, Rousseau, to the Gilet Jaunes.

This difference will be enhanced by the forthcoming elections. It looks as if the European establishment is going to get a lot more of what it hates most. A local political and trade union organiser told me ‘Since the war Italy has had a strong hard left,  socialist, communist, call it what you like, it was a movement of the people.

Then the Left turned onto social democrats, to make themselves more electable, and we tried that, but now the workers’ movement realise there is nothing for them there. Now, as they see immigrants on the social housing ladder and taking their jobs away they are supporting Matteo Salvini and his Lega.’

Lega, or League, used to be called the Northern League, railing against the corruption in the capital and in the South. Now they have dropped the ‘Northern’ and are fielding candidates well south of Rome and winning.

In the general election, settled only eight months ago, the support was for Left and Centre left: 25.3 %; centre right: 19.6%; 5-Star: 32.7%; Lega 17.4%. Salvini’s Lega was very much the junior party.

Now, in the latest set of polls, Salvini’s support has doubled to 35%, at the expense of the centre right and of 5-Star. If in the elections he aligned himself with the centre right he would be pushing 50% of the vote.

In the same polling 55% of Italians and 75% of Salvini supporters declared they did not have confidence in the EU. In Italy, since the financial crash ten years ago there has been no economic growth. Now Italy is back in recession and Europe seems to be heading that way too. Confidence in the EU has halved in those ten years.

And the EU’s response? To veto Italy’s mildly expansionary budget but to permit France’s more expansionary one. The Italians feel they are being sidelined in Europe and are close to despair. They want to make their voice, their anger heard.

We should expect them to do something extreme.

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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