Italexit: a threat or a joke?

A statistical survey commissioned by the CISE (Italian Center for Electoral Studies) has opened a Pandora's box, and highlighted a fact that was barely hidden among the Italian electorate. Published on May 4th, at the beginning of Phase 2 of the lockdown brought on by the pandemic. The CISE study reflects the state of frustration, anger and resentment that many Italians had felt during the most acute phase of the emergency. European solidarity was replaced by nationalistic selfishness, with every state intent on grabbing the medical supplies and materials necessary to deal with the virus at any cost, even at the expense of neighbouring EU countries. In light of these facts, 42% of the respondents declared that belonging to the European Union was negative for Italy, with only 35% of the participants considering it positive. 35% of the survey sample would prefer Italy to leave the Union, and 47% would prefer to stay. Finally, an astounding 85% of those interviewed stated that the countries of the Union had not adequately helped Italy during the emergency. A final, and extremely interesting, piece of data provided by the CISE is the preference found for Italexit between workers (49%) and the unemployed (48%), while entrepreneurs favour Italy's staying in the EU (63%), followed less convincingly by office workers (53%) and students (51%).

Although the survey is relatively 'outdated', and was carried out before the Recovery Fund had been approved, the data beg many questions. The first is why less well-off social classes seem to prefer to leave the EU. The second, whether Italexit has any chance of taking place in the near future, especially following the birth of the Italexit party, founded by former 5-star senator Gianluigi Paragone. The first question brings our attention back to an issue already addressed by the newspaper, namely the low popularity of the EU and European integration among the 'losers' of globalization, that is to say, those social classes that have been hit the hardest by the 2008 crisis and now from the post-Covid-19 crisis. Taking into account the fact that Italy is a founding member of the EU, such a proportion of Euroscepticism is extremely worrying and constitutes a serious problem for the uncritical continuation of 'ever-closer' integration. On the other hand, the 'winners' of globalization, the metropolitan elites or at least the middle and upper classes, look favourably at a European system that seems to favour their social and economic interests.

This disparity in the perception of the EU has at least three causes. One is simply logical in nature. Given the fact that the economic, legal and political system of the Union becomes an increasingly stringent and binding reality for the life of the continent's communities, it is quite logical that those who seem not to benefit from this system are opposed to it as a symbol of power and the status quo. Something very similar happened in Great Britain, where citizens (often deceived by decades of Eurosceptic disinformation and anti-European propaganda) dumped their dissatisfaction with the national socio-economic system on Brussels, leaving the Conservative party in government, which has become the protagonist in the last 10 years of appalling cuts to health, the welfare state, and the police.

But another, not less important, cause is communicative. In the last 20 years in Italy, despite the fact that GDP and family incomes have roughly remained unchanged, political figures such as Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi have built their (in the case of the latter, ephemeral) popularity through triumphalist rhetoric, which proclaimed growth in consumption and citizens' wealth. Many in Italy still remember Berlusconi's assertion that restaurants in Italy were “always full”, or Matteo Renzi's PowerPoint slides on the jobs created thanks to his Jobs Act (alas, these jobs were almost entirely on temporary contracts). For a long time, these two Pms have represented contemporary Italian Europeanism, in a more or less exemplary way. The disappointing economic data, accompanied by the aforementioned bravado, certainly must have only increased the sense of frustration of the most economically fragile citizens towards the Italian system, as part of the EU family.

Finally, however, perhaps the most important cause of the distrust of the less well-off towards the EU is strongly political. Even today, the social, economic and cultural well-being of all citizens of the Union is not put first by national governments and the Commission. Although the Recovery Fund is ambitious, barely anyone in Europe speaks with any real conviction of a Universal Basic Income (obviously to be regionally adjusted through mechanisms such as local pay scales). Those who do, like the DiEM25 movement, are considered extremists or incurable idealists. The need for such an intervention is made clear by the emergence, due to the pandemic, of pockets of the Italian and European population unable to feed themselves and purchase basic necessities. Structural funds and temporary bonuses are clearly not enough, and a comprehensive, pan-European strategy is needed to eradicate poverty. The credibility of the European project among the most disadvantaged classes is at stake.

The second issue, on the other hand, poses systemic problems for the EU. Can Europe exist without Italy? Can Italy exist without Europe? In light of the Recovery Fund's approval, the answer to both questions appears to be no. But the problem may only be postponed. The 2023 elections could deliver a government mandate to the Salvini-Meloni duo, and even if the two have moderated their Eurosceptic tones, they can easily put Italy back on track towards the frontal clash with Brussels that the yellow-green government of 2018-19 had already attempted with little success. A clash would mean polarization, and Italians could increasingly lean towards endorsing a step away from Europe, in imitation of the British. Although the Italian constitutional order does not provide for a referendum on international treaties (it would be impossible, in short, to organize a Brexit-style referendum in Italy), it would certainly be possible for a government with a strong Eurosceptic mandate to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and Italy's exit from the Union would begin.

Political fiction? For now, yes. The President of the Council in office, Giuseppe Conte, enjoys exceptional popularity among the voters and has built convincing Europeanist credentials both in Italy and abroad. During the negotiations on the Recovery Fund, the Italian premier (together with his Spanish and Portuguese counterparts) was tirelessly proposing to make the EU relaunch program as ambitious as possible, and it can also be said that the Franco-German duo has played a simple but fundamental support role in for the recovery plan proposed by the Southern countries. At the same time, however, the electoral polls indicate that the popularity of the head of government does not equate to match equal trust for the majority forces. While the centre-right coalition is preferred by 49.1% of the electorate, a (still hypothetical) government coalition would collect only 41.6% of the votes today.

Beyond the purely electoral data, Italexit is a potential political, cultural and social problem for the whole of Europe. It is a problem that, if not solved in time, could change the nature and geopolitical orientation of the country and the continent. To prevent this social bomb, which would only aggravate the economic and social situation of the less well-off classes (as Brexit is already doing in the UK), it is necessary to fight Euroscepticism openly. This does not mean encouraging an uncritical Europeanism that perpetuates the European status quo. Instead, it is necessary to reinvigorate the Europeanist and progressive ranks with competent politicians, linked to the territory and able to speak to citizens who live in the most deprived areas of Italy and the entire continent. For example, it would be useful to see new protagonists in the Italian progressive platform politicians, such as Elly Schlein, the young vice president of Emilia-Romagna and the most voted candidate ever in the regional elections, and the mayor of Bari and ANCI President Antonio Decaro, who was recently proclaimed the most popular mayor of Italy. These politicians, who are Europeanists and, at the same time, able to engage with the peripheries, the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the less industrialized areas of the country, embody the type of bottom-up politics in which the progressive camp must have the courage to engage. This is necessary so as not to leave Italy, a cultural and political cornerstone of the Union, in the hands of those eurosceptic politicians who want to see it isolated and in constant conflict with its natural partners. Stuck in a political clash that would not solve the problems of those disadvantaged citizens who (wrongly) see Italexit as the solution to all the problems that afflict this very complicated country.