Why Italians Are Souring on the European Union

Why Italians Are Souring on the European Union

After two decades of economic stagnation, a rising number of Italians no longer believe that being part of the EU has been good for their country.

SourceMARCO BERTORELLO/Getty

Why you should care

An increasing number of Italians no longer believe that being part of the EU has been good for their country.

Vincenzo D’Amore, a 34-year-old buffalo mozzarella–maker from the small town of Carinola outside Naples, is exactly the type of young business owner who would be expected to celebrate Italy’s membership in the European Union and a single market that allows him to sell his products across the Continent.

In 2017, he converted the farm founded by his great-grandfather at the start of the last century into a modern cheese factory, using his 800 buffaloes and 36 hectares of land to make around 500 kilograms of mozzarella a week. However, he says his business has been hurt by cheaper competition from lower-cost producers elsewhere in Europe.

“With the prices of some types of mozzarella sold in the European supermarkets, you would not even be able to repay the cost of milk, how can such a product even be on the market?” D’Amore says. “I’ve always liked the idea of calling myself European, but now I feel abandoned. I’m losing faith in Europe.”

The disillusionment of Italians with the EU marks a profound generational shift for a country that once viewed closer integration with Europe as a solution for many of its ills.

D’Amore is among a rising number of Italians who, after two decades of economic stagnation, no longer believe that being part of the EU has been good for their country. Research last year by the European Parliament found that 45 percent of them believed that on balance Italy had not benefited from its membership in the union, a higher level than even recession-ravaged Greece or a Britain that voted for Brexit.

This collapse of Italian faith in the EU has contributed to a surge in support for the euroskeptic and anti-migrant League party led by the charismatic 45-year-old Matteo Salvini.

A native of Milan, Salvini does not go so far as to call for Italy to leave the euro — let alone the EU. But his pledge to stand up to a European establishment that he argues has failed Italy has helped transform the stature of his party. Once considered little more than a fringe northern separatist party, since March’s election the League has become a national political force that polls indicate could make Salvini prime minister if a poll were held in the near future.

The disillusionment of Italians with the EU marks a profound generational shift for a country that once viewed closer integration with Europe as a solution for many of its ills. In 2000, around 80 percent of Italians said they welcomed the country’s entrance into the single currency, at a time when only half of Germans held the same opinion.

Since joining the single currency Italy’s average annual rate of economic growth per head has been zero, according to the Bruegel think tank. This compares with a rate for Spain of 1 percent, France at 0.8 percent and Germany at 1.25 percent. Now, with the broader European economy slowing down, Italy risks tipping into a technical recession by the end of this year after its economy contracted in the third quarter.

For Marcello Messori, director of the LUISS School of European Political Economy in Rome, the collapse in Italian belief in the European project is partly a consequence of a stagnant economy in which the pain has been felt disproportionately by the young.

In a country where a fifth of young people are unemployed, only 23 percent of young Italians say they expect to achieve a better socioeconomic status than their parents’ generation, the lowest level in the EU according to the research group Census.

“There is a clear difference between generations of Italians in their attitude to Europe,” says Messori. “For my generation our idea of Europe was to be free, to have a wider world around Italy. This is changing.”

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The recent dip in the economy has only increased anger toward the EU. At a rally last month in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, Salvini told tens of thousands of supporters, many waving flags with his party’s “Italians first” slogan, that he would to stand up to Brussels.

“We are afraid of nothing and nobody,” he told the cheering crowds. “Someone has betrayed the European dream, but we will put blood and strength back into the veins of a new European community.” He warned that further austerity imposed on Italy from Brussels would result in riots like those seen in recent weeks in France.

Salvini’s willingness to take on Brussels is most tangible in the clash between Italy’s coalition government and the European Commission over its budget plans, which envisage a sharp increase in public spending. Rome initially estimated this would create a budget deficit of 2.4 percent, breaking EU guidelines. Italy and the European Commission agreed last month to shrink that figure to 2.04 percent.

It leaves the European Commission needing to find a balance between being seen to hold Italy to account for what it has called an “unprecedented” breach of its budgetary rules while being careful not to provide Salvini with more ammunition to attack Brussels. The coalition has said it will stick to its flagship spending policies.

The sense of injustice in Italy that different standards are being applied by Brussels to other capitals has been inflamed by President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of higher spending in France to calm angry protesters, a move that will sharply increase the country’s budget deficit.

Rather than alarming Italian voters, Salvini’s clash with Europe, which has seen him launch tirades against the “Brussels bunker” and forge alliances with other hard-right politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen, has boosted his party’s popularity.

Salvini has successfully transformed the onetime Northern League into a national party targeting support in the center and south of the country in a way that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Ahead of European elections next May, the League, which shares power with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, is now polling at above 30 percent — a number that if achieved at the polls would make it the largest party in the country.

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A strong result in the European elections would see Salvini solidify his party’s newfound status as the dominant force on Italy’s political right, a position that had been occupied by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia for two decades. It would also raise the prospect of an avowed euroskeptic taking power in a large eurozone member for the first time in the single currency’s history.

Susanna Ceccardi, the 31-year-old League mayor of the small Tuscan town of Cascina near Pisa, is representative of a generation of young Italian politicians who have taken a more hostile stance toward Brussels as a means of protecting what she sees as “Italian values.” While an earlier generation of Italian right-wing politicians was likely to embrace openness with Europe, Ceccardi, who was just 12 when the euro was launched in 1999, says she and her supporters feel little affinity with the modern EU.

“I feel European from the point of view of history, but I do not feel European from an administrative and management point of view, because it is a Europe that contradicts itself and its values,” Ceccardi says. “Any citizen who hears the question of identity does not want to suddenly see the historical centers full of Islamic veils, schools where you cannot eat pork … this is far from our culture. That is why people feel far from the EU, because it does not defend the values of the common European people, of our people.”

Ceccardi argues that criticism of Brussels has allowed Salvini to win a national audience. Yet antipathy toward the EU is not exclusive to Italy’s hard right. Within the Five Star Movement, a party made up of eclectic ideological positions, some believe the euro has contributed to an economic status quo in Italy that has failed its youth.

Many of the party’s leading figures, including its 32-year-old leader Luigi Di Maio, are of the generation of Italians that have struggled with high youth unemployment and a perceived lack of opportunity. This cohort came of age at a time when freedom of movement allowed them to work across Europe, meaning that Italy’s membership provided an escape from joblessness at home but also a reminder of the country’s economic failings.

Di Maio, joint deputy prime minister in the coalition with Salvini, is less overtly aggressive toward Brussels but insists that his party’s election promises — including higher welfare payments to the poor — must be introduced whether Brussels likes it or not.

Growing up in Italy’s south where a fifth of the population is out of work, Di Maio saw many of his friends forced to leave to find employment abroad. “A lot of my friends went to London, New York, Berlin or Frankfurt to work,” he says. “There was a difference between those who were waiters in my area, like I was, and those who were waiters in London. They could make a career while I could not.”

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Messori argues that the rise of euroskepticism has been driven by the failure of the Italian economy to modernize over decades. The resulting economic stagnation has prompted politicians from both the left and right to attribute blame outside the country.

“In the 1960s, small Italian firms were able to imitate innovation performed by other countries, as these were mostly to do with physical machinery. By the start of the 1990s, global innovation became based on intangible assets and our small firms were unable to adapt,” he says. “This is not the fault of the euro or the EU but to different degrees centrist politicians started to blame Europe, and from this point the populist view had an open door.”

While many are dissatisfied with the country’s lack of economic growth, the increased hostility toward Brussels has not translated into a desire to leave the single currency — the extreme outcome most feared by financial markets.

While almost half of Italians do not believe that EU membership has benefited the country, 59 percent support its membership of the single currency, according to Eurobarometer.

Salvini and Di Maio have switched from past statements raising questions about the euro to steadfastly committing to keeping the country in the currency union.

To convert disillusionment toward Europe into a major electoral breakthrough, Salvini will have to be careful that his hostile rhetoric toward Brussels does not lose him the support of small northern businesses — his traditional power base. He has recently faced criticism from Italy’s business lobby for the uncertainty caused by the government’s budget plans.

Older Italians, meanwhile, remember what life was like before the country joined the single market in a way that perhaps does not always resonate with younger generations.

Antonio Nesti, a 74-year-old furniture-maker in Cascina, remembers having to queue for hours at European borders to make deliveries before Italy was part of the single market. He, like other small exporters, says any disruption to this would cause huge damage to his business.

“I think that Italians who work, and want to continue working, do not like the politics the government is doing now with this tug of war with Europe,” he says.

Additional reporting by Davide Ghiglione in Rome

Read more: Italy’s populist revolt puts pension reform at risk.

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By Miles Johnson

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