Italy calling the EU as Euroscepticism rises in times of Coronavirus

The current emergency might be the most challenging test for the EU. COVID-19 has huge implications, not only from a social, economic and healthcare perspective, it is also questioning the role of the European Union and its relationship with its citizens. This is particularly evident in Italy, the worst-affected country in the bloc, where the crisis is exacerbating an already widespread disaffection towards the EU. This loss of enthusiasm started more than a decade ago. Italy, as a founding member state, has typically enjoyed high levels of support for the European project. However recently, the negative impact of the economic crisis, and later the mismanagement of the migratory challenge, have negatively affected the sentiment towards Europe.

As a consequence, in Italy, since 2010, trust in the EU has decreased by about 20 points. Europe has failed to demonstrate real solidarity, and at the same time has been used as a scapegoat for the country’s weaknesses. The 2019 Eurobarometer showed evidence of growing Euroscepticism: Italy emerged as the most pessimistic among EU member states, with less than half of Italians thinking that their country benefits from the EU (42%, 26 points below the EU average). Moreover, only 38% of Italians thought that Italy’s voice counts in Europe, this time 18 points below the EU average. Italian citizens have felt shamefully neglected by the EU, and they expressed this frustration at the most recent European elections, bringing victory to the Lega party, which has never spared criticism and hostility towards the EU. This has been interpreted as a desire to obtain responses and a request for change at the EU level, rather than a deeper identity or belonging issue against Europe. However, it was certainly a clear reaction, and a signal of a troubled relationship.

This loss of confidence in the EU has also partially affected the more fervent pro-Europeans.

As Italy is now facing a  severe crisis, with more than 23.000 deaths from coronavirus, and its already weak economy is terribly at risk of a deep recession, there is a rising feeling that the country is being abandoned by its European brothers. The Union’s response to this emergency has been perceived as late and inadequate, and the expectations of a rapid demonstration of solidarity and support from the rest of the EU were not met. COVID-19, therefore, becomes another occasion to test the EU and to blame it for not doing enough. Even if the EU has subsequently made up for this, launching significant initiatives to deal with the emergency, its hesitation at the onset of the pandemic, the attitude of some member states, and the ongoing arm-wrestle the Italian government finds itself in on the use of the ESM and Coronabonds are leaving their mark. 

According to a few surveys conducted in recent weeks in Italy, 67% of Italians believe that being part of the EU is a disadvantage, up from 47% in November 2018. 77% of respondents believe that, at the moment, the EU has not contributed to face the current health crisis. The decrease of people who claim to feel European should not be a surprise, from 66% before the pandemic to 49% today. This loss of confidence in the EU has also partially affected the more fervent pro-Europeans. However, a considerable minority, 35%, would vote to exit the EU. Although this is clearly an expression of the current frustration and fear for the future, it is still a striking assessment of the loss of confidence that has happened in the past few weeks, and its reflection on a generally pessimistic view on the uncertain future of jobs and the economy.

Public debates and social media are contributing to damaging faith in the EU, spreading criticism of the European model, and not sufficiently highlighting what the EU is actually doing. Misinformation and political instrumentalisation are also part of this game, with the risk of rising the popularity of nationalist and sovereigntist forces. If the EU is not perceived as a safe bet, Italians will start considering other potential alliances. Indeed, according to a recent poll, Italians consider China, probably as an effect of the aid they supplied to face the health emergency, as the friendliest country, followed by Russia and the US. Germany, however, stands among Italy’s biggest enemies, reflecting the current negotiations at EU level, which are exacerbating divergences and frictions among EU countries.

Restoring Italians’ faith in the EU will not be a simple task at this point, but it’s not too late.

The decline of trust in the EU is a clear countertrend with the support for national institutions. Italians expressed their agreement on the measures adopted at the national level to face the emergency; 75% appreciate President Mattarella; 58% expressed their confidence in Prime Minister Conte, up a good 15 points compared to the beginning of the year. A favourable opinion is also addressed towards the politicians at the local level. What has generated a more significant frustration towards the EU is the feeling of a lack of empathy and a confusing and uncoordinated communication, symbolised by the strong reaction to the frigidness of the Dutch Finance Minister’s words and the President of the European Central Bank’s message. Last month, in one of his few TV appearances addressing millions of Italians, even Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s Head of State, warned the future of Europe was at stake if its institutions did not show solidarity with their country.

The massive shift happening in Italy has not gone unnoticed. The Financial Times published an article a few days ago entitled “Is Europe losing Italy?”, highlighting how Italians’ sense of betrayal deepens as their plight remains ignored. Numerous calls for European unity and solidarity have spread, and some prominent politicians have expressed the need for collective action. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen officially apologised to Italy on behalf of Europe for its failure to do more to help at the onset of the pandemic. Restoring Italians’ faith in the EU will not be a simple task at this point, but it’s not too late. Reacting to a global pandemic solely with national measures is not possible, nor rationally desirable.  It is time for the EU to show that it can live up to expectations and ambitions. Besides technical decisions, it is also important to convey a clear reassuring message as a united and responsive Europe. The ball is now in the hands of the Heads of States and Governments, gathering in the upcoming European Council. The EU cannot afford to miss this crucial opportunity to prove that its institutions are close to its citizens and can protect them, deliver concrete answers, and spread the right messages. What will be decided in the next few weeks is crucial for the future of the EU, but also for its relations with its citizens, starting in one of its founding members.