Sick Man of Europe: The Potential of Italexit
Despite the importance of the relationship between Italy and European Union (EU), tension between these two entities has grown exponentially in the twenty-first century. From the implementation of the euro to the management of the central Mediterranean route, Italy and the EU have routinely clashed over funding, access to resources, and austerity measures. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this tension; arguably, of all EU member states, Italy was initially and most drastically impacted by COVID-19. Faced with a wildly underprepared healthcare system, Italy’s death rate skyrocketed, and severe lockdown restrictions were imposed. Accordingly, the Italian state looked towards the EU for support—support that many Italians feel they did not receive.
As Italian citizens are used to expecting little from the historically corrupt Italian state, citizens came together in the wake of COVID-19 to strengthen social support and place trust in institutions. Although citizens have rallied together to improve the situation by implementing a contact-tracing system, Italy’s tourist-dependent cities are still struggling. Even though Italy has one of the largest economies of the EU member states, it is also led by a weak coalition government that sports the second-highest public debt as a percentage of the domestic economy. The gross domestic product of Italy was estimated to drop by 11% in 2020. Italy’s social mobility is declining, its middle class is struggling, and its poverty levels are rising. Accordingly, prior to and amplified by the outbreak of COVID-19, mass amounts of citizens are emigrating from Italy. Furthermore, Italy currently registers more deaths than births, compounding the state’s population decline. Luciana Lamorgese, the Italian Minister of the Interior, has warned of social unrest in light of pandemic-induced business failures and layoffs. Notorious Italian organized crime groups are expected to fill the gaps in social mobility by offering loans with unreasonably high interest rates. Right-wing populism continues to grow, threatening not only to restructure the entirety of the Italian government, but also to secede from the EU. Undoubtedly, the coronavirus has only confirmed that Italy is the “sick man of Europe.”
Other EU member states largely refrained from sending supplies and aid to Italy during the first (and worst) stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Many in the EU fear that the ills of Italy may prove contagious; Italy is not domestically strong enough to counter its numerous threats to democracy and prosperity, and the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed an Italian reluctance towards international cooperation and coordination. During the summer of 2020, European leaders devised an EU-wide recovery fund—worth 750 billion euros—aimed at saving Europe’s weakest economies from collapse. This fund allows for a mutualization of debt, meaning that EU member states would be jointly responsible for issuing loans. Other eurozone states, like Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Finland, were reluctant to participate in such a fund, as they did not want to allocate money to states that they deem economically wasteful. Further, the fund is spurring domestic debates between the Italian coalition government and the right-wing Lega Nord party, which claims that support from such a fund would impose too many obligations. Beyond these debates, the true success of the fund in Italy depends upon the Italian government’s ability to achieve its political vision and effectively utilize the allocated funds. While the recovery fund suggests that recipient nations should invest in green technologies and digital infrastructure, many Italians worry that this suggestion asks too much of a government and political parties that are controlled by a shrinking middle class and local interest groups.
To add to the uncertainty of EU-Italian relations, a new secessionist political party known as Italexit emerged in the summer of 2020. Additionally, a recent poll suggested that 34% of Italians feel that democracy should be suspended in the midst of a public-health crisis. Social unrest and anti-political sentiment have worsened. Sardines, a left-wing movement that once pushed back against the tide of right-wing populism, has fizzled out alongside the rise of the pandemic. A state that was once commended as an innovative site of populism is now deemed a loose cannon of populism. Many in the EU fear an Italian government collapse in which the populist Matteo Salvini could come to power. Through such a shift in leadership, politicians may take this opportunity to redistribute power so that they may control the ministries that disperse money from the EU-recovery fund. In these ways, not only does the Italian government mirror the proclaimed democratic deficit of the EU; it also threatens to corrupt the massive recovery fund that the EU has begrudgingly constructed, or at the very least utilize these funds in modes that violate the rules of the EU. Although Italy’s fate is intimately intertwined with the fate of the EU, many political analysts feel that the inventive, self-surviving quality of the Italian state may be the very factor contributing to its EU downfall.