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Italians’ demands for political participation and federalist devolution were bound to clash with a project, the EU, that is defined by technocracy and centralisation. For many years Italian support for the EU was so unquestioning that there was little awareness of the inevitability of this clash. The scales began to fall from the eyes with the financial crisis and the removal of Berlusconi in 2011, in what was generally believed to be a move dictated by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy with the then Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, as the axeman.

Mario Monti, the technocrat appointed to replace Berlusconi in 2011, was initially welcomed by Italians. His credentials were impeccable: he had been an EU Commissioner and Rector of Bocconi in Milan, Italy’s best university for economics and business studies. But the honeymoon was brief. He and his government of professors soon became exceptionally unpopular and a rift emerged between public opinion and experts. There is a revealing interview given by Monti to CNN while he was prime minister. When asked how he was going to support domestic demand to stimulate growth and help Italy out of the recession, he replied: “We are destroying domestic demand through fiscal consolidation.” The interviewer was visibly shocked. So were most Italians, who came to regard the Monti government as an economic tsunami. At the end of his two years in power, his Civic Choice party gained only 8 per cent of the votes in the 2013 election.

Monti’s reason for an approach that many of his economist colleagues would regard as economically illiterate was that monetary union left Italy with no other option. “Percorsi obbligati” (prescribed routes) was the refrain. The euro is not, as a currency should be, a means to an end — but an end in itself. Some, like Romano Prodi, the former president of the EU Commission and twice prime minister of Italy in the last 25 years, now say they realised at the time that monetary union was deeply flawed, but they expected the problems to be fixed over time. Most would now regard such a choice as reckless. Why surrender monetary sovereignty if you understand that what is being set up will not work? The idea that the EU and the Italian political-economic elite were one and the same thing — and neither competent nor benign — took hold during the Monti years. It is difficult to see how Italian public opinion can revert to being as enthusiastic about the EU as it used to be, unless there is radical change in Brussels.

True, there is no majority at present in Italy for leaving the euro. But the numbers also say something else. Already in February 2017, nearly two-thirds of Italians, and even a majority of PD voters, thought that joining the euro was a mistake. There is no contradiction between this and not wanting to leave the euro: the euro is the kind of mistake that is very difficult to undo. People realise that and are worried about the costs. But marriages in which you stick around because you are afraid you may not be able to afford your own place are not happy ones.

Over the last few months, many Italians appear to have become aware of another problem: that monetary union may be difficult — perhaps impossible — to reconcile with democracy. This is the view of the League, which had big banners saying “Basta Euro” outside many of its offices throughout the election campaign. According to a recent poll, a majority of its voters still do favour leaving the euro. One difference between Italy’s political earthquake and Brexit is that Italian Euroscepticism is stronger in the most productive parts of the country, those which the League represents. If this revolt had been concentrated in Italy’s south, it would have probably ended up like the Reggio revolt of 1970: forgotten and inconsequential. But, even if you have not read your Gramsci, you will know Italy’s northern middle class is the force that shapes the political direction of the country.
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August 22nd, 2018
7:08 PM
"Italy should never have been part of the EU." No-one should be in the EU. The EU is a map drawn by the self-regarding founders, nothing more. It is the unfortunate fate of those statelets included in its boundaries to suffer under the rule of people with no interest in them.

July 21st, 2018
6:07 PM
"Saving Europeans isn't the Italians' job" Neither it is Europeans job to save Italians from their mediocrity! Who was ever dumb enough to allow Italy to be a founding member of the EU? Did they think that this time Italians would show fortitude, backbone and honesty? How mistaken! Italy should never have been part of the EU.

June 30th, 2018
12:06 PM
Those "in charge" of the European Project only have one goal, to stay "in charge". Consequently, they accept assistance from anyone offering support, without questioning the motivation. To attempt to build an empire from the roof down without even a copy of "Empire-Building For Dummies" to hand, seems foolhardy. We live in interesting times.

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