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What’s Next: ‘Italexit’ or a European Union Crack-Up?

As economic aid from Brussels is debated and delayed, millions of Mediterraneans are already questioning the European project.

Since the birth of the European Union, there has been an intense debate about the possibility of creating a two-track Europe, divided between the Mediterranean nations and those of Northern Europe.

Supporters of this solution argue that the differences between these two parts of Europe are irreconcilable, in terms of their lifestyle, in the way society is conceived, and especially in the mentality of citizens. The possibility of division first appeared in Greece during the 2008 crisis, and it now seems to be intensifying with the coronavirus emergency.

Today, the dividing line between north and south has hardened, and is defined by opposing views on how to tackle the spread of the virus. 

On one side, the Latin countries of Europe ask to use the so-called “Eurobonds” or “Coronabonds,” a financial instrument with a common European debt linked to the resources that are strictly necessary to face this health emergency. Italy and Spain do not ask to share their ordinary public debt with Germany and the other northern European nations; they only seek to share the resources they need to bear the costs to fight Coronavirus. On the other side, German politicians and the media accuse the south of seeking to finance the crisis response with German money. France stands halfway between these two blocs, even though in practice Macron’s point of view seems to be closer to the southern European countries’ position.

The solution proposed by Angela Merkel and other northern European governments is to use the resources of the European stability mechanism (ESM), a fund set up to lend money to member states in financial difficulty in ordinary times to prevent situations like the 2008 crisis. The resources of the stability mechanism would be used by individual states and so would not constitute a common debt. The Italian position is simple and based on two main points: First, since Europe is not facing an ordinary situation, we need extraordinary means that cannot come from the use of ESM funds. Second, the COVID-19 emergency does not concern a single country, but all of Europe, and therefore, the cost of combating it and rebuilding should be shared by all countries. 

From Italy’s standpoint, there are other considerations as well. Italy contributes more to the EU than it receives; its net annual contribution comes to EUR 20 billion, making it the third largest contributor after Germany and France. This means that the resources granted by the European Union as aid are also partly Italian money. The same applies to the resources of the ESM. Italy contributes 17.80 percent of its resources and Spain 11.83 percent. Among other nations that oppose the use of Eurobonds, the Netherlands contributes just  5.68 percent, Austria, 2.77 percent, and Finland a paltry 1.79.

Why don’t the countries of southern Europe (and Ireland, which has joined them) want to accept the use of the resources of the ESM? Journalist Nicola Porro, one of the most well-known voices in the world of the Italian center right-wing, put it this way in one of his popular videos: accepting the ESM would risk putting Italy into receivership administered by a reborn “troika” consisting of the ECB, the EU and the IMF—just as happened in Greece in 2008. The risk of accepting those resources today could prove fatal since the conditions of the loan would most likely change after the emergency ends.

The fear of the center-right parties, in particular Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, is that the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will end up accepting the ESM, which will probably be packaged and presented differently, but in substance will remain the same.

The current crisis cannot be compared to that of 2008. In 2008, Europe faced a financial crisis with economic and social consequences. Today, we face a public health emergency, which means that the emotional aspect also plays an important role. How do you tell an entrepreneur from Lombardy, one of the wealthiest regions in Europe with a GDP higher than many regions of Germany, that the European Union allocated ten days to discuss and find a solution—in the middle of a pandemic, when lives are at stake? How do you explain that to someone who has worked for a lifetime, paid taxes, provided jobs to many people and who has probably lost his father, a friend, or an employee to the coronavirus in a matter of days?

Even if the European Union continues to function in a political and formal sense, emotionally, for the majority of the citizens of Mediterranean countries it no longer exists. If tomorrow morning a consultative referendum were held in Italy with an online vote, 80 percent of Italians would likely favor an exit. Not only conservative and center right parties have opposed the current European Union, but for the first time, many liberal and left-wing citizens have also taken sides against the EU as they observe their response to the pandemic and the perceived indifference to Italy’s fate.

Coronavirus has highlighted the failure of the globalist ideology, as the intellectuals Marco Gervasoni and Corrado Ocone put it in their newly published Coronavirus: The End of Globalization, and one of the main pillars of this ideology on which they focus is exactly what we call Europeanism, that is “the idea that, pending the creation of a World Republic, we can indeed create a European Republic, the United States of Europe, in which freedom of exchange, trade, movement, and the so-called ‘external borders’ remain as open as possible.”

In addition to the different political and economic points of view, there are deeper fractures related to different visions of the European project between the peoples of northern Europe and the Latin countries in the south. For proof, just look at the article signed by a series of German intellectuals in Bild, a major German newspaper, expressing solidarity with Italy. The article’s Italian title states: “Siamo con voi!” (“We are with you!”), but the content, probably contrary to its good intentions, has generated a feeling of disdain in Italy. The text is full of stereotypes and condescension about Italian food, such as “you brought us good things to eat. Suddenly we could enjoy appetizers, butterflies, and tiramisu too. […] We wanted to know how to cook pasta like you, to drink Campari like you, to love as you do.” About the so-called Italian “dolce vita” they say: “We always wanted to be like you. With your easy-going ways.”

These are certainly not words of comfort for a nation that mourns hundreds of dead every day, where doctors work twelve-hour shifts and where, thanks to the extraordinary dedication and efforts of its citizens, a brand new hospital was built in Lombardy in just a few days. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, the words in the Bild article only synthesize the ‘pizza, pasta, and mandolin’ stereotype of Italians that many people from northern Europe believe to be true. They show an unwillingness to see our beautiful country as a large industrialized economy and a net contributor to the EU budget whose citizens cannot simply accept the dictates of the European Union.

In Italy, even barring direct mention of Italexit, for the first time in the political and media debates there is consistent talk of a plan B, of “an alternative to this Europe,” and of the need for “new solutions.” From a practical point of view, exiting the EU presents two problems: the fact that the Italian currency is the euro and the difficulty of holding a referendum.

Unlike Great Britain, which kept the pound sterling after joining the EU, Italy abandoned the lira. To be sure, Italy adopted the euro under conditions unfavorable to its economy, but abandoning the euro now would make things even worse.

Besides, Italian law does not provide for the possibility of a referendum like the one held in the UK to approve Brexit, and holding one would require a constitutional amendment. Without an amendment, if the majority of Italians voted for Italexit, the parliament would need to pass an ordinary law, as was the case with the approval of the Lisbon Treaty. At that point, there exists a risk that incompatibility would arise with Article 117 of the Italian Constitution, which regulates the legislative competences between the national government, its regions, and the EU as a third actor, and so a further constitutional change might be necessary.

This complicated path is improbable if not impossible, at least in an ordinary situation. However, we are not in an ordinary situation but an extraordinary one, and the pandemic has changed the sentiments of the Italians.

In reality, there is another possibility, which is also difficult but no longer appears to be a chimera: the collapse of the European Union. If the entire European scaffolding collapsed, there would no longer be a need for an Italexit. Across Southern Europe, many more citizens are asking, what is the point of a supranational entity that is expensive and legally cumbersome, but unable to provide adequate solutions to more than 120 million citizens of Italy, Spain, and Portugal in this dramatic moment?

Francesco Giubilei is an entrepreneur, author, and independent journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is founder and president of the Nazione Futura magazine and foundation.