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EUROPEAN UNION

Why has Italy turned Eurosceptic overnight?

Just days before the EU elections, a poll found that Italians are falling out of love with Europe. From immigration to the economy, not to mention their own politicians, The Local looks at the reasons behind Italians' growing Euroscepticism.

Why has Italy turned Eurosceptic overnight?
A survey released this week by the European Commission found that 69 percent of Italians tend not to trust the EU. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP

Silvana Cela studied law but, for lack of legal jobs in Italy, runs a jewellery stall in the heart of Rome. Like many people in the country, she has seen Italy grapple with the EU’s economic demands as the country clambers out of the worst recession since the Second World War.

The result is a poorer, pained and increasingly anti-EU population.

“Here there are no jobs – most people work ‘in the black’, without a contract,” Cela tells The Local. “The idea of Europe is to have a mini United States, but some countries are more powerful than others,” she says, a nod to Germany which is often viewed by Italians as the cruel older step-sister of the downtrodden Italy.

Next week Italians will join their fellow Europeans in heading to the polls, voting in the lawmakers who will represent them in EU politics for the next five years. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, anti-EU parties are proving popular and set to make gains in the elections next week.

While a rise in Euroscepticism is not a uniquely Italian phenomenon, the situation is markedly worse in Italy than in other European countries.

A survey released this week by the European Commission found that 69 percent of Italians tend not to trust the EU, a seven-point jump since November 2013 and the biggest negative change in Europe.

The figures were similarly sceptical when focusing on the EU’s main institutions, with mistrust in the Commission, European Parliament and European Central Bank up between 10 and 12 points among Italians in just six months.

For Cela, Italians have grown weary of the mismatched power balance and the failure of the EU to practise what it preaches.

“Laws, such as those for illegal immigrants, need to be equally applied to every country but they’re not,” she says. Her complaint echoes that of Interior Minister Angelino Alfano earlier this week, who said that Italy is unfairly bearing the burden of illegal immigration to Europe.

As put by Duncan McDonnell, a politics fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, “The idea that Italy has been abandoned by Europe to deal with problems has become common currency.”

Whereas Italians across the social spectrum may utter the same remark, McDonnell says that Euroscepticism in Italy is being fuelled by politicians.

“This is being pushed by political parties,” he says. “When parties put issues at the top of their agenda, that influences voters.”

While much has been made of the success of the Eurosceptic Five Star Movement (M5S) party, led by Beppe Grillo, McDonnell argues the source of anti-EU sentiment also lies in other political forces.

“The Five Star Movement’s position is significant to some degree, but the shift within Forza Italia has been particularly significant,” he says, pointing to the party led by Silvio Berlusconi which shifted to a staunchly anti-EU position ahead of national elections last year.

Diego Garzia, co-creator of the euandi application, which matches EU voters to political parties, agrees that Italian politicians are just “using Europe to blame for everything”.

“The political discourse is heavily shaped by being simply against Europe in very different shades…Berlusconi blaming the EU for supposedly kicking him out of government, Grillo because it’s easy,” Garzia says.

That’s not to say that Italians’ Euroscepticism is entirely the creation of Italian politicians – as Garzia explains, some of their complaints are valid and shared by citizens: “One of the main oppositions is that Europe should take care of its borders. The fact is that Europe is not patrolling its borders in a way that can challenge the [anti-EU] discourse.”

‘Euroscepticism is about the euro’

As the Italian economy continues to struggle – with gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014 – finances inevitably play a part in shaping public opinion.

After technocrat Mario Monti took over from Berlusconi in 2011, resigning little over a year later, McDonnell says there has been “a sense that a lot of cuts are being imposed from the outside, and that maybe they’re unnecessary.”

The euro currency has been transformed into a symbol of suffering and austerity, so much so that Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord) party has adopted “Basta €uro” (“Enough of the euro”) as its campaign slogan.

As Garzia summarizes: “The Euroscepticism of the south, including Italy, is mostly about the euro.”

But whereas Italy’s sluggish economy can go some way to explaining citizens’ disillusion with the EU, keeper of the euro coin, Garzia says that looking within Italy explains the increasing mistrust in European institutions.

“This must be read in the context of national politics…If you compare this data with trust in Italian institutions and democracy, they tend to go together,” he says.

Ninety-seven percent of Italians think that corruption is widespread in their country, a European Commission report released in February found, which often leads them to be suspicious of institutions and those who work within them.

READ MORE: Almost all Italians think corruption is rife

In Rome, just a stones’ throw from the Italian parliament, Cela describes the government as presiding over an “unstable state”.

“The problem is that the state itself needs to be reinforced,” she says, remarking that such Euroscepticism does not exist in politically stable countries. “Germany doesn’t have the same problems, because it’s a strong country.”

Italy’s disappointment with its own government has been transplanted onto the international stage, reflected in its disillusion with Europe. But despite the best efforts of Berlusconi, Grillo and others, Garzia believes that Italians’ anti-EU sentiment may not last much longer than the political campaigns.

“For so long, Italians have been extremely pro-Europe….I don’t think the political class will be able to turn Italians into anti-Europeans,” he says. 

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EUROPEAN UNION

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.

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