Where does Britain’s exit from the EU leave Italy?

Some 508 million EU citizens woke up on Friday morning to find their political landscape had changed forever, not least in Italy, where many people were left scratching their heads.

Where does Britain's exit from the EU leave Italy?
(L) Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip, which campaigned for Britain to leave the EU and (R) Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Photos: Geoff Caddick/Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Britain's 52-48 percent vote to leave the EU is the biggest blow the institution has sustained in its 70-year history, but where does it leave Italy? And how will it shape the country's future in the EU?

Is the stage set for an 'Italexit'?

“Contrary to popular belief, it has strengthened Italy's bond with the union,” Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor and president of Rome’s John Cabot University, told The Local.

Although polls earlier this year showed euroscepticism was on the rise across the country, Italy's second most popular party, the Five Star Movement (M5S), publicly backed the country's membership of the EU for the first time on Thursday, bringing an end to years of anti-European rhetoric.

In a post on his blog, the party's founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, stated his belief that Italy needed to “change the EU from within”.

“Italy has no intention of leaving the EU,” he wrote in the wake of the Brexit vote.

“We are one of the founding members of the union and [our party] would never have stood for European elections if we didn't believe in it.”

Grillo wrote that Brexit represented a “failure for the EU” but that his Five Star Movement would seek to create a European “community” instead of a “group of banks and lobbies”.

Grillo's turnaround makes an 'Italexit' look unlikely. 

“M5S's pro-European stance is highly significant, and means that at the moment the political climate in Italy would not support a referendum on EU membership,” Luca Marino, professor of European economics at Rome's Sapienza University, told The Local.

EU power politics

While it may have strengthened Italians' resolve to stay in the EU, a Brexit creates a political headache for Italy, which has lost its strongest political ally within the bloc.

“An Italy-Britain axis has in the past worked to counterbalance Franco-German dominance of the political agenda,” Pavoncello explained.

“Britain's loss can only strengthen German hegemony within the EU.”

The UK government now needs to thrash out the exact terms of its departure from the 28-country bloc, but experts say Italy will not be able to dictate those terms.

“The precise details of Brexit will be negotiated by the EU as a whole,” Marini said.

“While Italy will have a say in what those eventual terms are, it won't be able to make any specific demands of the UK.”

Bad news for Italian youngsters

The segment of Italian society hardest hit by Brexit will undoubtedly be young Italians, who head to the UK in their thousands each year to work and study.

Italy's low wages and sluggish job market often sees graduates' skills wasted on menial jobs, but for years these skills have been put to good use in UK companies.

“Fees for Italian students at UK universities more than double, and stricter border controls will see many young Italians heading to different countries to find work,” Pavoncello said.

The economy

As Brexit was confirmed on Friday, global markets responded by spiraling into chaos, with the pound hitting a 31-year low.

Although the immediate effects were stark and predictable, what Italy can expect in the long-term is largely unknown.

“Italy's economy won't be affected any more or less that any other EU member state countries and it's hard to say what will happen,” Pavoncello explained.

“Italy exports a lot of food and high-grade electronic parts to the UK, so if any areas of the economy are to suffer in particular, it will probably be these,” he added, reaffirming fears issued by Italian wine makers earlier this week.

But not everyone was convinced the referendum would bring doom and gloom to the Italian economy.

“I think the possible economic effects of Brexit have been over-stated to the point where hysteria has set in,” Marino said

“I expect the long-term effects to the Italian economy will be negligible, but either way, we're soon going to find out.”  

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.