Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
That Italy has collapsed into a political crisis won’t surprise everyone. But the sense that the Italian President has vetoed the appointment of a candidate because they were too Eurosceptic is causing waves across the republic and beyond. Perhaps it shouldn’t, because not too long ago Silvio Berlusconi was forced from office with the reported backing of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, apparently because they felt he was becoming a threat to the Euro. This time the winners of the elections in March – the Five Star Movement and the League – were blocked from putting forward a Finance Minister because he refused to rule out any circumstance when he might back leaving the Euro.
Angry calls are growing in Italy that democracy itself is under-threat. Five Star want to see the President impeached for violating the Constitution. Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, has said that Italian sovereignty is limited (something that won’t surprise Brits used to groundhog debates here on Brexit). Salvini also complained that Berlin or Brussels were determining the Italian government, not Italians.
Of course it’s not quite the case that the Italian government is literally chosen by the EU. But Romano Prodi, a former Italian prime minister and ex-European Commission President, hardly helped dispel the idea of limits on Italian democracy when he insisted that EU and euro membership were irreversible conditions. It’s true that the Italian constitution prohibits referendums on questions of foreign policy. But is it really impossible for an Italian parliament and government to make a sovereign decision to leave the common currency or indeed the EU itself, if it – in extremis – wanted to do so? If the Lira was reversible, why shouldn’t the Euro be too?
After the Brexit referendum, I spent a long summer in Greece. One thing I heard time and again, when chatting with locals in the sleepy island backwater where my family live, was that Britain could leave the EU because we are a strong, powerful country. Greece couldn’t because it is trapped. That view was shared by local entrepreneurs and university-educated businessmen.
Driving from the port, the graffiti scrawled “oxi” – no – was a fading reminder of Greece’s referendum the year before. Then the country decisively voted to reject the bailout offered by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Nothing really changed. Greece’s No vote seemed to have no significant effect on the course taken by the Greek Prime Minister. His combative finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was forced to fall on his sword, again reportedly because of demands from the EU. That whole episode did little to foster confidence in Greek, or indeed European, democracy.
It’s terrifyingly common in Greece to hear idle comparisons drawn between Berlin (or Frankfurt’s) calling of the shots on European economic policy and the Nazi occupation of Greece. One of the sad ironies seems to be that – fairly or unfairly – the EU, despite its important strengths and achievements, hasn’t always been seen as a force uniting Europe and soothing conflict. It’s sometimes even seen precisely as the reverse, both because of the effects of the euro and, of course also, the decisions forced through in relation to the migration crisis.
It wouldn’t be fair to call the EU a conspiracy against democracy, but it does a pretty good job sometimes of looking like one. Some like to trumpet the successes of the European Parliament, but that was somewhat undermined when Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President, called it “ridiculous”. Despite an endless lamenting of the EU’s democratic deficit, there is little serious attempt to address it. There’s the general sense that it follows the rules unless and until it decides not to follow them. And, as David Cameron rightly observed, European integration only seems to work in one direction – it’s a ratchet with no reverse gear.
The British people saw this when the question of membership was put to them in 2016. They decided by a sizeable margin that – despite the many benefits of membership and the significant downsides of leaving (which were repeatedly highlighted during the campaign) – they wanted out. Some thought that this would be the last chance in a generation to say no to the whole project and all the accretions of power it had collected since membership was last put to the test in 1975. As if to confirm the very concerns about the EU and democracy which many had smelled, Leave voters were then widely dismissed as stupid, gullible, ill-educated and racist. Immediately a campaign began to over-turn the result.
When Britain voted Leave, some Italian friends saw in it – counter-intuitively perhaps – a chance to save Europe. They thought: now, finally, Brussels will listen. They will recognise they have gone too far. But they didn’t. If anything the reverse seems to have happened. Europe’s mainstream political and business elites have doubled down on Brussels. It sometimes seems compulsory for a European leader to take a pop at Britain before starting a speech or opining on Europe.
That might be changing now as Italy’s political landscape is reshaped by the earthquake of March’s elections and the fallout of the crisis still unfolding today. Although Five Star are not simply a Eurosceptic party, the League certainly are. And the recent battles will likely strengthen Italian euroscepticism. In yesterday’s Italian polls the League are growing in support, and chasing Five Star. The League are not yet a mainstream liberal party. They have morphed from a separatist party hoping to break away Italy’s northern states, to a national political force. It remains to be seen if Salvini can develop their appeal further, deal with their more outré views, and move them beyond protest politics.
One of the tragedies of contemporary continental European politics has been the absence of a serious liberal tradition of Euroscepticism, which would have checked the excesses of the EU project. It’s been seen sometimes – in the Netherlands, in France, and in Denmark for example – but it’s generally too rare and too often voiced by the political extremes.
In Britain, Euroscepticism has had a home in the political centre-ground, both on the left and the right. In contrast, in politics across the Channel, Europe is for many a religion. And with Brexit, Britain is seen to have desecrated the church. This is precisely the problem Britain is now facing in our exit negotiations. Europe’s political elite – politicians, businessmen and women, ambassadors and journalists – are practically united in not just opposing Brexit, but in almost seeing in it an act of sacrilege.