Italy starts to question its EU love affair
Wed May 25, 2005
By Robin Pomeroy
ROME (Reuters) - Italians may never become "Eurosceptics" like many of their neighbours to the north, but their famous enthusiasm for the EU is being tested by a recession that some politicians want to blame on Brussels.
If Italy were to hold a referendum on the European Union's constitutional treaty, there would be no nail-biting fight for the vote as is happening in France as the May 29 poll approaches -- only 14 percent of Italians oppose it.
But as Italy slides into recession, the government has increasingly blamed EU budget restraints and the euro itself for being a major brake on the economy and public support for the euro recently dipped below the EU average.
"Eurosceptics" -- Europeans who either want to leave the EU or at least severely limit its powers -- have traditionally been a foreign concept in Italy. That may be changing.
"Euroscepticism has been absent in Italian politics for the last 30 years," said Lucia Quaglia, a politics expert at the University of Bristol. "Now it is increasing, although it's not strong compared to countries like the UK and Denmark."
While Italian papers resist the "bonkers Brussels bureaucrats" stories that British tabloids use to criticise the EU, their pages have increasingly been filled with politicians' concerns about the bloc's demands on Italy.
"We're pretty tired of all this bureaucracy," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in March after the European Commission refused to validate Italy's 2004 budget deficit figures.
"We are really determined to do battle over this because Europe's job should not be to create difficulties for member states, but precisely the opposite."
The economy is a sore point for Berlusconi who, having promised an economic miracle when he came to power in 2001, has presided over slow, stalled or, most recently, negative growth.
He has, in part, blamed the EU's single currency, as its rise in value against the dollar has squeezed exporters and cunning retailers used the changeover from the lira to the euro to over-charge consumers and depress demand.
PAYING THE COST
"Now we are paying the costs, with Italian families suffering an assault on their wallets and in many cases are in great difficulty," Berlusconi said in a recent newspaper interview.
Berlusconi stressed that he was not against the euro itself, but the way Italy had negotiated its entry -- under then Prime Minster Romano Prodi, the leader of the centre-left opposition who aims to unseat the tycoon at a general election next year.
"They did the euro badly," Berlusconi said. "We would also have entered the euro, but not at that exchange rate which was done by people who don't know how to negotiate."
With his criticism of the euro, Berlusconi may be tapping into a vein of popular opinion.
Popular Italian support for the euro recently hit its lowest level since the currency was created -- the last Eurobarometer poll put it at 62 percent, below EU average for the first time.
Consumer groups say prices have soared since the introduction of euro notes and coins in January 2002 in a way that has not been reflected in official figures.
"The euro has massacred consumers and cheered shopkeepers," said Carlo Rienzi, head of consumer group Codacons whose research suggests around 80 percent of Italians have reined in their spending since the euro was introduced.
But, Rienzi says, Italians -- who polls show trust EU institutions more than their own government -- will blame Italy's politicians, rather than the euro itself, for failing to ease in the new currency with measures to curb price hikes.
"The single currency is useful, but it needed to be introduced properly," he told Reuters. "The government should have intervened, but it's full of fools."
Rienzi said there was no widespread Euroscepticism, but a great deal of "euro-resignation", a feeling that the euro is here, prices appear to have gone up, but there is no going back.
BREAK WITH OLD EUROPE
Italy's tussles with Brussels are partly due to the fact that Berlusconi's arch rival Prodi was head of the EU's most powerful arm, the European Commission, until last year.
Berlusconi has made a great deal of standing up to Europe, for example by fighting for Italy to host the new Food Safety Agency in a famous battle when he accused rival Finland of knowing nothing about food.
His support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq distanced Italy from the other big countries of "old Europe", France and Germany, and showed he is interested in building a British-style "special relationship" with the United States, rather than letting Italian foreign policy follow the EU lead.
"He wants to stand up for what's perceived as the national interest," said Quaglia. "The idea of defending the national interest in Italy is very new."
But any temptation on the centre-right to criticise the EU and the euro for political gain, carries a high risk as most Italians are still very pro-EU and scepticism remains the preserve of the political fringes, particularly on the right.
Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League party in Berlusconi's government has called the EU "the Soviet Union of Europe" and "a nest of freemasons and communist bankers".
The anti-immigration League opposes further EU expansion, especially to Turkey which it sees as a threat to Europe's Christian roots. As justice minister, the League's Roberto Castelli led Italy's opposition to an EU-wide arrest warrant.
Moves by part of the centre-right towards Euroscepticism contrast sharply with the left's continued devotion to the EU.
Prodi's stint as Commission head -- despite what many people outside Italy considered a lacklustre performance -- has given him a statesman-like quality in the eyes of many Italians and he is sure to maintain Italy's traditional deference to the EU.
Only next year's election can truly judge whether Berlusconi's defence of Italy against Brussels or Prodi's more traditional pro-EU stance will be most popular with Italian voters.
© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.