In Depth

Will Italy leave the EU after coronavirus?

The country’s relationship with the bloc has been strained to breaking point by the pandemic

Italy has felt the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, with almost 290,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths. And now, as the country tries return to some semblance of normality, a new threat to the status quo is emerging. 

Italians have been losing faith in the EU since their nation became the front line of the European migrant crisis in 2015, with Eurosceptic parties gaining significant ground in recent elections.

But the final straw for many voters may be the perceived failure by the EU to help Rome at the height of the health crisis, with some commentators claiming that Brussels’ response amounted to no less than an “abandonment” of Italy.

How hard was Italy was hit by Covid?

Italy was the first country in Europe to enact widespread restrictions on its citizens in response to the global pandemic, after the nation’s healthcare service was overwhelmed by outbreaks in the north.

In what the GZero Media news site describes as a “horror story”, Italians hospitals were overrun and doctors “forced to make gut-wrenching decisions about who lives and dies”.

During the peak of the crisis, in March, army vehicles were brought in to move dozens of coffins from the northern city of Bergamo to other regions, after morgues and crematoriums became overwhelmed, as Sky News reported at the time.

The economic ramifications were also acute.

Prior to the pandemic, Italy already had the second-highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the EU, behind Greece. But as Covid-19 took its financial toll, Italy’s GDP plummeted by 17.3% in the second quarter of the year, following a drop of 5.4% in the first, City A.M. reports.

Did the EU help?

The Italian ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, wrote an article in Politico in March calling for assistance from the bloc in helping his country tackle three major problems in the battle against the virus.

“To begin with, we must ensure, under EU coordination, the supply of the necessary medical equipment and its redistribution among those countries and regions most in need,” he wrote. “Today, this means Italy; tomorrow, the need could be elsewhere.”

Massari also said it was “crucial” that the EU adopt a “common approach to detecting and reporting coronavirus cases, with common guidelines for the entire bloc”, in order to “ensure equity and transparency”.

Finally, Brussels needed to offer “vision and courageous economic measures” to help mitigate the devastating effect of the pandemic on member states’ economies.

“Rome should not be left to handle this crisis alone,” Massari wrote. “This is a crisis that requires a global and - first and foremost - a European response.”

But despite asking other member states for assistance in providing personal protective equipment (PPE), Italy was met with near-total “silence”, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

The failure of the EU to supply much-needed medical equipment led the government in Rome to seek aid from China. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio subsequently hailed the arrival of a Chinese plane loaded with medical gear and doctors, “in what appeared to be a pointed rebuke to the EU”, according to Politico.

Critics say the EU also left Italy in the lurch from a financial perspective.

Italy was dealt a major blow when the bloc voted to reject Rome’s suggestion to introduce “coronabonds” - a form of EU-backed debt to lift member states out of a recession. In the wake of the vote, in April, The Guardian reported that the “Germans and the Dutch have consistently opposed the idea of debt mutualisation, despite the parlous state of Italy’s public finances”.

Italian perceptions of the bloc

The EU’s response to the pandemic has done little to bolster pro-Brussels sentiments in Italy, whch was already struggling with its identity as part of the EU27. In recent years, the country has seen a surge in support for anti-EU populist parties such as the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League.

In a survey of 1,000 Italians conducted in April, “42% of respondents said they would leave the EU, up from 26% in November 2018”, according to the BBC

Political analyst and poll expert Renato Mannheimer told Al Jazeera in July that the perceived “failure on the bloc’s part to respond quickly to the coronavirus pandemic” had “angered and disappointed the population”.

“We remain the country that trusts Brussels the least,” he added.

Mannheimer was speaking after Italian senator Gianluigi Paragone launched “Italexit”, another political party that aims to take Italy out of the EU. The launch came despite Rome having clinched a multibillion-euro coronavirus recovery fund deal with the bloc the same week.

This push to quit the bloc appears to have been fuelled, in part, by Brexit. in August, Euronews reported that among voters in the EU’s “Big Four” of Italy, Germany, France and Spain, polling had found that Italians were the “most in favour of leaving the EU in five years’ time if Brexit is seen to be benefiting the UK, with 45% either agreeing or strongly agreeing with the idea”.

However, the Euronews-Redfield and Wilton Strategies survey of 6,000 people across the four countries did provide “some crumbs of good news for the EU”, the site added. The percentage of Italians who said they would would vote to stay in the bloc “for the time being” was 43%, compared with 31% who would vote to leave.

Whether they will feel the same when the coronavirus crisis has runs its course remains to be seen.

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