A friend was in Venice the day after the Brexit referendum, and when a restaurant owner heard his English accent, she demanded a bottle of drink be sent to his table. “Bravo, Inghilterra!”
I’ve no doubt it was a cheap bottle (these are Venetians we’re talking about), but the point is that there are plenty of Eurosceptics on the continent — and the number of dissident Italians will likely grow since its latest political disaster. The surreal coalition of Lega and the Five Star Movement nominated a Euro-sceptic for the post of finance minister; the president refused to appoint him, on the grounds that any implicit threat to membership of the euro would damage the economy.
The irony is that any fresh election this triggers will explicitly be a referendum on, you guessed it, membership of the euro. British Eurosceptics are cock-a-hoop because they say the drama shows the EU is a mess and that Britain wasn’t just being idiosyncratically British when it voted to flounce off. This is all true, up to a point, but it’s useful to reflect upon three key differences between Britain and Italy.
First, Britain voted to Leave from a position of relative economic strength. We weighed up the pros and cons and concluded that we could probably do just as well, if not better, by going it alone. Italy, by contrast, is what economists call “a dog’s dinner”. It has high debt and high unemployment. One classic fix for the latter would be to devalue the currency and sell more stuff abroad, but Italy cannot do that because it’s in the euro.
That’s the second critical difference with the UK: when we voted to leave, we were already halfway out the door. Britain’s decision not to join the euro removed us from the continent’s direction of travel: economic and political integration. One begets the other. For a single currency to work, you need to harmonise fiscal policy — and for that to work, you need to limit the ability of national governments to do whatever they want. Any rebellion in Italy would thus be a far more important test of the EU’s durability than Brexit is because it would be a desperate act from right inside the heart of the European project.
Third, the economic and institutional tensions in Italy have contributed towards a political climate very different to our own.
Italy, by contrast, is a laboratory for populism, and has been for decades. You’ve got the anti-immigrant Lega, which has evolved from regionalism to nationalism, but also the near-anarchist Five-Star, a reminder that populism is found on the Left too (and can be just as radical or terrifying depending on your point of view).
This is what Britain and Italy do have in common: both have discovered that the EU can no longer meet the aspirations of the people. In fact, it exists to frustrate them. To repeat, for the EU to work, it has to place limits on what is possible, and that’s fine so long as its model — an internal free market with a strong single currency, protected by a tariff barrier — functions to everyone’s advantage. But just as many Britons came to feel overwhelmed by regulation and free movement, so many Italians now desire a restructuring of their economy that the EU cannot tolerate.
Brexit would be a breeze compared with Italy mounting a genuine fight against Europe’s central bankers. If Italy can leave the euro, or run a parallel currency, why can’t Greece or Spain? The loosening of that essential policy would represent a far graver crisis than whatever Britain, messing about at the periphery of Europe, might choose to do.
Britain and Italy are different in so many ways, but we are both rightly committed to the pursuit of national self-interest. Our people cannot be sacrificed on the altar of European integration for the sake of a project that increasingly looks time-limited. My suspicion is that in a hundred years, the demise or drastic reform of the EU will appear inevitable in retrospect. How could it ever have hoped to build a unitary state out of so many magnificently diverse and democratic nations?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Tim Stanley is an English blogger, journalist and historian.