1. Euroscepticism and European Parliament elections

EP2014 election campaign: crisis, corruption and other domestic issues

In Italy, the cam­paign for the Euro­pean elec­tions was large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by nation­al top­ics. The dif­fi­cult eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion of the coun­try was at the fore­front of the debate. In ear­ly May, news about ris­ing youth unem­ploy­ment (up to 42.7 per­cent) and a fur­ther 0.1 per­cent con­trac­tion of the GDP for the first quar­ter of 2014 con­tributed to focus dis­cus­sions on the eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Dur­ing the cam­paign, Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Ren­zi announced an 80-Euro-a-month tax cut for low-paid work­ers (earn­ing less than 1,500 Euros a month), which became his key elec­toral promise and a cen­tral top­ic in the whole polit­i­cal debate.

Beppe Gril­lo, the leader of the main oppo­si­tion par­ty Five Star Move­ment, dis­missed Renzi’s 80-Euro tax cut as use­less char­i­ty and blamed both the cen­tre-left and the cen­tre-right polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment for the eco­nom­ic cri­sis. He par­tic­u­lar­ly stressed the prob­lems of cor­rup­tion, youth unem­ploy­ment and the flight of busi­ness­es from Italy. Gril­lo also reit­er­at­ed his pro­pos­al for a 1,000-Euro guar­an­teed min­i­mum income based on cit­i­zen­ship, which he had already pre­sent­ed pri­or to the nation­al par­lia­men­tary elec­tions of Feb­ru­ary 2013. The cam­paign of the third-largest par­ty, Sil­vio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, focused pri­mar­i­ly on the alleged injus­tice suf­fered by the par­ty leader (who was banned from run­ning in the elec­tion due to tax fraud and sen­tenced to do com­mu­ni­ty work) and on gen­er­al crit­i­cism of Germany’s poli­cies in Europe.

With the notable excep­tion of eco­nom­ic poli­cies and the com­mon cur­ren­cy, Euro­pean top­ics played a mar­gin­al role in the cam­paign. Apart from left-wing can­di­date Alex­is Tsipras (whose name was promi­nent in the sym­bol of the list sup­port­ing him in Italy, “The oth­er Europe with Tsipras”), EU-wide fron­trun­ners were rarely men­tioned and their final debate was not broad­cast on main­stream TV chan­nels. All par­ties expressed a gener­ic wish for a “dif­fer­ent”, “demo­c­ra­t­ic”, “less Ger­man” Europe, more focused on growth and less on aus­ter­i­ty. How­ev­er, hard­ly any par­ties or lead­ers went beyond these vague state­ments and attempt­ed to explain which con­crete poli­cies would have to be adopt­ed in order to imple­ment their pro­grammes at the EU lev­el.


Euroscepticism: a divided country

Euroscep­ti­cism was on the rise and played an impor­tant role in the elec­toral cam­paign. Ital­ians were deeply split in their atti­tude to the EU and the Euro: one third expressed pos­i­tive views about the com­mon cur­ren­cy, one third was very crit­i­cal of it and anoth­er third pas­sive­ly accept­ed its exis­tence, with­out any par­tic­u­lar feel­ings. Far-right par­ties, notably the rad­i­cal euroscep­tic North­ern League, blamed the Euro for the eco­nom­ic cri­sis and overt­ly cam­paigned for a return to the nation­al cur­ren­cy. Forza Italia was also very crit­i­cal of the Euro, while the Five Star Move­ment called for a ref­er­en­dum on the con­tin­u­a­tion of Italy’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­zone, with­out how­ev­er express­ing a clear posi­tion on the issue.

While admit­ting prob­lems in the cur­rent struc­ture of the com­mon cur­ren­cy, cen­tre-left and left par­ties had a more pos­i­tive atti­tude towards the Euro and argued that the return to nation­al cur­ren­cies was not a real­is­tic option. While the cen­tre-left advo­cat­ed mod­er­ate changes in the cur­rent mon­e­tary and fis­cal pol­i­cy, the Tsipras list expressed stronger crit­i­cism regard­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er in the hands of the “big cap­i­tal” and the ECB pol­i­cy of lend­ing mon­ey to pri­vate banks only. Fur­ther­more, at the offi­cial lev­el dis­con­tent was voiced vis-à-vis the EU’s alleged fail­ure to assist Italy to cope with the influx of migrants from North Africa.


Victory of the centre-left and declining turnout

The results of the Euro­pean elec­tions in Italy showed a clear vic­to­ry of Renzi’s cen­tre-left Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty with near­ly 41 per­cent of the votes. Although pre-elec­tion sur­veys showed that it had near­ly closed the gap in votes with Renzi’s par­ty, the Five Star Move­ment trailed far behind, at 21.2 per­cent. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia only got 16.8 per­cent of the votes, a his­toric low for the par­ty. North­ern League (6.2 per­cent), Renzi’s junior coali­tion part­ner New Cen­tre-Right (4.4 per­cent) and the Tsipras list (4 per­cent) also man­aged to over­come the 4 per­cent thresh­old and elect MEPs.

Sev­er­al fac­tors explain the vic­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Ren­zi suc­cess­ful­ly ral­lied tra­di­tion­al cen­tre-left vot­ers, where­as many for­mer Five Star Move­ment and Forza Italia vot­ers did not go to the polls. The decline in votes for Grillo’s par­ty may be explained by its refusal to make alliances in the nation­al par­lia­ment, which ulti­mate­ly pre­vent­ed it from play­ing a role in key deci­sions. Most like­ly, the poor result of Forza Italia is linked to the loss of pop­u­lar­i­ty of its age­ing leader. The analy­ses of the Isti­tu­to Cat­ta­neo and of the pub­lic research com­pa­ny Ipsos stress that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty also received the sup­port of cen­trist vot­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that had opt­ed for Mario Monti’s Civic Choice at the Feb­ru­ary 2013 nation­al elec­tions. Grillo’s harsh rhetoric alien­at­ed senior vot­ers; sup­port for the Five Star Move­ment was well below 10 per­cent among peo­ple over 65 and pen­sion­ers. How­ev­er, the Move­ment was the pre­ferred par­ty of most unem­ployed and self-employed peo­ple; inci­den­tal­ly, these are the cat­e­gories that will not ben­e­fit from Renzi’s promised 80-Euro tax cut.

Although the turnout (at 58.6 per­cent) was con­sid­er­ably high­er than the Euro­pean aver­age, it declined by 8 per­cent com­pared to the 2009 Euro­pean elec­tions and was much low­er than in the 2013 nation­al elec­tions (when it reached 75 per­cent). This sug­gests a note of cau­tion con­cern­ing the vic­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty: if the Five Star Move­ment and Forza Italia man­age to recov­er the sup­port of their for­mer vot­ers (who sim­ply did not go to the polls last May), they may reduce the cur­rent gap with Renzi’s par­ty. This may hap­pen par­tic­u­lar­ly in nation­al elec­tions, where turnout is tra­di­tion­al­ly high­er.


2. The EU’s Neighbourhood

“Russia must remain a partner of the EU”

Italy joined oth­er EU mem­ber states in con­demn­ing Russia’s mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Ukraine and annex­a­tion of Crimea in March 2014. How­ev­er, the Ital­ian for­eign min­istry remained favourable to dia­logue with Moscow and advo­cat­ed a diplo­mat­ic res­o­lu­tion of the cri­sis. For­eign Min­is­ter Fed­er­i­ca Mogheri­ni was par­tic­u­lar­ly vocal in her sup­port of the Gene­va agree­ments of 17 April con­cern­ing Ukraine. She also argued that the OSCE, where Rus­sia has full mem­ber­ship, could play a role in medi­at­ing the cri­sis.

In Italy, the pre­vail­ing view at the offi­cial lev­el is that the tur­moil in Ukraine should not per­ma­nent­ly dis­rupt either Italy-Rus­sia or EU-Rus­sia rela­tions. This emerges clear­ly with­in the con­text of ener­gy rela­tions. Despite the Euro­pean Commission’s antag­o­nism, Italy has con­tin­ued to sup­port the South Stream pipeline, which will trans­port Russ­ian gas to the EU via the Black Sea and the Balka­ns (there­by bypass­ing Ukraine). In late May 2014, Ren­zi and Bul­gar­i­an Prime Min­is­ter Pla­men Ore­shars­ki joint­ly stressed the strate­gic val­ue of South Stream. Min­is­ter for Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Fed­er­i­ca Gui­di also empha­sised the strate­gic nature of the pipeline and stat­ed that she will lob­by for its approval with­in the Euro­pean Union.

With­in this con­text, it is essen­tial to high­light the impor­tance of eco­nom­ic rela­tions between Italy and Rus­sia, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ener­gy sec­tor. Ital­ian ener­gy giant ENI has a joint ven­ture and a 2‑billion con­tract with Russia’s Gazprom for the con­struc­tion of the off­shore sec­tion of South Stream in the Black Sea. ENI’s plans match the Ital­ian government’s declared aim of turn­ing Italy into a hub for EU gas imports from both Rus­sia and North Africa.


Relations with Eastern Partnership countries

While the cri­sis in Ukraine drew the atten­tion of Ital­ian offi­cials and pub­lic opin­ion towards the East­ern neigh­bour­hood, Rus­sia still ranks high­er than East­ern Part­ner­ship coun­tries in Italy’s list of pri­or­i­ties. At the diplo­mat­ic lev­el, Italy aligns itself with NATO and EU posi­tions on the East­ern neigh­bour­hood, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly advo­cat­ing dia­logue with Rus­sia. How­ev­er, deep-root­ed inter­ests push Rome to main­tain pref­er­en­tial rela­tions with Moscow in the eco­nom­ic field.

In spite of this, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Enri­co Let­ta par­tic­i­pat­ed in the East­ern Part­ner­ship sum­mit in Vil­nius last Novem­ber, express­ing the wish to finalise the EU’s asso­ci­a­tion agree­ments with Moldo­va and Geor­gia dur­ing the Ital­ian Pres­i­den­cy of the Union. In its pro­gramme con­cern­ing Italy’s poli­cies in the EU for 2014, the gov­ern­ment reit­er­ates its com­mit­ment to bring­ing for­ward these agree­ments, but only towards the end of a long list of for­eign pol­i­cy objec­tives.


Continued support for Turkey’s EU bid

Italy con­tin­ues to be a staunch sup­port­er of Turkey’s EU bid. This sup­port is large­ly con­sen­su­al, with the notable excep­tion of the North­ern League. In past years, Ital­ian gov­ern­ments have con­sis­tent­ly pushed for a revi­tal­i­sa­tion of the stalling acces­sion nego­ti­a­tions. In spring 2013, an urban devel­op­ment plan for the Gezi Park on Tak­sim Square trig­gered a wave of pro-demo­c­ra­t­ic protests, which the Turk­ish police force­ful­ly repressed. The events high­light­ed impor­tant short­com­ings in Turkey’s democ­ra­ti­sa­tion process. Italy’s for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter Emma Boni­no described the protests as a “first seri­ous test to the sound­ness of Turkey’s democ­ra­cy and its Euro­pean acces­sion process” and as a “grad­u­a­tion exam” for the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment. But despite crit­i­cism for the government’s dis­pro­por­tion­ate reac­tion, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Let­ta called for the re-launch of acces­sion talks, includ­ing the open­ing of chap­ters 23 (judi­cia­ry and fun­da­men­tal rights) and 24 (jus­tice, free­dom and secu­ri­ty).

The Ital­ian EU Pres­i­den­cy in the sec­ond semes­ter of 2014 pro­vides a new plat­form of sup­port for Turk­ish EU acces­sion. Aware of this oppor­tu­ni­ty, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Abdul­lah Gül paid an offi­cial vis­it to Italy in Jan­u­ary 2014. His Ital­ian counter-part, Gior­gio Napoli­tano, assured him of rein­forced sup­port dur­ing the Pres­i­den­cy despite “com­plex and thorny issues” such as Cyprus (ansa). In Feb­ru­ary 2014, Italy’s Ambas­sador to Turkey said that the Pres­i­den­cy would attempt to elim­i­nate con­tra­dic­to­ry opin­ions in South­ern Europe and with­in Italy.

While sup­port for Turkey’s EU bid remains high among polit­i­cal elites, the eco­nom­ic and debt crises pro­pelled a rather inward-look­ing per­spec­tive among the pub­lic. Turkey’s Eu acces­sion was not promi­nent in Italy’s pub­lic debate mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to assess the public’s stand­point. How­ev­er, Euro­barom­e­ter polls show that pop­u­lar oppo­si­tion to EU enlarge­ment has increased by 22 per­cent (as com­pared to an EU aver­age of 13 per­cent) between 2008 and 2013 (in Sol­er i Lecha). With par­ties stress­ing direct democ­ra­cy such as the Five Star Move­ment on the rise, demands for more pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion in deci­sions on EU enlarge­ment might be forth­com­ing.



3. Power relations in the EU

Germany – between scapegoat and model

Dur­ing the Euro cri­sis, Germany’s role in Europe has tak­en a promi­nent place in Italy’s domes­tic polit­i­cal debate. Berlin’s insis­tence on aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures fuelled a grow­ing anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment and Ital­ian politi­cians used Ger­many as a scape­goat for eco­nom­ic hard­ship. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Berlus­coni blamed Berlin for impos­ing a course of aus­ter­i­ty that risked plung­ing Italy into a vicious cir­cle of reces­sion. More mod­er­ate in their com­ments, his suc­ces­sors Mon­ti and Let­ta insist­ed on the need to com­ple­ment aus­ter­i­ty with growth mea­sures. They warned of mutu­al prej­u­dices depict­ing Ital­ians as “lazy” and Ger­mans as “self­ish” and sug­gest­ed that these could lead to a “psy­cho­log­i­cal break-up of Europe” (Mon­ti 2012).

The grow­ing anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment was root­ed in pop­u­lar dis­con­tent with the strict aus­ter­i­ty course. While 67 per­cent of polled Ital­ians had a gen­er­al­ly pos­i­tive atti­tude towards Ger­many in 2012, 63 per­cent dis­ap­proved of Angela Merkel’s Euro cri­sis man­age­ment and 74 per­cent viewed Ger­many as a threat to the Ital­ian econ­o­my. A major­i­ty of 80 per­cent con­sid­ered that Germany’s influ­ence in Europe had grown over the past five years and 60 per­cent there­of viewed this devel­op­ment neg­a­tive­ly. Vot­ers of the cen­tre-right and of the Five Star Move­ment were par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about Germany’s grow­ing influ­ence (Basile and Olmas­troni).

Anti-Ger­man rhetoric was also promi­nent in cam­paigns for the 2014 Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions. Berlus­coni and Gril­lo slurred on Germany’s Nazi past and open­ly blamed it for the reces­sion. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia cam­paigned with a poster, trans­lat­ing as: “More Italy, Less Ger­many. Aus­ter­i­ty imposed by Ger­many brought us to reces­sion. We have to change!” Prime Min­is­ter Ren­zi, who’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty emerged vic­to­ri­ous from the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions, dis­missed the anti-Ger­man slo­gans as “vul­gar and inel­e­gant”. After the elec­tions, he praised Ger­many as a mod­el for reform, but demand­ed a stronger focus on growth and employ­ment (AFP/fl).


A middle path between austerity and growth

Since 2012, Italy has clear­ly posi­tioned itself in favour of growth. The shift away from aus­ter­i­ty began under the Mon­ti gov­ern­ment and was pur­sued by his suc­ces­sor. Let­ta was also a fer­vent pro­po­nent of the ‘Youth Guar­an­tee’, a Euro­pean Com­mis­sion scheme, aimed to ensure that every per­son under 25 would receive a job or train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty with­in four months of leav­ing edu­ca­tion or employ­ment. The Mon­ti and Let­ta gov­ern­ments had man­aged to keep the bud­get deficit under the Union’s 3 per­cent mark in 2012 and 2013. How­ev­er, Italy’s youth unem­ploy­ment rate con­tin­ued to rise, pass­ing 43 per­cent in April 2014. In addi­tion, Italy suf­fered from neg­a­tive-to-zero growth rates and its pub­lic debt rose dra­mat­i­cal­ly.

The population’s trust in EU insti­tu­tions declined while pop­ulist euroscep­ti­cism was on the rise. The most influ­en­tial pro­po­nents there­of were Forza Italia and the Five Star Move­ment. The for­mer called for an end to aus­ter­i­ty, a revi­sion of the Fis­cal Com­pact, the intro­duc­tion of Eurobonds, and a debate on the util­i­ty of the Euro. These demands were strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those of Grillo’s par­ty, which went a step fur­ther and demand­ed a pop­u­lar ref­er­en­dum to decide whether to stay in the Euro. The cen­tre-left was in favour of remain­ing in the Euro and was more inclined to accept the EU’s bud­get rules, on the con­di­tion that they be com­ple­ment­ed with growth mea­sures.

The record vic­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty at the Euro­pean elec­tions can be seen as a sign of back­ing for Renzi’s mid­dle course between fis­cal bal­ance and growth. The Ren­zi gov­ern­ment sees the upcom­ing EU Pres­i­den­cy as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to place growth and employ­ment at the cen­tre of Europe’s polit­i­cal agen­da. The Prime Min­is­ter announced that he would push for a ‘bud­get flex­i­bil­i­ty pact’ to grant more lee­way on bud­get rules in exchange for deci­sive struc­tur­al reforms (Reuters). Pro­posed mea­sures to fos­ter growth include new finan­cial instru­ments to lever­age funds from the Euro­pean Invest­ment Bank, a revival of the Europe 2020 strat­e­gy, and a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Invest­ment Part­ner­ship (MacKen­zie & Jones).


Opponents and allies of the ‘Brexit’

The Let­ta and Ren­zi gov­ern­ments have expressed their dis­con­tent with the UK ref­er­en­dum plans. After an encounter with Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron in July 2013, Let­ta under­lined the risks asso­ci­at­ed with a poten­tial ‘Brex­it’. He told the press that an EU with­out the UK would be “less lib­er­al, less inno­v­a­tive, less pro-open mar­ket, less pro-sin­gle mar­ket, less of a glob­al play­er in the world” (EU Busi­ness 2013). He argued that Euro­pean nations should work towards keep­ing the UK on board, even if that meant reforms and poten­tial treaty change towards a more flex­i­ble EU.

Dur­ing his first offi­cial vis­it to Lon­don, Ren­zi called the UK’s EU mem­ber­ship „absolute­ly fun­da­men­tal“ (in Reuters). He point­ed towards sim­i­lar­i­ties with Cameron, notably his eager­ness to reform Europe and its cum­ber­some bureau­cra­cy. How­ev­er, Ren­zi also sig­nalled that treaty change was not at the top of his agen­da: “We have a lot of time to dis­cuss [] but, in this moment, I believe that, absolute­ly cru­cial for Italy, is the pres­ence of UK in Europe. Not only for the past of the UK, but for the future of Europe” (Gov.Uk).

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Italy’s euroscep­tic par­ties had a more pos­i­tive atti­tude on a poten­tial UK exit. The idea of a British ref­er­en­dum chimed with the pro­posed vote on Italy’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­zone. Short­ly after his sweep­ing vic­to­ry in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions, Gril­lo met with Nigel Farage from the UK Inde­pen­dence Par­ty to dis­cuss a poten­tial alliance with­in the Europe of Free­dom and Democ­ra­cy group. Gril­lo was quot­ed, say­ing: “We’re rebels with a cause, and we shall whis­tle as we march” (in The Local). Although the two par­ties are unit­ed on the euroscep­tic front, the fact that Gril­lo also approached the Euro­pean Greens high­lights the ide­o­log­i­cal gulf between them (EurAc­tiv). The Greens reject­ed the offer of coop­er­a­tion, unless Gril­lo clear­ly exclud­ed an alliance with UKIP. Even­tu­al­ly, Farage and Gril­lo joined forces, a deal that rather rep­re­sents a ‘mar­riage of con­ve­nience’ than a sol­id ide­o­log­i­cal alliance. Nonethe­less, UKIP’s leader announced: “We are a dream team for democ­ra­cy and a night­mare for Brus­sels” (Spiegel online).


This sur­vey was con­duct­ed on the basis of a ques­tion­naire that has been elab­o­rat­ed in March 2014. Most of the reports were deliv­ered in June 2014. This issue and all pre­vi­ous issues are avail­able on the EU-28 Watch web­site:

The EU-28 Watch No. 10 receives sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing from the Otto Wolff-Foun­da­tion, Cologne, in the frame­work of the ‘Dia­log Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and finan­cial sup­port from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is not respon­si­ble for any use that may be made of the infor­ma­tion con­tained there­in.