Dr Felia Allum, Lecturer in Italian History and Politics, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Annarita Criscitiello (Università Federico II, Naples University, Italy)
Why should Italians care about the Brexit debate in the UK? After all, Italy and the UK are at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their relationship with the EU. As a letter co-signed by the countries’ Foreign Ministers, Paolo Gentiloni and Philip Hammond, at a meeting in December 2015, put it: ‘Italy and the UK have two fundamentally opposing ideas of Europe’. In contrast to the British vision of the EU, the main focus of which is business opportunities produced by the internal market, Italy’s perspective is unashamedly federalist, and deeply committed to building ‘an ever closer Union’ and creating 'a United States of Europe', particularly economically and institutionally. Thus, these are two very different visions, and two very contrasting approaches to Europe.
These differences can be explained by their distinct histories, geographies, institutions, and cultures. Italy was a founding member of the Common Market; indeed the establishing treaty was signed in Rome in 1957. Italy always saw in the European project, not only the opportunity for the rebuilding of its economy and infrastructure after its defeat in WWII, but also as a unique opportunity to regain political credibility after its fascist past and Mussolini’ s legacy. The UK, by contrast, joined the Common Market only in 1973. It had not initially been interested in joining in 1957 because it believed it was in a stronger position in its three spheres of influence (the Commonwealth, the US, and then Europe). Fifteen years later, it practically had to beg to be allowed to join, after De Gaulle had vetoed its first application in 1963.
These different starting points have greatly influenced their subsequent membership. It has been suggested that the Italians have always been the first to endorse decisions, but are rather slow at implementing them, whereas the British have been notorious for making complications but, once convinced, implementing decisions straight away. They also differ in relation to the development of Euroscepticism in their countries. Euroscepticism has in general dramatically increased over the last ten years, but especially since 2011 and the global economic crisis that put the whole of the European integration project into question, in particular in countries like the UK and Italy.
A Eurobarometer survey in 2013 highlighted the economic and cultural features of Euroscepticism in each member state. In the UK, citizens were uncertain about what the nation and individuals gained from EU membership, whereas Italians were much more concerned about what families could gain. We can thus say that the strong British attachment to its national identity means that its form of Euroscepticism is not only economic, but also cultural.
Should they stay or should they go?
The Brexit debate has not yet made an impact on Italian politics or the Italian public at large. When David Cameron returned triumphantly from Brussels with his reform package, which kicked off the unofficial referendum campaign, it did not even make the headlines in the Italian national press, which were paying tribute to the great writer, Umberto Eco, who had just passed away. It is not an exaggeration to say that, so far, there has been very little if any interest in the Brexit debate and its implications for Italy. This may change as the referendum date approaches, but what do Italians think at this stage?
Where there has been political discussion, it has been characterised by the traditional left versus right divide; or rather left, pro-Europeans versus right, populist Eurosceptics. This translates into the pro-Europeans wanting the UK to remain in the union, and the Eurosceptics wanting the UK to leave. These positions have been clearly articulated by various politicians who believe that the implications of the Brexit referendum would go well beyond London and Brussels. Marco Piantini, an EU official and advisor on European affairs to the current Renzi government, is clearly worried. He recently expressed the Italian left’s fear about a possible UK exit. He pointed out the significant role that the UK plays in the EU, and how a Europe without the UK would be a weaker, less globally consequential one. In particular, he argued that the UK’s exit would have a very negative impact on the EU because the UK represents a substantial market and the largest trading space in the EU. To take this space away would be to deprive other member states of an important slice of economic trade and activity. Culturally, the EU’s riches would also decline as the first international language would be outside the European family of languages. Thirdly, he argued that an EU without the UK would be a lesser political and diplomatic player. The EU, according to Piantini, would lose considerable international prestige and power without the UK’s voice, because the UK has always been a key international player, and has contributed substantially to the major political events of the 20th century, such as the defeat of fascism and the creation of the United Nations.
By contrast, some of the main representatives of the Italian right would welcome a UK exit. Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist and Eurosceptic Northern League, is hoping for a ‘yes’ vote because he believes that a UK exit would weaken the EU project and throw its whole future into doubt, thus halting possible further European integration in its tracks. Representatives of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, such as Renato Brunetta, have argued that the EU’s poor management of the immigration crisis and the threat of terrorism means that reasons for Brexit have been reinforced and, if the UK were to leave, it would be the end of the EU.
So far, the Brexit question has largely been a non-event for the Italian political class, and where there has been an interest, it has become the traditional battle between Europeanists vs Eurosceptics, federalists vs intergovernmentalists.
What does the Italian public think of Brexit?
Euroscepticism now exists in both countries, regardless of their pro-European governments. Public opinion polls highlight that Italians and Brits have common fears and worries when it comes to European integration, which manifests itself as ‘Euroscepticism’. Two recent Italian public opinion polls (SWG and DEMOS & Pi ) confirm this. The SWG poll (co-commissioned by the British Embassy in Rome, and conducted on a sample of 2,000 citizens above the age of 18) concentrated on the reform package negotiated by Cameron in early 2016. As we know this package gave the UK a ‘special’ status: fewer welfare obligations to EU citizens and a veto on further integration. This agreement was considered by 39% of those interviewed to have been a real failure for the EU. In particular, they believed that the EU should have got more from the British government. Of this group, about 45% made up of those who voted for the Five Star Movement, a movement that in itself is characterised by Euroscepticism.
It is also interesting to note that 20% of those interviewed believed that it would be better if the UK left the EU. Among those who were in favour of a Brexit, 30% were Northern League supporters, while only 15% of those interviewed believed that the agreed package was a positive one.
When asked about the possible consequences of a two speed Europe and a possible Brexit, 42% believed that it would contribute to a weakening of the EU. Some 64% of these were left wing PD voters, and 57% right wing Forza Italia voters. 31% of those interviewed had a more catastrophic vision, believing that a two speed Europe would signal the end of the EU; the majority of these were Northern League voters (49%). Only 9% believed that a Brexit would reinforce the EU, while 18% had no opinion.
The poll conducted by DEMOS & Pi (carried out in February 2016 on a sample of 1,014 citizens above the age of 18) focused on the referendum itself. According to this poll, a slim majority (50.5%) believed that a Brexit would only have negative consequences. About one in ten (12%) believed that it would be a good thing for both the EU and the UK, and about 18% saw a negative impact for both sides. In particular, 15.3% believed that Brexit would produce a positive outcome for London and a negative one for Brussels. However, 19% of those polled thought that the UK’s Brexit would have no impact whatsoever.
How do these opinions translate into political affiliations? Those most worried about a Brexit are left wing PD voters with 73% believing it would provoke a negative outcome for all. But the majority of voters of all parties agreed that it would be negative: 44% of Northern League and Forza Italia voters and 39% of Five Star Movement voters. There was a clear division of opinion about whether Brexit would be a good thing for London (and not Brussels) varying from 14% of Forza Italia voters , 18% Northern League and 26% Five Star Movement, to 5% of PD voters.
Considering the possible impact that Brexit could have on EU institutions, the feeling that emerged is one of preoccupation and worry both for those who had a negative opinion of the EU, and those who were more positive. Indeed, the majority (63%) of those who have faith or a lot of faith in EU institutions predicted negative consequences, but so did those who had little or no faith in EU institutions (46%).
Will Brexit force Itexit?
These attitudes and reactions of Italians may still change during the official referendum campaign. Time will tell. The political scientist Ilvo Diamanti recently focused on the Brexit referendum debate in an article in the national daily La Repubblica and made some interesting comments. Although his article was about the use of referendums in representative democracies (Italy held a referendum on the 17th of April on how to access petrol in Italy), his arguments are more subtle. He argued that the Brexit referendum is not only a British affair, and stressed how the consequences will be felt across Europe. The main thrust of his argument, which has not yet really been heard in the UK, is that if the UK does leave the EU after the referendum on the 23rd of June, other countries where Euroscepticism is a growing phenomenon might also want to leave, and this might prove the end of the EU. ‘Who supports Brexit in Italy’, he writes ‘supports the end of the EU’.
He makes a more general point about the state of representative democracies and the widening gap that exists in all EU countries between politicians and voters: the growing crisis of representative democracy. One way of trying to curb this alienation is for politicians to use elements of direct democracy such as the referendum to make citizens feel more involved in politics. This is the path that Matteo Renzi has chosen: a referendum on constitutional reform will be held later this year. But if Britain votes to leave the EU, Renzi might find himself facing a referendum on the most substantial question that could be posed to Italian citizens: Itexit.
This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.