Following the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 migration crisis, covid-19 presents Italy with an extraordinary new stress test. The economic effects of the coronavirus are almost as unpredictable as the initial health emergency. Since the pandemic started, Italy has faced challenges created by a lack of coordination in medical supply chains; the absence of a common EU health policy; border closures that have disrupted trade; and Russian and Chinese interference in the European debate on covid-19. As the European Commission pointed out on 10 June: “the COVID-19 (‘Coronavirus’) pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented ‘infodemic’ … foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU.”
This “infodemic”, combined with the European Union’s initially guarded communication strategy, has led to a remarkable situation in some EU countries, particularly Italy. Before covid-19, Italy was repositioning itself at the political centre of Europe, between Germany and France. But the onset of the pandemic brought about a shift within both Italian institutions and public opinion. At the behest of the Five Star Movement – one of two parties in the ruling coalition – the Italian government chose China and Russia as its main crisis management partners. As a result, Italy’s public and political debate focused on Chinese mask diplomacy far more than the EU solidarity measures. In this way, Italy put itself in at the centre of a game of narratives that is dangerous for Europe. Fearful of the unprecedented and unpredictable national emergency they found themselves in, Italian citizens looked to China as a source of fast, easy support that would help them to make it through the early stages of the crisis.
However, as the European Council on Foreign Relations’ new European Solidarity Tracker shows, Italy has been among the top beneficiaries of pan-European support from citizens, institutions, and governments. The tracker reveals two features of the Italian case that have especially significant implications for the country’s traditional positions vis-à-vis its European partners. Firstly, Italy received important medical aid from smaller member states that are not usually among its closest allies, such as Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia. For example, Denmark donated €1m to the Italian Red Cross, while Estonia donated €100,000 and 30,000 masks to Italy.
Secondly, Italy received medical support from member states whose views on the EU recovery fund are very different from its own. These include members of the Visegrád group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – and fiscally conservative countries such as Sweden and Austria. Italy received 110,000 protective masks and 10,000 protective suits from the Czech Republic; Austrian hospitals treated several Italian patients in intensive care; and Polish medical personnel joined Italian doctors in Brescia and Rome, while Poland supplied Italy with 21,000 litres of disinfectant. Interestingly, member states implemented all these measures through EU or NATO instruments such as the Civil Protection Mechanism or the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre – as part of a coordinated and multilayered crisis response.
These invaluable displays of solidarity received very little media coverage in Italy, whose public debate remained dominated by the country’s relationships with China and Russia. While there was a lively public debate around the Italian government’s delayed and inadequate reaction to alleged threats against a La Stampa journalist from the Russian Ministry of Defence, cooperation between EU member states received only limited attention. China (which, prior to the onset of the pandemic, accounted for almost 50 percent of global mask production) was the first country to provide Italy with masks – 2.3 million of them. France, which is now also among the countries hit hardest by the virus, soon followed suit – providing Italy with 1m masks. Yet this second display of solidarity received far less attention than the first, due to the ways in which they were communicated to the Italian public.
This is partly because emotions have played an unusually prominent role in Italy during the pandemic. Greece was at the forefront of the 2008 financial crisis, while the narrative around the 2015 migration crisis was distorted by discussions around terrorism. By contrast, covid-19, the biggest emergency Italy has faced since the wave of domestic terrorist attacks it experienced in the 1960s and the 1970s (and perhaps since the end of the second world war), has affected Italians in a very personal way. Tragically, the virus has likely disrupted the lives of all Italians – medically, economically, or socially.
Italians are now looking away from China and back towards the EU and its member states as their main partners.
Many European citizens’ have shown support for Italians as they deal with covid-19, as seen in a widely circulated rendition of “Bella Ciao” – the anthem of Italian partisans who fought the fascist regime and Nazi occupation in the 1940s – by inhabitants of the German city of Bamberg. Such displays reflect the European solidarity that benefits Italy in everything from small gestures to big decisions by its traditional and non-traditional allies alike. These efforts seem to have affected public opinion: Italians are looking away from China and back towards the EU and its member states as their main partners: according to a poll published by SWG on 15 June, 41 percent of Italians say that Italy should strengthen its relations with other EU member states, followed by the US with 13 percent, Russia with 11 percent, and China with only 10 percent.
However, European leaders should try to learn from the surge in Italians’ appreciation for China in their darkest hour. If the EU and its member states are to avoid making the same mistakes that led to this shift, they will need to convert displays of solidarity into a political foundation for a European response to the challenges to come. The European Parliament election and the advent of a new European Commission in 2019 provided EU institutions with a mandate to tackle pressing challenges such as climate change. The covid-19 crisis has disrupted some of the EU’s ambitious plans in such areas, but it could give the bloc new incentives to take courageous decisions in extraordinary times – not least in supporting Italy as it regains a position at the centre of the European project.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.