Whatever it takes: Italy and the Covid-19 crisis

Italy’s response to the virus is starting to reshape its politics.  

Programme Manager, ECFR Rome
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As an Italian, I’ve become used to rhetorical blows from European commentators, policymakers, and media outlets – and I know that more will come soon in this crisis. However, European Central Bank (ECB) President Christine Lagarde’s recent statement that “we are not here to close spreads” – which caused a sharp rise in Italian bond yields – was one the strongest slaps in the face Italy has received in recent years. Even if it was followed by the European Union’s clear declaration of support for Italy and other member states affected by Covid-19, the episode was reminiscent of the euro crisis. In 2012, with the spectre of disaster looming over them, Italians were caught up in the consequences of financial events largely beyond their control.

As though a chill had run down their collective spine, many Italians initially reacted to Lagarde’s statement with astonishment: how was it possible that, in such a serious crisis, the president of the ECB could speak in this way? Italy has never been so united as it was after Lagarde’s words, with the president, the prime minister, and the members of the ruling coalition – the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement – all condemning her statement.

Italians would have likely achieved such unity anyway, at a time when – after years of rising populism – they are finally living through the kind of rare scenario in which almost everyone focuses on political solidarity and their sense of responsibility to end the crisis. Nonetheless, the shift in public opinion is striking: according to polls conducted by news agency Dire on 12-13 March, 88 percent of Italians feel that Europe is failing to support Italy in the crisis, while only 4 percent believe that it is doing enough. And 67 percent of Italians regard EU membership as a disadvantage, up from 47 percent in November 2018. Emotions now play an especially important role in politics in Italy: Italians have not faced a crisis of this magnitude since the second world war, and they have political sensitivities that are largely different from those of many other EU citizens, especially those from the former communist bloc. Following the fall of fascism and the end of the occupation of their territory, Italians entered into a democracy without experiencing Soviet rule. The Poles I have spoken to in recent days see the adoption of restrictive measures as the natural thing to do for the common good. For Italians – as for the French, the British, the Belgians, and others more used to democracy – this is a relatively difficult concept to adapt to culturally.

Italians’ faith in sovereigntist parties appears to be crumbling along with their belief in the EU.

Intriguingly, Italians’ faith in sovereigntist parties appears to be crumbling along with their belief in the EU: Covid-19 is weakening Italy’s brand of populism. According to a poll taken on 10 March, support for the League is at 27 percent, down by 7.3 percentage points since the May 2019 European Parliament election. During this period, the Democratic Party has remained stable in the polls, moving from 22.7 percent to 22.5 percent; the Five Star Movement has dropped from 17.1 percent to 15.6 percent; and Forza Italia has fallen from 8.8 percent to 6.1 percent. Nonetheless – and somewhat confusingly, given the fate of the League – support for the nativist Brothers of Italy has risen from 6.5 percent to 13.4 percent.

The growing popularity of the Brothers of Italy could be due to three combined factors. Firstly, its leader, Giorgia Meloni, has taken on a more responsible and cautious public role than that of League leader Matteo Salvini. Secondly, most supporters of the Brothers of Italy are located in regions that have been relatively unaffected by Covid-19, such as Lazio. And, thirdly, the Brothers of Italy does not control any regional government, so cannot be accused of mismanaging the crisis.

The decline in support for the League could also be explained by three factors. Firstly, it governs two of the three regions that have been most affected by Covid-19: Lombardy and Veneto – which, as of 15 March, had 13,272 cases and 2,172 cases respectively. (The other region, Emilia Romagna, which has 3,093 cases, is governed by the Democratic Party.) These regions are the traditional engines of the Italian economy. And this may have been where League politicians made their biggest mistake: they underestimated the difficulty of controlling the virus. The emergency that League-governed regions have fallen into has had a deep socio-economic impact on voters and companies alike. This could be why Salvini has been unusually quiet in recent days.

Secondly, Salvini is neither a minister nor someone the media would ask to explain Italy’s strategy on Covid-19. His political megaphone has been confiscated by the Civil Protection Agency, the regional authorities, and the government.

Thirdly, there is a new political unity within the Italian government, which has just approved a €25 billion crisis response plan. Such unity, which comes from a widespread sense of obligation to act in the interests of the country, favours the ruling parties politically.

This is a very dangerous time for both Italy and Europe as a whole. After the financial crisis and the migration crisis, the emergency is a turning point for European politics. With European borders closing and EU member states protecting their national interests, the Italian experience holds important lessons for the rest of the continent. Italy has not only been dealing with Covid-19 for longer – at an estimated 10-12 days ahead of other EU countries in infection rates and emergency measures – but is deeper into the political effects of the crisis. Although it might seem strange in the context of its politics of recent years, Italy is on the right track in re-establishing political solidarity and putting aside domestic confrontation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Programme Manager, ECFR Rome

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