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Italy, Coronavirus and the European Union

BLOG - 19 March 2020

Italy is the country most affected by the spread of the coronavirus. At the time of writing this article, on March 18, there were more than 29,000 cases of infected people and more than 2,900 deaths. Once the epidemic is contained, the time will come for a global health assessment. It will also be necessary to understand the reasons behind this contagion and this real hecatomb. The plague that is ravaging the country, at least in its northern part at the moment, is exposing the contradictory behaviors and attitudes of the Italian population.

"Andrà tutto bene"

On the one hand, the cliché, so widespread in Italy and even more so outside of Italy, that Italians are one of the most undisciplined peoples in Europe has been shattered. Admittedly, with the announcement of the general and very severe confinement decreed by the President of the Council Giuseppe Conte on March 9, supermarkets were stormed and thousands of Milanese rushed to train stations and airports to seek refuge in other parts of the peninsula, thus risking contaminating other co-nationals. It is also true that the authorities are recording violations of the measures taken by the Government: for example, on March 16, there were 7,890 violations on national territory out of more than 172,000 checks, according to an article in La Repubblica dated March 17, with a high percentage of movements recorded in Lombardy. However, compared to what has been observed in France in recent days, all this seems relatively benign. On the other hand, the population seems to commune in a great spirit of national unity from north to south and through the islands.

The Italians, locked away in their homes and although physically far from each other, paradoxically double their social interactions, seeking by all means to rebuild a link between them.

A willingness to fight the virus has been clearly and voluntarily displayed: "andrà tutto bene", "everything is going to be alright", has become the slogan widely adopted and inscribed on the banners hung on the facades of buildings and houses. The Italians, locked away in their homes and although physically far from each other, paradoxically double their social interactions, seeking by all means to rebuild a link between them: they call each other on the telephone, write emails, exchange on social networks, sing in chorus from their balconies and windows at regular hours the national anthem, famous opera pieces or even the tunes of their favourite songwriters.

"We expect aid from the European Union, not obstacles."

But the more Italy becomes one unified nation, the further apart it moves from the European Union, which faces fierce criticism. Matteo Salvini castigated Christine Lagarde who, in a press conference on March 12, explained that the ECB did not need to worry about intervening to reduce the spreads. He criticized Germany and France for initially refusing to send protective masks to Italy. He denounced the selfishness and blindness of Brussels. Hence his comments on March 16, in an interview with the daily Libero, "less European Union, more regions". However, every time Salvini has attacked the Conte government, Italians have disavowed him because they consider that, for now, there is no room for domestic polemics. For his part, the President Sergio Mattarella, a convinced European, also intervened and, without quoting Mrs Lagarde, said on March 12, that "we expect aid from the European Union, not obstacles". These words are shared by all pro-Europeans in Italy, whatever their political affiliation.

In fact, the European Union has once again disappointed the Italians. This disappointment comes on top of the previous ones: the introduction of the euro  currency, which did not live up to the expectations of a majority of Italians, the financial and economic crisis of 2008 which had such a strong impact on the country, the migrant crisis during which Italy felt abandoned. All this explains the rise of a euroscepticism that has not been halted by the more recent decisions taken by the European Commission or the belated solidarity from Paris and Berlin.

Moreover, many Italians believe that the European Union is disintegrating before their eyes, with the suspension of the Schengen agreements and the impossibility of developing a coordinated health policy, with each nation state acting as it sees fit. This strengthens the populists’ call, from the very first days of the epidemic, for the closure of borders and national isolation. As a result, the image of the European Union is deteriorating dramatically. According to a Monitor Italia poll published on March 13, 88% of Italians believe that the European Union is not helping Italy in their fight against coronavirus. 67% consider that belonging to the EU is a disadvantage compared to 47% in November 2018, the date of the previous survey.

88% of Italians believe that the European Union is not helping Italy in their fight against coronavirus. 67% consider that belonging to the EU is a disadvantage compared to 47% in November 2018.

The coronavirus epidemic will therefore have a significant impact on the Italians’ relationship with the European Union. They were the most Europhile people over a quarter of a century ago. That is now a thing of the past.

 

Copyright: MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

 

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