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Italy’s Dangerous Slide Toward Euroskepticism

February 27, 2013

BOLOGNA, Italy — Since the beginning of the financial crisis in Europe, anti-Brussels sentiment has been on the rise from Britain to Hungary. These days, however, the European Union is losing ground not only among citizens of traditionally recalcitrant member countries but also, and more troublingly, among those that have historically been ardent supporters. The EU’s relations with Italy, for example, a founding member and the bloc’s fourth-largest economy — the eurozone’s third-largest — are on the rocks. Italians have historically been in favor of a strong Europe. But now, crushed by record-high taxes and sharp cuts in government spending, and persuaded by their politicians that bureaucrats in Brussels and Berlin are to blame for all of the country’s ills, they are turning into outspoken euroskeptics. Alarmingly, the elections of Feb. 24-25 threaten to accelerate this trend.

Two surveys released last year, one by the Washington-based Pew Research Center(.pdf) and one by the Italian polling firm ISPO (.pdf), chart this remarkable turnaround.

According to Pew, in 2012, 61 percent of Italians believed that integration among the 27 EU member countries had weakened the national economy — a 20 percent jump since 2009. Only 40 percent said that membership in the EU was a “good thing” for Italy, down from 47 percent three years earlier. And while 59 percent continued to rate the EU favorably, this represented a 19-point drop since 2007. The single currency got the worst grades, with only 30 percent of Italians viewing the euro in a positive light. A similar outlook is apparent in the ISPO study, according to which only 38 percent of Italians trusted the EU in 2012, a staggering 26 percent decline since 2005.

Italy’s financial balance sheet is in better shape than those of Greece and Spain. But Italian public debt is a worrisome 130 percent of GDP. Even worse, the national economy basically stopped growing more than a decade ago and has in fact been contracting for the past six consecutive quarters, most recently shrinking 0.9 percent in the final three months of 2012. Unemployment now stands at more than 11 percent — 36 percent among young people.

With less money in their pockets and increasing concern about the future, Italians are frustrated and easily angered by what they perceive as never-ending austerity imposed by Brussels and Berlin. However, according to Daniele Archibugi, research director at the Italian National Research Council, the phenomenon is not exclusive to Italy. “At a moment of crisis, people look for a scapegoat, and in many European countries they identified it in the EU,” he says. Yet, because of the Italian people’s profound distrust of their own national institutions, Archibugi believes that “the government in Rome is still blamed much more.” According to the Pew study, 84 percent of Italians do, in fact, seem to think precisely this way.

While Italians clearly have deeply rooted misgivings about their own government, the data also undeniably show that, like most Europeans who have felt the pinch of the crisis, their skepticism of the EU is rapidly intensifying. But what sets Italy apart might be the way that its national politicians have exploited popular discontent to their own benefit.

Originally published on the World Politics Review

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