Italy and the EU in the times of COVID-19

How is the EU response to COVID-19 crisis perceived in Italy, also amid the discussion about European coronavirus bonds? Read few comments.

Alessandra MignolliProfessor of Human Rights and EU Policy, Sapienza University, Rome

I think there are two different perspectives to discuss the matter. The first one is European and institutional. Eurobonds are likely outside the scope of the competences of the ECB. So the Member States should unanimously decide to activate some other instrument in order to put in place a huge program of investments to address this crisis. Most likely, this could be done through the European Investment Bank. It should be a new Marshall Plan of huge investments and reconstruction of the European economy. But these are technical issues, that must be studied and solved after a political decision by the MS to deploy all the EU firepower against this crisis.

The problem is that the political decision lacks. The European Council was not able to take a clear commitment to a strong intervention. The article you sent me is significant. By the way, it is not the first time that this happens. Also in the past, MS tended to act alone in the face of a crisis. But this time we are dealing with a widespread sanitary crisis, and with the economic consequences thereof, not a financial or economic one. Here we have hundreds of persons dying every day, not only in Italy, as you know, but in all European countries. And the economic impact of the containment measures will be devastating for all. This is the moment to put in action the principle of solidarity that is engraved in the Treaties as the first of the fundamental values of the European construction. But this is not happening. Conte is right when he says that Europe is at a crossroads . The time has arrived for Europe to demonstrate that it exists, that it can and wants to take care of its citizens. As Jacques Delors said, the lack of solidarity is a mortal danger for the EU. The EU is called to put in place an effort of creativity, to figure out how to develop new and ambitious instruments to address this crisis all together. Let’s not forget that the EU was the outcome of an act of creativity in the first place. The risk it faces is of imploding under the impact of the pandemic on the MS, one after the other.

The second perspective is the public opinion, how the citizens perceive what’s going on in the EU institutions and how they respond in terms of confidence in the common institutions. And what they see is devastating. Consider people who are in self-isolation, or still go to work in essential services risking their health and their life. Consider people who every day count their dead, who see coffins being taken away at night in military trucks.  They (we) are distressed, scared, many families are also in deep economic problems. And what do they see? Christine Lagarde who babbles about the spread and the ECB that cannot solve the problem, German and other governments that block essential sanitary supplies from being delivered to Italy, MS that do not respond to the request for help from Italy but with an inexcusable delay. The Commission that with the same inexcusable delay reacts and puts in place finally a centralized system of supply for essential sanitary goods in a supposedly “internal single market”. And at the end, a European Council that is still discussing in terms of conditionality, as if the coronavirus were the fault of Italy or Spain and not a pandemic which is threatening all the world in exactly the same way.

So, as a reaction from the public, you hear and read about how self sufficient we can be, and you hear and read about Italexit. Citizens in Italy are deeply disappointed with the EU’s handling of the crisis and many, also in the political environment, might be tempted to suggest that we could be better off acting alone, printing our own currency and handling our own trade, maybe with the help of those who are helping now: China, and Russia, which, with Cuba and Albania, were the first to send significant medical aid. Do you understand how disrupting all this can be, especially in the hands of not so responsible political leaders like some of the Italian populists and nationalists?

I really hope that the EU leaders will finally grasp that what’s at stake here is not only some points of GDP, but the very existence of the EU as a political idea, as a social body, as a philosophy. I hope they will protect and defend the construction and the vision that was built after another devastating crisis, the war, and rebuild it on the basis of a new flame of unitary solidarity and of a wider vision of the common good. I hope they will understand that now more than ever there is the need for a new effort similar to that put in place by the founding fathers of European integration. In the interest of all, even of those who now think they are paying for others.

Lorenzo NannettiInternational Affairs Analyst

The discussion in Italy is, as usual, divided between the few who understand the technicalities and the many who don’t. For years populists have inflamed people with talks against EU (Germany and France mainly) and EU tools (“tools of Germany to hurt us!”). Therefore, Conte’s position is derived from the fact the ESM has been demonized (with lots of disinformation) in past years by part of his coalition (the 5-Star Movement, of which he’s the de facto current main figure), which would never accept it as a viable instrument. Opposition parties (Lega and Fratelli d’Italia especially) are part of this problem too.

Current public debate is therefore similar to almost any past debate on EU mechanisms, with a common theme of “EU doesn’t help us, China and Russia (and Cuba) do” and “Germany doesn’t want to help us”, especially among less-informed people. Even among pro-EU people there’s a general feeling that EU institutions should do more, therefore even if Coronabonds aren’t achieved, other tangible measures will be needed to show public opinion that help is coming. Sanchez is right: you can’t leave this to financial technicians who will likely give a politically unsatisfactory solution – no technician will create a politically unsanctioned solution: therefore it needs a political solution first, which shows EU public opinion that the Union works.


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