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Europe Is Eroding from the South

Walter Russell Mead

Writing in the Financial Times, Tony Barber puts his finger on the pulse of Italian disenchantment with Brussels:

In a Eurobarometer poll published in December, 47 per cent called the euro “a bad thing” for their country and only 41 per cent “a good thing”.

This is the big difference with 25 years ago. Then, European integration seemed to most Italians to be the answer to failings that had plagued Italy since its 1861 unification. The north’s industrialists flourish thanks to their exporting prowess and connections with German supply chains. Experts at the central bank and finance ministry know the dangers of a eurozone exit to Italy, the EU and the global financial system.

But the long stagnation that has coincided with Italy’s eurozone membership makes many Italians see the euro as a straitjacket. Two factors intensify this frustration. First, the eurozone’s fiscal rules appear German in design, with no heed for Italian conditions. Pleas for less rigidity from governments in Rome fall on deaf ears in Berlin. This is not what Italy thought it was signing up for at the euro’s launch in 1999.

Second, Italians perceive a lack of EU solidarity over the refugee and migrant crisis in the Mediterranean — a crisis with no parallel in 1992.

The insight here is that people looking at the elections in Netherlands and France and finding hope for the future are looking at things wrong. The erosion of the European project isn’t happening yet in the north, which by and large benefits from the euro; It is the south where the twin impacts of slow growth and feckless migration policy are corroding once rock-solid support for the EU.

Italians used to look to Europe as a kind of savior: the Italian state was corrupt and inept, but Brussels would set a higher standard, and by loyal support for the EU, Italy could rise above its own problems. These days, the EU looks more like an anchor than a lifejacket, as a recent Italian poll bears out. Not only is the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement Italy’s most popular party, but the combined support for Five-Star, Lega Nord, and Forza Italia—all hostile to varying degrees to the current euro project and to the German vision behind it—totals nearly 60%. That is significant by any measure, indicating a dramatic shift in perceptions that portends serious danger for the European project today.

Anti-immigrant populism is not enough to break the pro-Brussels electoral lock by establishment European parties, although in Austria the populists came close. If Europe is to face a deep political crisis, it will take more—and southern countries like Italy provide the unhappy formula that could make such a scenario possible.

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