In the Italian local elections held in May, the Five Star Movement founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, which advocates an exit from the euro and a return to the lire, won a major victory in the city of Parma.
With a popular appeal based on anti-establishment propaganda, trenchant criticism — which is not unfounded — of a political class that is unable to renew itself, and a strong presence on the Internet, the first Italian political movement to declare itself as anti-European has demonstrated an impressive ability to reach out to a rapidly growing section of the electorate.
Most Five Star voters are former supporters of the centre-right, which is now on the wane in the wake of the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi and the corruption scandal which has struck the Northern League. However, Beppe Grillo has shown that he can also win over far-left voters and the younger generation with whom he is very popular.
On 28 May, a poll conducted by SWG credited Five Stars with 17% of intentions to vote in general elections in 2013 — a level of support that would make it Italy’s second political force behind the left-wing Democratic Party (24%), and ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (16%). The success of the movement’s anti-euro platform is a reflection of the dangerous climate of euroscepticism that is increasingly prevalent in Italy.
In the most recent Eurobarometer annual report presented in March, 34% of Italians consulted declared that they were not satisfied with measures adopted by the European Union to overcome the current crisis — a percentage that was much higher than it was for other countries in Europe.
“The Italians were always in favour of the euro”
And 20 % — the highest rate in all of the countries of Old Europe — declared that they never look up news on the EU, probably because of the already extensive coverage of the crisis in the mass media. Paradoxically, 74% of Italians took the view that they were not sufficiently informed on European affairs.
This climate is in direct opposition to Italy’s strong pro-European tradition. Now a professor at the London Business School, Lucrezia Reichlin worked for many years at one of the European Union’s most important institutions, the European Central Bank (ECB), which she joined after her studies in Italy and New York.
"The Italians were always in favour of the euro," she remarks. When she was ECB’s Director General for Research at the Eurotower in Frankfurt, in the many polls on European citizens’ attitudes to the Union which landed regularly on her desk, Italy was invariably one of the most devout believers.
"That said,” adds Reichlin, “it seems that the enthusiasm has died down considerably: a bit like it has in Greece. Traditionally, the Greek and Italian populations did not have a great deal of confidence in their national governments." According to Reichlin, this traditional distrust led to "the hope that in entering the European Union, we would inherit some of the virtues of countries that had better institutions."
It is a view that is shared by another specialist on European issues, Paolo Guerrieri, a professor of economics at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, who has described Italians’ relationship to Europe as "supplementing and reinforcing national identity rather than conflicting with it".
Centre right cut adrift by Berlusconi
However, with the advent of the crisis, and the enormous sacrifices demanded by austerity, attitudes to Europe have grown more hostile — a development that has not only been noticed by Beppe Grillo. Euroscepticism is on the rise at a time when the Democratic Party is the last remaining ardent supporter of membership of Eurozone. Aggressively anti-EU and anti-euro slogans are increasingly prevalent in the right-wing press: particularly in Libero, the newspaper of record for Silvio Berlusconi supporters, which regularly cites opinion polls to hammer home the message that more than 60% of Italians are now opposed to the common currency.
As it stands, the movement that has traditionally been the most fervid proponent of euroscepticism, the Northern League, is too busy battling with the fallout from the funding scandal which put an end to the reign of leader Umberto Bossi, and could still put an end to the party itself. But it is worth remembering that the over the last decade, the Silvio Berlusconi coalition has consistently cultivated an ambiguous relationship to Europe.
On the one hand it included figures like former finance minister Giulio Tremonti, who was one of the main architects of the reform of the Stability Pact that watered down the rules on spending deficits in the early noughties, but it was also the centre-right government that suspended the regulation requiring prices to be displayed in both euros and lire when the currency was introduced — a gift to the small business owners who formed the hard core of Berlusconi’s supporters, and one that came at a high cost to consumers.
The question of Europe could figure large in campaigns for the 2013 elections, especially in a context where the centre right cut adrift by Berlusconi is now hemorrhaging eurosceptic votes. If the country is still mired in a crisis that has been made worse by austerity, Beppe Grillo’s anti-euro populism will be a magnet for votes.