Is Italy turning its back on EU?

Unexpected side-effect of coronavirus pandemic

Business

June 1, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

For almost three months while Italy was grappling with the pandemic, its fellow member’s of the European Union had abandoned it and even closed their borders with Italy

Having been let down by fellow EU members while it was struggling with coronavirus pandemic, Italians are increasingly hostile towards the community, and with fairly good reasons.

French President Emmanuel Macron, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has proposed setting up a 500 billion euro EU wide relief fund in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The funds would be disbursed as grants to the countries worst hit by the pandemic. In itself, the idea is welcome and comes not a moment too soon especially as the EU seems to have already seen the worst of the pandemic and several nations, notably France, Spain, Italy and even Germany, ravaged by it.

While many EU nations may welcome the idea, in Rome, it is bound to get a cool reception. For Italians, the government included, the idea has come a bit too late. Few Italians are likely to forget the way they were abandoned by fellow EU members as early as February 2020 when the pandemic had just begun to take hold in Italy, the first EU member country to register large-scale explosion in number of cases and eventually even the deaths. By late February, clearly Italian government and the healthcare system were struggling to deal with the crisis and could do with the famed European solidarity that the European Commission incessantly talks of. The healthcare system was over-stretched, as there was a severe lack of not just equipment such as masks, ventilators or sanitisers, but also of medical professionals as the Italian doctors and nurses had far too many cases on their hands. However, instead of coming to Italy’s rescue by sending in material and professionals to help, the European nations turned their back on Italy and closed their borders, leaving Italy to manage its own crisis. The EU nations also violated another basic premise of the union – free movement of EU nationals all over the territory. While other EU members were turning away from Italy, China stepped in and offered help as early as mid-March, just around the time when Italy was seeing a massive explosion in the number of cases and deaths. It was not that the Italians had not asked for help. Indeed, the Italian PM Giuseppe Conte had appealed to fellow EU members not only for material and men, but had also proposed that the EU launch coronabonds to help the worst-affected countries tide over. However, the idea was shot down by several northern EU members, who were fiscally more tight-fisted than their southern neighbours.

After struggling for several weeks on its own and after two months of a strict lockdown, when finally the lockdown was lifted earlier this month, Italians counted over 32,000 deaths and as much as 8 pc drop in its GDP as the country faces its worst economic crisis since the World War II. The pandemic has led to millions of jobs being lost and the Italian employment rate, already one of the lowest in the EU, fell further to 58.8 pc in March, before the pandemic was full blown. The data for April and May would point at a much more severe damage.

Across the country, Italians feel that the EU had let them down seriously. A recent poll found that as many as 67 pc of Italians felt that being part of the EU was a disadvantage, a sharp jump from 47 pc in November. Not just the man on the street, even the Italian President had said that by not coming to his country’s assistance at the time of the worst-ever crisis, the EU nations were weakening the foundation of their own institutions. The former EU Council President Donald Tusk said that there has been a serious loss of reputation of the EU amongst the southern members – notably Italy – as the EU failed to come to the assistance when it was most needed, as subsequently the EU member countries have tried to make up for their earlier blunders by helping the affected countries with money, human resources as well as medical equipment. However, few Italians are likely to forget that for the first six to eight weeks, the EU had dumped one of its largest and oldest members just at the time when it was most-needed.

It would indeed take a tall claim and a lot of leeway for Macron and Merkel to convince the ordinary Italians, as well as the government in Rome, that the EU’s intentions were honest and that they had not abandoned a fellow member during the crisis. A EUR 500 billion fund, by whatever name it may come to be known, is unlikely to make the Italians forget the humiliation and the dangers that they had to face, alone.

The EU members’ response also lays hollow the claim of EU solidarity and could indeed leave deep scars for the future as most members would do well to remember that whatever happened to Italy during the pandemic could very well also have happened to them or could indeed happen to them in future as well. Brussels and key EU capitals may need to introspect on this deeply to ensure that if the EU is to survive as anything more than just an idea, they cannot afford to repeat such blunders. Else, the next victim of a big crisis could be the union itself.

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