Italians used to be fervently pro-EU. What went wrong?

A couple withdraw their first euro banknotes from an ATM in Rome in the early hours of 1 January 2002. Photograph: Claudia Gazzini/AP
A couple withdraw their first euro banknotes from an ATM in Rome in the early hours of 1 January 2002. Photograph: Claudia Gazzini/AP

I’ll never forget the early hours of 1 January 2002. Crowds of Italians emerged from restaurants and clubs where they’d been celebrating the new year, and rushed to queue at cash dispensers. Families and groups of young people mingled and joked. They were all in a hurry to get their hands on banknotes of the freshly launched European single currency. It seemed like miracle money that would at last replace our old lira and its chronic devaluations, a symbol of Italy’s many woes.

That night we felt we were entering a new world, a place inhabited by serious, steady people blessed with a respectable currency. Of course we would no longer be millionaires (a worker’s average monthly pay at the time was 1.4m lire) but we were delighted to trade in our millions for the prestige of being European. On that 1 January, about 2.5 million withdrawals were made. Their total value amounted to €184m, setting a record in Europe.

This orgy of cash crowned a frantic rush, spun out over 10 years. In the 1990s we were so scared of not being let into this club for upstanding people that the phrase “perdere il treno dell’Europa” (to miss the bus for Europe) was repeated ad nauseam by politicians, teachers and business figures. It was like a spell, opening the doors to a dream world.

All of that changed in 2018. My memories seem to be a throwback to prehistoric times. Today’s far‑right‑dominated government in Rome today represents an openly anti‑system, anti-Brussels coalition. Matteo Salvini has emerged as Italy’s new strongman. He’s been hailed by rightwing populists across Europe for closing Italian ports to migrant rescue ships, and straining relations with the European commission over his budget plans.

This Italian government’s rhetoric against migrants and minorities has legitimised the worst in people. Last summer, within two months of the government being formed, more than 30 racist attacks took place. Many people no longer feel any shame at openly expressing anti-black, anti-Roma, anti-gay ideas. And as we head towards the European parliament elections in May, any thoughts of ardently pro-European pre-crisis Italy now seem unreal.

Populism has spread across the west, and in Italy the current revolt resembles a love affair turned sour. The French and the Germans, who arguably have a less sentimental approach to the EU, struggle to understand our state of mind. We were once truly in love with Brussels. Our opinion-makers were inspired by the exalted faith in Europe shown by the likes of Giuseppe Mazzini (one of the prime movers of Italy’s 19th‑century unification), Altiero Spinelli (an advocate of European federalism) or Alcide De Gasperi (a founding father of the common market in the 1950s). We thought this dream could give Italy a fresh start. In particular middle-class Italians were convinced that, unlike their national institutions, the EU would deliver stability, justice, fairness and an end to corruption. I doubt that we have ever loved our own state as much as we loved the EU.

Those who grew up in Italy in the 1970s will remember feeling inferior and locked up in a country doomed to be on the sidelines. In France, Germany and the UK, postwar politics allowed a reasonably healthy democratic life. In Italy, our longing for democracy was thwarted. We had the most powerful Communist party in western Europe. We had neo‑fascist violence and the Red Brigades. If we wanted to see Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones perform live we had to take the train to Zurich or Munich. Even rock stars were too frightened to venture here.

In the 1980s and 90s, with the end of terror attacks, optimism surged, the economy recovered and Italians felt they could once more relate to the rest of the world. A sense of universality – the excitement of the global market – went hand-in-hand with wild enthusiasm for European integration. As teenagers, many of us spent the summer in the UK learning English. A command of the language would help us find work later, but would also enable us to converse with other Europeans. At heart we were proud to find ourselves on the same footing as young people from neighbouring countries.

We were convinced our future lay entirely with the EU, making the single currency and the removal of borders inevitable. We’d enjoy the luxury of driving from Milan to Nice, for lunch on the Promenade des Anglais, without even needing to show our ID cards.

But in recent years Italy has switched from being determined not to “miss the bus” to a sense of weariness; that “Europe keeps demanding things from us”. The EU gradually fell out of favour, no longer a lover full of promise after which we feverishly raced – rather, a strict, demanding stepmother, a mask many saw as concealing an austerity-obsessed Germany. Once a source of stimulus, the EU became a scapegoat. Whatever the bitter pills being meted out – higher taxes, lower public spending, or accommodating hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Mediterranean – the complaint dredged up was always the same: Europe is making demands.

The catalyst for this sea-change in public opinion was the 2008 financial crisis. After Greece, Italy was probably the country hardest hit by the recession. Admittedly, successive governments (under Mario Monti, then Enrico Letta) managed to balance the books again, but this couldn’t dispel a feeling shared by many voters that they had been taken for a ride.

It sometimes feels like we’ve taken leave of our senses. The political culture of the Five Star Movement in the coalition is rooted in its late co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio’s obsessions with impending doom, as well as the craziness of the former comedian Beppe Grillo. Many of the latter’s disciples, now in power, have campaigned against vaccination, and even cast doubt on the moon landings. Conspiracy theories have spread to the Palazzo Chigi, the seat of Italian government.

Brexit took hold in a country that never fully accepted the idea of European integration – but Italy stood enthusiastically at the heart of this project, perhaps the only place where a Brussels technocrat was ever seen as desirable. Our current predicament surely highlights the scale of disaffection towards elites.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who hoped to kickstart European integration, would do well to heed this warning. Matteo Renzi, in his brief time as prime minister, was just as energetic, yet the wave that submerged him in 2016 is still rising.

Stefano Montefiori, an Italian journalist, reports for Corriere della Sera from Paris.

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