chapter  15
13 Pages

Italy between transformismo and transformation


Narratives of Italy and the EU have swung wildly during the course of the economic crisis: from the “sick man” of Europe in the dying days of the Berlusconi government in 2011 to the member state that was going to save the euro and Europe with the Monti government weeks later. It is presented as either the catalyst to bring about a major change in economic policy in the Eurozone, led by Matteo Renzi after the European Parliament elections in May 2014, or the proverbial straw that will precipitate a collapse of the single currency, again with the Renzi government. More than the search to find a narrative scheme for the economic crisis, we argue, these volatile gyrations reflect a deeper ambiguity about Italy’s place in the European Union and the role of European integration in the regulation of social and economic life in the country. Italy is, by some measures, clearly part of the southern periphery, not only geographically but also with respect to its distance from meeting the objectives set by European policies and from the centres of power where those policies are made. Arguably, reticence by some northern EU member states to embark forms of burden and debt sharing derive from concern about taking on Italy’s enormous public debt and, more generally, its deep regional disparities and public sector inefficiencies. On the other hand, Italy is very much at the centre of Europe. It is the second leading industrial economy in the EU, has very low levels of private debt and is an important transatlantic ally, not to mention a member of the G8. Moreover, Italy has provided ideational and political leadership for a federal Europe, with figures from Altiero Spinelli to Romano Prodi and Mario Monti leading the way. The very idea of a federal Europe has Italy at its centre. Both these views of Italy, as a peripheral member state that is more a subject of European integration than an object and as a central player that shapes it, have been present throughout the history of the EU in Italy. We will argue that the economic crisis has shown that it is difficult for this ambiguity to continue. The aim of this chapter is twofold. First, it wants to illustrate that the tradi-

tional consensus that has existed amongst Italian political elites and in public opinion about the centrality of Europe for Italy’s modernization has eroded over the last two decades. We will argue that the durability of this consensus was due, in part, to the ambiguity of Italy’s position as both central and peripheral to the Union. The second aim is to demonstrate that it became increasingly hard to

argue that Italy was central to the European project as the crisis evolved and that, consequently, it became easier for those political forces that did not want European commitments as the lynchpin of Italian policy to claim that Europe’s approach to its periphery, which included Italy, condemned the country not only to the margins of the EU but to austerity for an indefinite period. Our discussion will be divided into two sections. The first will trace the evolution of Italy in the EU, highlighting its ambivalent position between centre and periphery. The second will focus on how the centre-periphery tension was at the heart of Italy’s position throughout the recent economic crisis.