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ROME — In Italy, the European Union’s stuttering response to the coronavirus crisis has reignited talk of a possible campaign to leave the bloc.
With the risk of a stalemate among European leaders over the EU’s proposed economic recovery package, bitterness is growing in Italy, with rival contenders vying for the role of Italy’s Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit, and hoping to force a new debate over a potential “Italexit.”
Gianluigi Paragone, a former senator for the anti-establishment 5Star Movement, has announced the launch of a single-issue party working for Italy’s departure from the EU, while Vittorio Sgarbi, a libertarian art critic and former junior minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government, is attempting to force a referendum on the issue.
Both are trying to capitalize on a growing feeling among Italians that they were abandoned by the EU in their time of need and that they are in danger of being neglected once again in the bloc’s plans for economic recovery. One poll in April — when Italy was one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries by the coronavirus pandemic — put the number of Italians with little or no trust in the EU at 70 percent. Another suggested half wanted to leave the EU altogether.
Italy already has a Farage-like figure, some might argue, in Matteo Salvini. The larger-than-life leader of the far-right League party styles himself as a plain-speaking everyman, whether posing for selfies with fans or DJ-ing shirtless, and he’s not exactly shy about bashing the EU.
Paragone was elected with the 5Star Movement but expelled earlier this year, officially for failing to vote.
In March, Salvini called the EU “a nest of snakes and jackals,” warning that after Italy defeated the virus, “if we need to, we will say goodbye.”
But both Salvini and his partner in the country’s right-wing alliance, Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, have moderated their views on EU membership as they have moved closer to power.
Their current position — for remaining in a reformed EU — has opened up space to their right.
‘Better off before’
Hoping to fill that gap is Paragone, a former right-wing journalist and talk show host, who’s now an independent senator.
“Italy got drunk on the idea of the European project and fell in love,” he said in a phone interview. “But now people have understood that we were better off before.”
It is not a matter of if the EU will fail but when, according to Paragone. “When we see that the house is collapsing, we don’t wait for the roof to fall on our heads,” he said.
Paragone was elected with the 5Star Movement but expelled earlier this year, officially for failing to vote, but he says the move came in response to his criticism of the party’s leadership, which he claims has abandoned its foundations, including its Euroskepticism.
His new party, which will advocate for taking Italy out of the bloc, doesn’t have a name yet, he said. Italexit is one idea — “but it might be too Anglophone a name for an Italy-centric party,” he added.
The other pretender to the Euroskeptic throne is Sgarbi, a well-known TV pundit and lawmaker, who likes to be seen as an anti-establishment maverick.
Sgarbi is known for his deeply sexist views and fondness for publicity stunts; he was carried out of parliament by security guards earlier this month after making offensive remarks. Choice insults to fellow guests on TV shows referenced farts, goats and incontinence, and he has compared a fellow MP’s appearance to Frankenstein’s. But while Sgarbi concedes that he and Farage share “similar views,” he admires British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his “determination.”
Sgarbi wants to rid Italy of its EU membership to allow the country to chart its own course, and he has orchestrated a people’s initiative to force a popular referendum on the issue. The group, which lodged a petition at the constitutional court last month, and is now trying to collect the 500,000 signatures needed for a referendum, said it wants to pave the way for “a new Renaissance of Italy, the cradle of culture and protagonist of history.”
“I don’t think today there are grounds for an Italian vote, but if there is not a clear change in the EU, in the long term Italians could favor an Italexit” — Marco Zanni, MEP, Northern League
It’s time to take the question of Italy’s membership back to the people, according to Sgarbi, who points out it has been 30 years since a non-binding referendum was held in 1989 to gauge popular support for further EU integration.
“We should allow citizens to reflect,” he told POLITICO in a phone interview. “Four million people said no in 1989. I believe there are more now.”
Sgarbi remains unfazed by the difficult Brexit negotiations and the low number of new trade deals forged by the U.K. government so far. “I don’t think there will be a recession in the U.K., rather the positive outcome will help demonstrate that it is not damaging to leave,” he said.
Paragone is a little more pragmatic: “There are risks, it won’t be simple, we will have to negotiate, make sacrifices. But you cannot have victory without sacrifice.”
Show us the money
Achieving their goal seems a long shot, in the short term, although one poll put support for Paragone’s yet-to-be-named party at 7 percent.
The Farage model — which saw the Euroskeptic politician whip up sufficient anti-EU feeling to thrust Brexit onto the mainstream political agenda and provoke a referendum — cannot easily be replicated in Italy, said Paragone. “The recipe for Brexit will not work here; we have a different economy, different pressures.”
Still, current levels of support for Paragone’s venture are impressive for a party that hasn’t even launched yet, said Marco Zanni, an MEP for the far-right League, who has been highly critical of the EU response to the coronavirus pandemic. “In the past, initiatives of this kind failed to gain momentum and support from the base.”
“I don’t think today there are grounds for an Italian vote, but if there is not a clear change in the EU, in the long term Italians could favor an Italexit,” Zanni said.
Much depends on whether an agreement can be forged among EU leaders on how to dole out money to member countries via the bloc’s new recovery fund and thereby stave off more economic damage, he added.
“If the EU doesn’t reach an agreement, will see more and more initiatives of this kind not only in Italy but in the EU,” he predicted.
ITALY NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.