Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Italy should capitalise on Brexit

  • Even when Italy's economy was very close to the size of France's and larger than the UK's, it was never a key player in Europe or beyond (Photo: drpavloff)

Italy, it is often said, has punched below its weight in the world of politics for a long time.

Even with its economic problems, Italy remains the eighth largest economy in the world. It was the fifth not too long ago.

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Yet, in virtually all matters of importance at the global and European levels, Italy's voice has mattered little.

Various reasons account for this, not least a dysfunctional political system incapable of producing stable governments that can project credible and compelling international positions in world affairs, as well as weak political and economic ties to many countries around the world since it was never a major colonial power.

Thus, even when Italy's economy was very close to the size of France's (1991) and larger than the UK's (1992), it was never a key player in Europe or beyond.

With Brexit, however, an unexpected, and currently much under-appreciated, opportunity has presented itself.

One of the great benefits of the UK being in the EU since the 1970s was its incessant support of pragmatic and democratic positions - intended to restrain the Franco-German alliance in its quest for an ever more integrated, bureaucratic, and centralised European super-state (modelled after France and Germany).

Sceptical and even sensible Europeans could always rely on the UK (and the smaller Nordic countries which usually aligned with the UK) to slow down, resist, and (for better or worse) seek opt-outs.

It made some sense at that time that Italy would be a secondary player.

Three powerful countries in Europe were enough. And, in most cases anyway, Italy (one of the six founding members of the EU) shared the French and German integrationist instincts.

But now that the UK is leaving, Italy can, and should, step up. It is the third largest country and economy in the EU. Spain and Poland follow, but they are significantly smaller economically and population-wise.

It has significant voting rights in the EU institutions. It is at the centre of the immigration crisis. It has a strong military and, despite its public debt, the third largest gold reserves in the world.

It is a manufacturing powerhouse, ranking among the top 10 exporters in the world.

With the UK out, this is the time for Italy to assert itself in, and for, the EU.

In practice, this would mean demanding to be present at any meeting where France and Germany take joint decisions designed to lead Europe forward.

Italy, plus Spain and Poland?

Italy should also establish closer ties with mid-size countries like Spain and Poland to leverage their weight when appropriate and in their interests: a constellation of alternative countries no longer willing to follow France and Germany.

It should as well demand changes to the eurozone rules and institutions so that they no longer favour Germany (by way of lower borrowing costs and a lower valued currency that supports its exports) or forgive France (for its constant breaking of budget deficit rules) without consequences.

The EU's rule should benefit all countries.

A new European mentality and way of doing business is needed, and Italy should be a leader in that discussion.

After all, Brexit means that the EU lacks at the moment the stomach for a fight with another country.

Some may say that the current populist coalition government of the Five Star Movement and League has taken steps precisely in these directions – not least with an invitation to Poland to form a counter-alliance to the Franco-Germany one.

But there is a fundamental problem with its approach. It has so far meant stepping away from the EU: questioning its legitimacy, purpose, and reason for being.

It has been driven primarily by a nationalist agenda: a rejection of Europe.

This will only marginalise Italy, as France and Germany deepen their cooperation (witness their new treaty of Franco-German cooperation and integration signed in Aachen earlier this year) and seek to relaunch more (not less) Europe.

It is time for Italy to take a seat at table of the new Europe – not leave the room and let others, yet again, decide.

Francesco Duina is honorary professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and professor of sociology at Bates College, USA

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