Are we really isolated within Europe? The quick and simple reply, judging from immediate experience, could be “yes”: we have given Europe problems, and have not managed to find either agreement or allies ready to support us.
A closer examination and more carefully articulated response, however, might lead to a more nuanced conclusion.
Consider the picture in detail: the two problems that head the Italian agenda in Brussels are those of growth (and a fairer redistribution of its dividends) and the effective management of migration instead of mere emergency reactions and security concerns. Quite apart from specific community dynamics, these are acute topics to be found across the world, problems which underlie much of the ill-will between governments and governed in other European countries as well as Italy. It may well be that our chosen method of drawing attention to the urgency of the situation paid insufficient attention to certain limits on expression; it may have shown rather too much readiness to make claims instead of looking for solutions based on consensus or at least compromise. If there are lessons for the future to be learned from this – on the formal level, or in terms of negotiating tactics – then we should learn them, all the more so in view of the present international situation which demands a rethinking of how we all seek to further and protect our own national interests. We shall not get far on our own, nor without having a thoroughly realistic look at our own negotiating hand. Then again, it would be hard to over-estimate the costs of isolation – if actually persisted in – for a country such as Italy, whose economic growth hinges on its exports within the Eurozone, the guarantee of whose political and social stability is its integration with the other great Western democracies, and whose national accounts and economic productivity are duly anchored in the ‘external constraint’ and convergence prescribed by Eurozone rules. Furthermore, it would not really be very credible for us to go demanding – as we do – more European solidarity in dealing with systemic risks in the economy and in security and immigration policies, if at the same time we failed to make our (essential) contribution to collectively upholding the rules and the provisions for Eurozone integration.
However, that is not the end of this question of our alleged isolation; the matter can be looked at from another, wider viewpoint as well.
For we cannot nowadays avoid looking at the institutions, policies and practices of government (whether in the European Union or in member countries), and asking ourselves how adequately they respond to the expectations of Europe’s citizens. As we can see from the case of France, there is no guarantee that a recipe based on strong government and traditional solutions will lead to outcomes that the citizens will accept.
With a similar background, then, the case of Italy could be seen in a more engaging guise, less eccentric than it might appear at first sight. It is now clear, in fact, that the grievances of European citizens are being expressed more and more across the board and in ways that are remarkably similar, often far more similar than intergovernmental arguments would lead one to think. France and Italy, such different countries, find themselves paradoxically facing expectations and demands that are not dissimilar.
The forthcoming European elections could offer an important reality check: a balance needs to be found – and there is no guarantee that it will – between traditional political tribes and coalitions, which are sometimes reluctant to try out new solutions, and the ambitions of political forces which regard themselves as more authentic interpreters of the people’s will. Without overestimating the real probability of populist movements gaining electoral ground at the expense of more traditional parties, it is likely that the situation in the European Parliament after May’selectionsmightbe different from the present one. Although the scale of the change might be less disruptive than people imagine – because of the inherent complexity of any Europe-wide populist alliance and because of a relative re-flowering of the European spirit confirmed in recent polls – the question of a change in both the tone and the substance of politics is now on the table. The crucial issue remains the same, whoever wins a majority in the new European Parliament: the need to bring our political recipes and formulas for government up to date if they are to be made compatible with people’s expectations. Growth, immigration and security will be the measures on which European and national governments will be judged.
The challenge (and at the same time the hope) is that the present divergence between form and substance, between government and citizens, between political tradition and expectations will tend to diminish, and that a new course could be charted and agreed on in European countries without violence. Brexit, the Trump presidency, the results of the Italian elections, the French street protests, all have taken many people by surprise, and all are evidence of a problem that cuts across boundaries and demands urgent action if it is to be resolved.
Under this new light Italian isolation might turn out to be an optical illusion, vanishing to reveal our real common problem: how to rebuild trust between European institutions, national governments and their citizens.