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Virus agony has left Italy feeling abandoned by EU

Hugo McCafferty


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Emergency: Medical staff in protective suits treat a patient suffering from coronavirus disease at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Italy. Photo: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

Emergency: Medical staff in protective suits treat a patient suffering from coronavirus disease at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Italy. Photo: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

REUTERS

Emergency: Medical staff in protective suits treat a patient suffering from coronavirus disease at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, Italy. Photo: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

As Italy deals with the shock of a health care system close to collapse and the very real trauma of fatalities during the coronavirus crisis, the country is struggling to contain another, potentially disastrous epidemic, the contagion of anti-EU sentiment.

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Italy has felt alone and abandoned by its European partners. As the first country to face the coronavirus outbreak, it has served as an example of what to do and what not to do, for other countries, which will undoubtedly save lives across the EU.

However, Italy has had to defend itself from accusations and insinuations of mismanagement and incompetence from other countries, while dealing with it.

In early March a French television show, 'Groland' on Canal+, sparked outrage across Italy when it aired a segment showing an Italian pizzaiolo coughing and spitting green mucus onto a pizza with a voice-over: "The 'Corona pizza', the new Italian pizza that will go around the world."

It caused uproar, with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio calling it "tasteless" and "unacceptable". The channel later apologised.

In light of what has transpired since, it may seem trivial, but it highlights the insensitivity that Italy faced in the early days of the crisis.

Around the same time, news broke in Italy that Germany was blocking exports of medical supplies, causing a diplomatic spat with Switzerland and Austria. Angela Merkel denied there was a ban on exports but said they "just want to make sure the medical materials are in the right hands".

Italy, a country on its knees with coronavirus, which was still able to send teams of earthquake relief experts to Croatia in its hour of need, was aghast. It was seen as the very opposite of solidarity and only served to underline to Italians that they were on their own.

A few days later, President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde confirmed as much as she sent financial markets into freefall, nearly bouncing Italy out of the single currency in the process, when she said, "We are not here to close [bond] spreads."

She later backtracked before announcing the ECB's €750bn stimulus plan to help coronavirus-hit countries.

While Italy's neighbours closed borders and blocked supplies, China sent supplies, virologists and doctors, fresh from the Wuhan crisis, to help at the coalface of the Italian outbreak. The Chinese appeared at nightly government news conferences broadcast on television. Even Russia sent planes of crucial supplies and expertise, as did Cuba. The USA did deploy help in the construction of a makeshift hospital outside Rome, but the help arriving from Italy's 'comrades' was far more visible.

To Italians, the EU has been invisible during their time of need. The economy, already struggling, will be plunged into a severe and lasting recession and Italians feel like they'll have to fend for themselves when this crisis ends.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte joined with eight other leaders of EU states to call for a 'coronabond', a mechanism to raise funds for a recovery with shared EU debt, a request which led to a testy debate between EU financial leaders on a video conference. The outcome was to kick the can down the road with a call for leaders to come back with proposals in two weeks.

Italians have seen this before. They have been threatened with punitive measures by the European Commission for spending measures aimed at kick-starting their economy. At every turn, when Italy needs the support of the EU, it is left on its own. From the financial crisis of 2009, a decade of austerity which crippled Italian business, to the immigration crisis and the Dublin Regulation, EU states have looked to their own interests at the expense of Italy's.

If populism and national identity politics have already taken root in Italy, the coronavirus crisis provides the perfect hothouse for anti-EU sentiment to flourish. Europe should heed the warning signs.

Matteo Salvini and his Lega party are waiting in the wings for their opportunity. The leader bungled his response during the coronavirus crisis, flip-flopping between minimising the problem and calling for a complete lockdown.

Conte is well thought of after the way he has handled the crisis, but in this country governments fall easily and you can rest assured, Lega will run on the promise of an 'Italexit' referendum.

The Five Star Movement, a partner in Italy's current ruling coalition, is anti-establishment and has for years railed against EU membership, and even once-staunchly pro-EU voices are beginning to question the benefit of it.

When this crisis ends and if the UK bounces back quickly while Italy stagnates, yoked to the euro, all bets will be off.

Even Mr Conte isn't mincing his words, addressing the EU in parliament saying that "if you help us as you have in the past, we will do it ourselves".

The EU must act like a community, what is good for Italy is good for the union.

Irish Independent