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Anti-establishment feeling in Europe gained a stronger foothold with the Euroskeptic victory in Italy’s recent elections. In a process that began with Brexit and has gained momentum with anti-E.U. successes in this year’s Italian and German elections, many are beginning to wonder if these results spell the beginning of the end for the European Union. With E.U. leadership still playing hardball in the Brexit negotiations, the Italian elections are already changing the mood.
As discussed on LN TV’s roundtable video, the election results showed a major swing toward Euroskepticism among the Italians, in a formerly E.U.-friendly country. Economic downturn linked with the euro, a position at the epicenter of the European migrant crisis and high levels of internal political corruption, have tempted Italians to turn their backs to their established political elite in favor of something new.
Unlike the U.S. two-party electoral system, Italy has a multiplicity of political parties, and no single party won an outright majority. This means that the coming weeks and even months are likely to involve complex negotiations before a coalition and Prime Minister are officially in a position to run the country – although we can assume that whatever government forms will be unafraid to critique the E.U. and its approach to Brexit.
THE BULLY IN THE BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS
The Italian result is a blow to EU leaders, who had hoped to minimize further dissent by being seen to make Brexit as difficult as possible. A survey conducted by The Daily Telegraph revealed that 67% of British people agree that “the E.U. is trying to bully the U.K.” in the Brexit negotiations.
Before and after the U.K.’s Brexit vote, economics have been used as a central argument on both sides of the debate. Leave advocates campaigned for a global vision of Britain’s trading future, while Remainers feared that leaving the European Union would hinder trade within the continent. Almost two years after the British people voted for Brexit, economics are still at the center of the debate. E.U. negotiators have stubbornly refused to see a way toward economic cooperation post-Brexit, though the recent Euroskeptic victory in Italy may signal a sea change in how Europe sees their future in British trade.
The Union has rejected British overtures for cooperation, insisting that Brexit would inevitably lead to “negative economic consequences.” European Council president Donald Tusk said that:
“Our agreement will not make trade between the UK and the EU frictionless or smoother. It will make it more complicated and costly than today, for all of us. This is the essence of Brexit.”
A draft text circulated by Tusk says that “being outside the customs union and the single market will inevitably lead to frictions.” Although Tusk has agreed to a possible free trade deal, he is setting a high price, with demands such as access to British fishing waters… a major issue in the Brexit debate.
The negotiations have had punitive tone, with one leaked draft document including a “punishment clause” that would allow the E.U. to impose sanctions and large tariffs on the U.K. during the transition period out of the union, a clause that has since been watered down as a result of British outrage. British International Trade Secretary Liam Fox responded by accusing the E.U. of bullying tactics; “punishing Britain to me is not the language of the club, it is the language of the gang,” he said.
ITALY, TRADE AND BREXIT
The new Italian election victors have already become vocal critics of the EU’s Brexit strategy. Italy’s populist Five Star Movement, who won big in the elections, have been longtime partners of the U.K. Independence Party (lead by Nigel Farage), which pushed for Brexit.
Eurosceptic politician and leader of Italy’s Lega party Matteo Silvani told The Telegraph that,
“Great Britain is a friendly country with a long tradition of trading with Italy. You made a free choice with Brexit and I very much hope that it will be possible to maintain completely open trade with the EU without any penalties.”
Lega’s head of economics Claudio Borghi echoed this sentiment:
“Punishment or anything of the kind would be sheer stupidity. We export more to the UK than we import back and we certainly don’t want to hurt our own client.”
The Italians aren’t the only ones worried about losing out economically post-Brexit. Hungary and Poland have urged the EU to accept a mutually beneficial trade deal. Even Europhile French President Emmanuel Macron has said that, “these discussions should not in any way impact the quality of the relationship between our two countries. Brexit will never prevent a very high level of cooperation between our two countries.”
With countries on all sides hoping to maintain positive trade relationships post-Brexit, who benefits from a punishing “no deal” situation? Only the central bureaucracy of the EU itself, and in light of Italy’s anti-EU groundswell, the union may be about to stamp down even harder on Brexit in order to set an example to other potential leavers.
Italexit is hardly imminent at this stage. No Italian Euroskeptic party actively campaigned for a referendum on leaving the EU in this election, though the new government – whatever form it takes – will surely be watching the Brexit process closely, should they be the next country to take the leap.