The coronavirus crisis may have weakened many of the arguments in favour of the European Union, as shown by a poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies earlier last month. In Italy, one of the first and worst-hit countries by coronavirus, the crisis has exacerbated the existent resentment of some towards the EU. Brussels’ initial lack of response at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak has strengthened Italy’s Euroscepticism, embodied in parties such as Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.
In this context, we repeated our questions on perceptions of the European Union in Italy at the end of June to assess how these have evolved since March. We found that Italian voters have stayed consistent in their position towards the EU: whilst a majority of respondents answered that, given a referendum, they would vote for Italy to remain a member State, a third also continue to answer that they would vote to leave in a referendum.
Importantly, the European question is dividing the current Italian government made up of a coalition between the Democratic Party (PD), the Five Star Movement, and Free and Equal despite them all expressing pro-EU positions on paper. Indeed, we found in June that 79% of those who had voted for PD in the 2018 election answered that they would vote remain against just 49% of those who had voted for Five Star.
Such consistency over time is also reflected in answers regarding membership of the Eurozone, as a majority of respondents continue to declare that they would vote for Italy to remain in the Eurozone (52%). About a third (32%) of respondents answered that they would vote to leave the Eurozone.
Despite the majority being in favour of Italy’s continued membership in the European Union and the Eurozone, respondents increasingly negatively perceive the impact of EU membership on Italy. Indeed, in March, 42% of respondents believed that the EU had an overall positive effect on the country. By the end of June, responses were split between those who continued to hold that the EU had a positive effect (35%) and those who now believed it had a negative effect (33%). In particular, roughly half of those who had voted for Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement now argue that the EU has a negative effect on Italy.
Likewise, 70% of all respondents think that Member States acted separately or on their own during the coronavirus crisis. Those who voted for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy are the most likely to think so (98% in May, 85% in June).
Between May and June, Italian voters appear to have become somewhat more lenient towards the EU’s response to the coronavirus in Italy. Although a majority of respondents continue to hold that Brussels did not help Rome during the crisis, a gap of 13-points separates May from June in favour of the EU. Perhaps, the announcement of the Recovery Fund, of which Italy was allocated the largest share, coupled with the relaxation of fiscal rules reassured many voters that the European Union is starting to meet their demands.
A majority of Italian voters continue to argue that there should have been more economic support from the EU and its less affected member states to help badly affected member states during the pandemic but are somewhat less vehement in their critique between May and June. The Recovery Fund may, again, be credited for some of this slight reduction in criticism.
Resentment towards how other Member States reacted to the outbreak, especially in Northern parts of Italy in February, is reflected in the way in which respondents perceive Germany’s role in the European Union. Indeed, a majority (51%) of Italian voters believe that if the current President of the European Commission was from southern Europe rather than from Germany, the EU would have already provided more economic support to southern European member states. By comparison, we asked this same question to French respondents and only about a third of them agreed with the statement.
Interestingly, we found that when asked what would be the most compelling reason to stay or to leave the European Union, Italian respondents cite how the EU improves and harms the economy of Italy in each case. Such a contradictory belief underlines the complexity of debate surrounding European membership, with proponents citing the benefits of a common market while detractors highlight the economic restrictions that come with such membership.
Besides economic concerns, which are often tied into the effects of the coronavirus crisis, it is important to remember that scepticism towards the EU in Italy is also a legacy of the migratory challenge the country is facing. 26% of respondents (including 43% of those who voted for Salvini’s League in 2018) answered that problems with immigration are one of the most compelling reason to leave the EU. Indeed, much of Salvini’s success in the 2018 elections was founded on his anti-immigration policies and the EU’s inability to provide support.
Despite the fact that a narrow majority of Italians have consistently said over the past three months that they would still vote to remain in the EU, this support may crumble if the question of EU membership were to be genuinely tabled before the Italian public. As seen in the United Kingdom, where opinion polls showed support for leaving around the same range before the referendum was called, the underlying dissatisfaction with the EU is greater than the third of Italians who would currently vote to leave.
Altogether, the coronavirus crisis does not appear to have increased favourable perceptions of the EU.