“European Solidarity” in the Covid-crisis : Italy and the discursive dimension of the European public space

Source : EU Commission

Since the outbreak of the Covid-pandemic on the European continent in February 2020 inter-European relations have considerably degraded. The pandemic affected the European community not only on a material but also, and more importantly, on a social level. Accusations have been made by certain governments and analysts that the European Union’s crisis management had been inadequate, lacking solidarity. 

Italy has been among the most vocal critics. Since the beginning of the health emergency, its government and citizens claimed that Europe has “abandoned” them to their fate, criticizing the missing European solidarity and support. While in March Italy’s Ambassador to the EU stated that “the coronavirus crisis is a test of the EU’s cohesiveness and credibility”, later in August Mario Draghi said retrospectively that “the solidarity that should have been a spontaneous act, was the result of negotiations.”. Italy was the first European country hit strongly by the pandemic, but it was not the only one. Spain and France suffered strongly as well in the following months but never has their criticisms been as violent and emotional as the Italian ones. So, why did the sanitary crisis become a catalyst for Italian-European relations? And why did it even temporarily challenge Italy’s membership in the EU?

Franca Loewener, PhD in political science, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Ater at Université de Lille. She is a  member of AEGES (Association pour les Etudes sur la Guerre et la Stratégie), section Les études critiques sur la paix et sur la guerre. 

Michele Mioni, postdoctoral researcher at the Forschungszentrum Ungleichheit und Sozialpolitik (SOCIUM), University of Bremen and research associate at the Centre d’histoire sociale des mondes contemporains (CHS), Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

The discursive dimension of the European public space

The notion of “European public space” has manifold definitions but one of the discursive dimensions conveys the idea that a special bond of solidarity exists among the Member States of the EU. The narrative of Europe as a community aims to communicate a common belonging, a shared history, ideals, and most importantly intra-European solidarity. The Covid-pandemic seems to have highlighted the importance this imagination has for the pursuit of the European project.   

The impact of health emergency has had on Italy’s perception of the European public space cannot be properly understood if we only focus on economic and material factors. The symbolic and emotional context of the crisis needs to be considered. Missing medical support and electoral interests did not explain, alone, the changing Italian perception of – and the diminishing identification with – the EU. 

The Covid-crisis occurred after a decade of political and financial turmoil, austerity, and sharpest decline that has in the Italian public mind, rightly or wrongly, become increasingly associated with the EU. The perception of missing European solidarity in the most frantic moments of the pandemic cannot be understood without considering the underlying antagonism between the European South and North. Feeling that some countries evolve better within the EU and feeling accused of being responsible for their difficult economic and financial situation, the demonization of the European crisis management represented an occasion for Italians to utter their general frustration with the EU.

Missing European solidarity – reality or myth? 

Among the arguments most cited to explain the Italian anger over the handling of the emergency is the idea that the EU left Italy alone. In contrast to China and Russia, the story goes, the EU was lacking solidarity by not supplying medical equipment when Italy needed it the most. Considering that the country declared a state of emergency by January 31, it is certainly true that aid from the EU took a relatively long time to get collectively organized. Nevertheless, the European Member States themselves, after a short panic and requisition of masks, did indeed not only declare solidarity with Italy but also supplied the country with essential medical material aid. 

A detailed study by the European Council on Foreign Relations of aid deliveries during the first month of the crisis contradicts the myth of European lack of solidarity. While the Chinese assistance arrived in Italy by the very beginning of March, the European States’ material support started 12 days later, but with substantial help in terms of material medical equipment and donations (even more so considering their shortages, notably in masks, in their own countries). Germany, one of the countries most criticized by Italians, was among the highest givers. Help directly coming from the EU institutions took much more time but was finally much more substantial.

One of the reasons why extra-European aid was perceived as more important than European help can be certainly linked to the fact that: a) foreign, and particularly Chinese officials, used social media more effectively to make public their generosity than the EU; and b) Italian media accorded proportionately much more time to talk about extra-European aid. Chinese Aid, for instance, received more than 3 times as much media coverage during March 2020 in the state-owned Rai group than the American aid package. Assistance from Cuba, Ukraine, Albania, Russia, and the US had, likewise, a stronger media coverage than the European action. Communication, moreover, barely distinguished between free aid and purchased material, classified indistinguishably under the label of “solidarity”

European leaders were unprepared for the public outrage in Italy as well as for the extent of non-EU governments’ media campaigns that accompanied their donations. Overwhelmed by the Italian critique of the European Union, governments and EU institutions tried to regain Italian’s trust by apologizing and systematically informing the public about the deployment of “European solidarity”.

Scapegoats, votes and economic interests

While the perceptual distortions of the exact numbers of international support fostered Italy’s outrage over the EU management of the Covid-crisis, electoral and economic interests of political elites contributed to the discourse demonizing Europe. A scapegoat was needed to distract from Italy’s insufficiencies managing the crisis; antagonizing Europe was a good way to bolster political support. Policy-makers exploited and dramatized the anti-European narrative to direct the domestic debate. This was not only the case of the Northern League’s renewed anti-EU campaign. The Prime Minister himself declared in a German newspaper that “Europe has left us alone”, giving voice to a widespread feeling. The brandished fragmentation of the Euro-zone aimed to bargain a common response at European level. 

Political communication on social media, as for the almost daily posts of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, emphasised the aid from across the world, while blaming European shortcomings. Nevertheless, the initial EU mismanagement certainly played a role in favouring this discourse: the Franco-German ban on exports of medical supplies; the unverified news of alleged requisitions from other European countries of masks from China purchased by Italy; the concerns expressed at highest political levels of hostile takeovers of industrial and financial assets from other European States. Good part of the opposition and even some sectors of the government used European delays to raise the tones against EU institutions and Member States. Between late March and early June, many polls commanded by research institutes and think tanks displayed that the majority of the people considered that China and Russia supplied the most important aid and that Italy should strengthen ties with them. The respondents also thought that Germany and France are the country’s main international antagonists, and nearly 50% said that Italy should leave the EMU and the EU. 

The shadow of the past – the ongoing disputes between Italy and the EU

Not all anti-Europeanism, however, was instrumental. EU-Italian relations have been tense for years preceding the Covid-crisis and the previous disputes are crucial to understand Italian people and politicians’ reactions.

Traditionally the most Europhile country among the founding Members, Italy experienced a sharp turn in this sentiment after the debt and refugee crises (2011–5). The controversy concerned the EU financial rules and welfare recommendations and Italy’s capacity to influence the European decision-making process as exemplified by its failure in achieving an agreed solution of the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, even if structural and conjunctural issues created over the years the breeding ground for widespread Euroscepticism, the majority of the ruling class and the people supported Italy’s membership in the EU and the Eurozone. 

The Covid-crisis enabled a qualitative leap in the Eurosceptic discourses, even enfolding pro-European constituencies. The emergency phase was accompanied by the contention with EU partners, in particular German and French governments, and the BCE following a declaration by President Christine Lagarde that put in trouble Italy’s financial position. Defined by some columnists as “backstabbing from Europe”, this action caused unusual interventions at the highest (traditionally pro-EU) institutional levels. 

The subsequent debate on the European recovery rapidly degenerated by following the usual divisions between Northern and Southern Europe, feeding on mutual stereotypes that still affect the (self-) perception of national communities within the EU.

European solidarity ?

This preliminary overview argues that the Covid-crisis highlighted the relevance of discursive elements in the construction and perception of European public space. As the narrative on the “European solidarity” proved, the pandemic exacerbated underlying issues inherent to the current EU framework. Our analysis tried to disentangle the currently rather critical position of Italy towards the EU. Italians’ anger over the EU management of the pandemic cannot be explained by simply referring to the lack of material solidarity as missing medical equipment. Perceptions and emotions played an important part, which cannot be disconnected from the previous Italian-European divide, which neutralized the idea of “European solidarity” in Italy.