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Italy: A Brewing Storm Within the EU


Could Italy leave EU?
Over the last couple of years, the main challenge to EU cohesion has been Brexit, with the media sharply focused on the negotiations and all relevant developments.
Since the release of the draft withdrawal agreement, largely perceived as a victory for the EU, those who support the European project and believe in a strong leadership from Brussels have projected confidence and optimism for the future. According to these voices, the divisions caused by the rise of nationalism and populism in the past years are healing, the relationship between member states is normalizing, while a future of stability and harmony awaits.
However, such a vision might prove naive, as it discounts a much greater risk to the EU than Brexit ever was: the political and economic powder keg that is Italy.
For over three months, Italy’s 2019 budget plans and the resulting friction with Brussels have made been making headlines and bringing to the surface numerous concerns over the country’s economic stability and relationship with the EU. The Italian government, aiming to honor its heavily populist pre-election promises, has presented a budget that is sharply at odds with the plans and goals of EU officials. Hailed by the Italian coalition government as a budget that will “end poverty,” the plan includes (among various other spending programs and tax cuts), a lower retirement age and a state-guaranteed basic income of €780. In order to finance its ambitious spending spree, the new Italian government plans to increase the budget deficit to 2.4% of GDP, a number that EU officials found very difficult to reconcile with, especially since the previous government’s plans only required a 0.8% deficit. Given Italy’s extreme national debt levels, Eurozone officials saw a clear threat of future instability in the new government’s plan that could easily spread throughout the bloc.
In October, the tensions culminated in an unprecedented move by the EU Commission: Italy’s draft budget was rejected and revisions were mandated. Italy defiantly announced it would stick to its plans, and in response, the Commission said that significant fines and sanctions against the country were “warranted.” The fines that the Commission threatened could amount to 0.5% of Italy’s GDP, while additional disciplinary measures could include a freeze on development funds. At this stage, a last-minute compromise solution could be hammered out in order to avoid the sanctions, however, the entire incident has heavily bruised the already strained relationship between Italy and the EU.
While the rejection of the Italian budget by the Commission was seen by many as an unusually aggressive step, it is useful to remember that this was not the first time that the new coalition government has been strong-armed by Brussels into towing the line. In June, when the new government was still in negotiations to fill its key posts, Paolo Savona emerged as the first choice for finance minister. A professor of economics with experience at the Bank of Italy, Savona was summarily railroaded by pressure from the EU, as his positions were hardly in line with the European project and even less so with the common currency, which he described as “a German cage.

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