Leaders of Italy’s triumphant conservative alliance have called for a radical change in the EU’s negotiating stance over Brexit, describing threats to restrict trade and punish Britain as ideological idiocy.
“Great Britain is a friendly country with a long tradition of trading with Italy,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega party and the man poised to become prime minister if the centre-Right coalition forms the next government.
“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,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
The party’s economics chief, Claudio Borghi, said a Lega-led coalition government with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the smaller Brothers of Italy would refuse to rubber stamp the current EU strategy on Brexit.
“There will be no blind trust in what Germany wants. 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,” said Mr Borghi, an MP for Tuscany.
There is confusion in Rome over which constellation of parties will take power after Sunday’s elections, which delivered a shattering defeat for the post-War political order. Radical populist movements of Left and Right swept the board, leaving a hung parliament caught in a feverish clash of cultural visions.
The neo-anarchist Five Star movement is the biggest single party. It surged to 32.7pc of vote under the boyish millennial Luigi Di Maio, who vows to defend the rights of Italian citizens living in Britain vigorously but is otherwise open to a friendly accord over Brexit.
“We shouldn’t try to punish the British people for choosing Brexit,” he said, deeming it understandable that long-suffering people ignored for so long by the political class should erupt in protest. Five Star’s own stunning victory in Sicily and the South has been likened to the Brexit revolt in the North East of England.
The Five Star founder, Beppe Grillo, is himself an emotional eurosceptic. He long denounced the eurozone as a German bankers’ ramp and a threat to democracy, at one point teaming up with UKIP in the European Parliament. He applauded Brexit as a salutary slap in the face for an arrogant elite. “Mediterranean countries, and Italy first among them, should take the same line towards the EU,” he said.
The party has since toned down its eurosceptic language. It has shelved calls for a euro referendum, though this is still held in reserve as a negotiating tool. Clearly, Five Star is not going to spend political capital defending a Tory Brexit, but nor is it remotely aligned with the power structure of the EU project.
It is unclear in any case whether Five Star can break bread with the defeated rump of the ruling Democrat party (PD) after so much bad blood in the past and form a government. The PD’s outgoing leader Matteo Renzo said it would be a “calamitous and tragic error” for his party to join forces with such a movement. “They are extremists and anti-Europeans, and they have been insulting us for years,” he said.
The defiant tone reflects a widespread feeling in Italy that Berlin has “gamed” the structure of monetary union in its own interests. Germany bailed out its own banks during the Great Recession but then changed the rules, forcing a draconian “bail-in” regime on Italy. Italian banks had been relatively well-behaved but the were casualties of the long economic slump. The bail-in shock shattered fragile confidence and delayed recovery yet again.
Germany retained dominant control of the policy machinery during the eurozone debt crisis, dictating a regime of extreme fiscal austerity for Italy that went beyond the therapeutic dose and pushed the country into a contractionary spiral. The fiscal straightjacket was criticised by Nobel economists around the world as economic illiteracy.
“We had a government imposed upon us in 2011 (by the EU) that extracted as much money as it could from Italian citizens to contribute to EU bail-out funds. They were using our money to rescue French and German banks. This austerity caused great social injustice and did a lot of damage,” he said.
Having endured this ordeal, Italians are now the most eurosceptic nation in Europe – more than the British by some measures – and many recognize an all-too familiar modus operandi in the Brexit saga as Berlin seeks to retain iron control over the EU policy apparatus.
Italians have their own parallel struggle with the EU in any case. “What worries me as an Italian is that we are stuck in a currency union that is run by irrational people who don’t understand markets and are acting out of pure ideology. They are very dangerous,” said Senator Bagnai.