25 January 2018

Matteo Renzi, the former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, recently announced his intention to focus his party’s electoral campaign on “broad horizons and grand visions.” This means, in Renzi’s own words, “speaking about Europe.” The Democratic Party is set to run on a decisively pro-European agenda, something confirmed by the decision to strike an electoral alliance with +Europa (more Europe), an electoral bloc whose raison d’être is the goal of “a more European Italy.”

Renzi’s strategy is clear. Running on a platform that closely resembles the one adopted by Emmanuel Macron during the last French presidential campaign, he hopes to replicate the French President’s success. In fact, in many respects Renzi is a precursor of Macron. For anyone familiar with the style of Renzi’s prime ministerial experience and the content of his discourse, the parallels are evident. But it took the French elections last year to move Europe firmly to the top of various national leaders’ agendas.

While several academics have stressed in the past the marginal role Europe played in national elections, the “sleeping giant” has now been woken (the term was coined by Van der Eijk and Franklin to describe the  potential – at the time still unfulfilled – that attitudes towards the EU have in mobilising political support).

Eurosceptic parties’ growing popularity, especially since the Euro crisis, helped shift the attention towards the question of European integration. Macron’s decision to run on a strongly pro-European agenda, and the success he achieved in doing so, did the rest, opening the way for a discourse that places European integration at its centre, in the case of Eurosceptic and pro-European forces alike.

This is a positive development. With important decisions such as monetary policy and macro-economic rules increasingly taken at EU-level, Europe should be front and centre of the national political discussion. Otherwise, the risk is that decisions of key importance to people’s lives are insulated from the democratic debate, depriving politics of a key dimension. Discussing Europe is a sine qua non requirement to foster the EU’s democratic legitimacy.

Yet, the way the European issue is taking a front-seat place in the national debate in Italy (but in many respects also elsewhere) is somewhat problematic. In an article for Il Sole 24 Ore, the influential Italian professor Sergio Fabbrini presented the decision Italians are confronted with on 4th March as one between choosing Europe or rejecting it – in his words a competition between “Europeanists” and “sovereignists”. And herein lies the problem with how this issue is being discussed: within the framework of identity politics. Electors are asked to take a side in a stand-off between those who feel European and those who do not feel so, those who defend the EU and those who oppose it.

The implications are potentially dangerous. Promoting such a dichotomy limits the question to a yes/no choice, and fails to consider the actual content of policies shaped at the European level. It ignores that pro-European parties have different views of what the EU should be and do and, similarly, ignores that forces critical of the EU do not necessarily advance the same criticisms.

In Italy, for instance, the parties labelled ‘Europeanists’ are a broad church, encompassing parties like the Democratic Party and +Europe that take different views on public spending and the related EU-imposed limits. Similarly, among the so-called ‘sovereignists’, the reasons for scepticism towards the EU of the Five Star Movement – critical of the EU because of a perceived democratic accountability deficit, but not opposed to greater integration in principle – and the League – which voices a principled opposition to more integration – are substantially different. Equally there are diametrically opposing stances taken by parties within the same electoral coalition – the League and Forza Italia –on protectionist economic measures at the European level.

Ignoring these differences and reducing the debate to a competition between ‘Europeanists’ and ‘sovereignists’ risks antagonising those who believe in the EU as a political community but are unhappy with the direction it has taken, leaving them with no choice but to endorse or reject it altogether.

Of course, discussing Europe at times of elections inevitably means squeezing it into narrow manifesto platforms and therefore simplifying an otherwise complex issue – this ultimately happens also with other issues such as the economy. But the debate cannot be limited to a sterile choice between more or less integration. It should rather focus on the content of this integration. It needs to be about what type of Europe its peoples want.

And this is something that should be discussed also outside the context of the elections. Such a debate needs to happen, and it is particularly important that it happens in a country like Italy. Discussing Europe, as Renzi has argued, is important. But if Italy wants to contribute to (re)shaping the future of the EU at a time when talks of a European reform are under way, it is important not to reduce the entire debate to a matter of identity, as much as this might be electorally appealing.