You are here
Did COVID end Italy’s populist moment?
“It is our darkest hour: but we will make it.” In March 2020, the (now former) prime minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, echoing the words of Winston Churchill, summed up the depth of his country’s crisis in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is easy, with hindsight, to forget the scale and unprecedented nature of the emergency a year ago. Italy initially faced the pandemic alone, the first liberal democracy to be hit by the virus. The government delayed and hesitated in a series of contradictory responses between the discovery of the first case on February 21 and a national lockdown on March 11.
The attempt to contain the virus failed and the country’s health systems were close to being overrun in the region of Lombardy. Two images beamed around the world sum up days that, in Italy, will never be forgotten: people singing the national anthem from their balconies during lockdown; and a long queue of army vehicles in Lombardy taking away hundreds of corpses because the region could no longer deal with them.
After registering one of the highest death tolls in the world since last March, the country is still in the grip of the pandemic under a new government led by Mario Draghi.
Yet the pandemic has had a curious, if not paradoxical, effect on the country. Italians seem to be rediscovering the value and importance of their (and Europe’s) political institutions. Italy long stood out in western Europe for having the lowest levels of trust in the state and some of the institutions comprising it (government, parliament, parties).
At one time, this lack of trust at home was offset by Italians having one of the highest levels of trust in the European Union, almost as a counterweight to the perceived deficiencies of their own political system. Then came the economic crash of 2007-09 and the years of austerity, and the same attitudes developed about Europe.
It was no longer seen as a saviour but as responsible for imposing spending cuts. Anti-establishment, populist parties rose to fame by combining anti-Europeanism with a vitriolic narrative against political elites. By the eve of the pandemic, therefore, Italians found themselves in a tricky place, with widespread distrust in both their own political system and the role of the EU.
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons
A change of heart
Then, as COVID spread, everything changed. Despite a poor governmental response, the crisis was accompanied by an extraordinary, positive shift in attitudes towards the public authorities.
By late March 2020, 94% of Italians gave a positive evaluation of the performance of the public health authorities in managing the pandemic, 88% the Department of Civil Protection, 82% the government and 77% the regional governments. Conte’s personal ratings rocketed during the first wave. People rating his performance as 6 or above (out of 10) rose to an astonishing 71% in March, far outstripping the ratings of his immediate predecessors.
This shift was not necessarily unique to Italy but, because of the history of distrust, is more significant there.
By the end of 2020, confidence levels in the state had risen by 11% compared with 2019, in parliament by 8% and in regional governments by 6%. These are all higher than those registered in 2009, the year after the financial crisis took hold. The only exception is the political parties themselves. Here, confidence remains chronically low.
Something similar has been happening in relation to the nation’s view of the EU, although with a slightly different trajectory. In the first wave, Italians felt isolated and unsupported by the EU. Only 35% of Italians registered a positive evaluation of its performance in the pandemic in March 2020. Yet, that judgment had a short lease of life, as the EU gradually exerted its supra-national capacity and brought together a series of COVID-19 support measures. Italy has been awarded the highest proportion of funds from the EU’s Recovery Fund.
A European Parliament survey at the end of 2020 revealed that 69% of Italians believe that the recovery from the pandemic will be quicker thanks to the EU. The percentage of Italians with a positive view of EU membership has leapt by 11% in a year and general confidence levels in the EU by 5% in a year.
True, these figures are still low by pre-2008 standards and do not take into account the EU’s poor performance in the recent vaccine rollout. However, this is unlikely to undermine what appears to be a groundswell of support for what will be a long-term benefit of immense proportions in the EU’s recovery programme.
A eurocrat for Italy
This change is also reflected at the political level in the appointment, in January, of Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank. A technocrat running Italy is perhaps not surprising in view of the continuing disdain Italians have for their political parties; but that he is a eurocrat might seem strange after a decade of rising eurosceptism. However, the anti-EU populist opposition appears to have run its course, blunted by a dawning reality on Italians of the importance of belonging to this club.
One year after the national emergency of March 2020, the pandemic appears to have laid the basis for a fundamental change in the thinking of Italians. The pandemic had been preceded by a decade of angry politics in which populist extremism outbid EU-imposed austerity. Now it seems Italians, scarred by COVID, may be ready to return to the European fold and a politics of pragmatism.