Italy / Culture Crunch: Brexit

11 July 2016 | By Sign Salad
colosseum rome italy side view

Shock and anxiety for future developments are the prevalent reactions to the Brexit vote. Italian media have largely interpreted the results as an affirmation of the parochial fears of an older and more traditionalist constituency over the cosmopolitan aspirations of a younger electorate with a more international outlook. Britain, long considered the most worldly and dynamic of European societies, now appears at once backward-looking and led by a clumsy and unprofessional political class. If this does evoke a modicum of Schadenfreude in a country whose political class has a much more established tradition of clumsiness and unprofessionalism, the overriding mood is nonetheless one of unease; will Brexit elicit the unraveling of the whole construction of European Unity? Are the modest economic gains of the last couple of years threatened by the destabilisation of the Union?

While Italy has its fair share of political populism, Italy’s Euroscepticism is different in character than the UK’s, and doesn’t point toward an uscITA (Italian exit). Despite declining trust in EU institutions in recent years, the Italian mainstream public has a baseline commitment to the ideal of a politically united Europe. Two factors help to explain such attachment: on the one hand, the memories of fascism, military defeat and loss of sovereignty during World War II; on the other, the founding narrative of the Italian nation-state itself is one of coalescence of pre-existing principalities, a historical memory which makes the dynamics of the European project familiar to the Italian public.

At the same time, there are several quarters in Italy where the Brexit’s general political sentiment of discontent is echoed strongly. The populist party in Italy, the Five-Star Movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo has fed off concern over establishment politics and economic globalization. Once considered an extremist party, “5 Stelle” is now the second most important in Italy. Likewise, Brexit has found support and applause among a Berlusconi-owned media scornful of the European institutions that the aging tycoon-politician perceived as having reined in his ambitions during his terms as Prime Minister.

Brand UK has unquestionably been damaged by the Brexit vote. The often dissenting conduct of the UK within the EU, and its exceptionalism in policy arenas such as a common currency or the Schengen agreement, had given Britain an aura of cool realism, independent thinking and assertiveness. None of this was at play in Brexit: the overall impression was one of a poorly thought-out gamble on the part of few manipulative politicians, setting in motion a process that spun quickly out of control.

Part of our Culture Crunch: Brexit edition – global perspectives on Brexit from our partners across the globe.

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