02.06.18 - On the Road - Italy

Italy was still shaking off the last remnants of winter when Picture of EU was there in April. The mountain passes that trace meandering lines through the Alps in the north and over the mountainous spine that runs the length of the country were still being cleared of the last of the winter snow. The seasonal workers that tend to the millions of tourists who visit Italy every year were beginning their own vacations before the summer crowds arrive.

Tourism makes up 13% of Italy’s economy, and this is predicted to grow to almost 15% over the next decade. Visitors come to take in the beautiful landscapes and to see the relics of a rich history that forms part of the bedrock of modern European culture. But modern life in Italy is less tranquil than the rolling hills and picturesque ruins would suggest.

Like many other countries in the EU, Italy has seen populist parties gain more and more ground in recent years. Since the financial crash of 2008, the effects of a weaker economy and the implementation of austerity policies aimed at reducing debt have meant that many Italians have seen living standards fall, their sense of security diminish and their opportunities reduced. People from the left and the right have been seen taking to the streets to call for change and traditional parties have seen their support diminsh and new voices come to the fore. 

In Florence, Picture of EU met students protesting the level of education funding and the difficulties they face in supporting their education. Banners carrying slogans such as “Money to companies and to students not even the crumbs” and “We don’t want a bigger slice of the cake, we want the fucking bakery” were held aloft alongside anti-fascist flags as individuals called out through megaphones and columns of police and armored vans followed closely behind.

Anger with the state of public services, falling living standards and a reduced social welfare system is coupled with a sense of abandonment by the rest of Europe over the handling of the refugee crisis, with Italians feeling like they have been left to deal with a disproportionate number of those in need. All of this has seen Euro-scepticism rise in Italy and what is striking is the that the strength of this sentiment is stronger in the younger demographic, with those under 45 more likely to be eurosceptic than older voters.

Though the above is not to say that there is no support for the EU. Anti-EU sentiment may be higher among younger voters but there is still a large minority of young people who see Italy as being better off inside of the EU - particularly among students and those who rely on the EU for work and trade.
In the older demographic, pro-EU voices are actually in the majority, a stark reversal of the situation in most other countries. It is also true that many Italians lay much of the blame for the current situation at the door of Italian politics. Years of high profile domestic corruption scandals have eroded confidence and political engagement. For populist parties, an anti-EU stance has been easy to weave together with already high levels of distrust.

In urban centers, graffiti expresses anger towards a system recognized as in need of change, but with no sense of a clear solution. Antifa symbols jostle for space with those of the nationalists and far-right. Anti-migrant slogans shout their messages from the walls whilst round the corner, the same city walls read “Refugees Welcome”.

The country now has an eclectic new government, a coalition bringing together the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right League Party. There is a sense of uncertainty as to the direction the new government will take the country.

For Italians, the best route forwards for the country is matter of dispute, but one thing is agreed upon; the need for change.

As the students called out through speakers on the streets of Florence, “We are not afraid of the future, it is your future that is afraid of us.”

Students protest about the level of education funding in Florence, Italy.

Students protest about the level of education funding in Florence, Italy.