Two steps forward, one step back: stocktaking from the last Eurogroup meeting

Article by Alessandro Zerbini | Illustration by Silvia Baccanti

 

“Too early to say”, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai is quoted saying in a conversation with US President Richard Nixon when asked about the impact of the French Revolution. One of history’s most appreciated misunderstandings –the Chinese politician was apparently referring to the 1968 students’ riots in Paris–, this concise statement seems to qualify as the perfect reply to an equally daunting question: what will be the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on our lives?

Notwithstanding, it might not be too early to start pointing out the budding changes that are already affecting every aspect of our societies, economies and political systems. Our world is turning a page, shedding its leaves in preparation for a new season, and nowhere this is as evident as in the European Union.

Indeed, in the last few weeks, almost everything the EU stands for has been subject to attacks or reconsideration: democracy and the rule of law, the Single Market, the Schengen area, the common competition, monetary and fiscal policies, and so forth.

In this article, we will explore one minuscule instance of this historical process of adaptation: the negotiations for a joint EU response to the pandemic. In particular, we shall attempt to review the negotiating tactics adopted by the Italian Government in the lead up to the video-conference of the Eurogroup of 7-9 April 2020.

Our aim is to isolate the innovative elements that emerged from these events and briefly identify the shortcomings of the Italian approach.

Italy’s position and the need for a joint response

Being one of the countries most affected by the pandemic, Italy is undoubtedly in great need of financial resources to adapt its healthcare system, shield its economic actors from excessive disruptions, and support the economy throughout the incoming recession.

Nevertheless, any significant public investment that the country might decide to make is constrained by its already delicate financial position, made even worse by the market turmoil caused by the global economic slowdown.

This thorny dilemma explains Rome’s keen interest in the creation of Eurobonds, namely, as expressed in a letter to the European Council President Charles Michel, co-signed by eight other Member States[1], a ‘’common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market on the same basis and to the benefits of all Member States’’.

The proposed solution to Italy’s longstanding debt problems (and its more recent financial woes) is not new. On the contrary, during the last decade, similar ideas have already been elaborated and dismissed several times for fear that the instrument could act as a Trojan horse to embed a ‘’permanent system of subsidies from the fiscally strong to countries with less fiscal discipline’’.

Naturally, similar arguments have been voiced in the chancelleries of the Member States with more solid fiscal positions, such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland. However, this time, the proponents of the measure can convincingly claim that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic represents a symmetric shock of unseen proportions, which requires an equally innovative and joint response.

One step back

In the lead up to the Eurogroup video-conference, the Italian Government has tried to overcome the sceptics’ visibly-mounting opposition by launching a PR campaign targeted at convincing the German public of the need for such an instrument.

Following an open letter published in the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung by a group of Italian mayors and regional governors, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gave two compelling interviews to German broadcasters Ard and Bild, stressing the exceptional nature of the current crisis, calling for European solidarity, and reassuring the German public about the non-mutualization of national public debts.

Judging from opinion polls conducted before and after the Italian exploit, it would appear that the percentage of Germans in favour of significant support measures for the countries that have been severely hit by the pandemic has indeed increased[2].

Despite the efforts, at the negotiating table, Italy failed to secure the support of the Eurogroup for the creation of common debt instruments. Indeed, far from the idea advocated by Rome, in the final report of the meeting, the Eurobonds are only furtively alluded to as ‘’innovative financial instruments’’ that the European Council should consider for the financing of the French-sponsored Recovery Fund.

Two steps forward

Nonetheless, in the spirit of the changing times we live in, this failure is quite different from those that preceded it. For a starter, the instrument is now explicitly supported by almost half of the Eurozone (nine Members out of nineteen), including some of its most significant members.

More importantly, also owing to the Italian efforts, the narrative surrounding the Eurobonds is now shifting away from the old paralyzing contributor-recipient dichotomy, towards a more open discussion on how to operationalize the idea in a way that does not offend Northern sensitivities. Such a paradigmatic shift is an essential prerequisite for the eventual creation of Eurobonds et similia.

Besides this, it is possible to notice a fascinating spillover of national frames of European issues in other countries’ public spheres. Put differently, we are witnessing the intrusion of a country’s perception of a topic in another country’s previously self-contained public debate, possibly influencing its outcome.

Although the feats of public diplomacy performed by the Italian Government (and municipal and regional politicians) are not per se revolutionary, they seemingly proved effective in influencing German public opinion on a sensitive topic.

Conclusion

Therefore, although the first round of negotiations did not yield the desired outcome, it is still possible that, in the coming weeks, common debt instruments return on the leaders’ agenda, in one form or another.

Moreover, it is also plausible that the Italian attempt at breaking the boundaries between public spheres might stimulate other governments and national actors to do the same, thereby leading to more frequent transnational discussions with little or no mediation by the host government.

Concerning the shortcomings of the Italian negotiating tactics, it seems appropriate to raise the issue of domestic political cohesion. Arguing, as PM Conte did in the interviews, that Europe should act as a common front against the pandemic when Italian political parties, including those supporting the Government, fail to act coherently on these very issues can severely impact the credibility of the Italian Government.

The old adage ‘’practice what you preach’’ is undoubtedly the best course of action Italy can take in these times of change.

 

[1]Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

[2]Note of caution: the survey conducted after the Italian initiative does not explicitly refer to Eurobonds, but to more general “EU financial help”. More specific opinion polls should investigate further whether German public opinion on the joint debt instruments has effectively changed.

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