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Citizens’ dialogue: Is Italy a special case?

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, between Luigi Di Maio (left) and Matteo Salvini (right) [personal archive]

The European Commission is ready to strengthen its citizens’ dialogue policy in order to explain to the Europeans what Union is about and what it is doing for them, Jean-Claude Juncker announced in mid-December. “There was a broad agreement that we should continue, as European Commission, with our citizens’ dialogues”, Juncker said at the press conference following the end of the December summit.

“We have organized since the very beginning of our mandate 1,300 dialogues, reaching 160,000 people”, he summed up, adding: “This is not enough. Nevertheless we are continuing this explanation exercise”.

As Juncker stressed, the citizens’ dialogue has so far reached a total of 160,000 people. In comparison, Italy alone counts a bit more than 60 million inhabitants.

The Commission President has of course in mind European elections, to be held next May. The ambition of the executive body of the EU is to play a new, renovated and more powerful role in the political debate surrounding the Union’s most important political cycle.

At a time when the UK is leaving the Union, it is even more important for Juncker, who seeks no re-election, but is conscious of the need to leave a political legacy, to relaunch the debate in order to get the European elections right.

Unlike his political force that still shelters Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Juncker accused the prime minister of Hungary of distorting the truth. “When he say that migrants are responsible for Brexit, it is a fake news”, the Commission President said.

Incidentally, Orban is the leader with whom the rising star of Italian politics, Matteo Salvini, deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League, number one force in Italy, is seeking a political alliance, possibly after the European Elections. It may be strange that the two became bedfellows: Italy is exposed to massive migration coming from the Mediterranean, while landlocked Hungary is protected with fences. Italy needs European solidarity to be relieved from the immigrant burden, something Orban strongly refuses.

Thus Juncker’s explicit references to the Hungarian prime minister contains another, more discrete message: by saying loud and clear how fake are the declarations of certain people from his own political family, we can guess that that the upcoming “explanatory missions” of the EU commissioners in Italy would dismantle the untrue narrative put forward to Italians by Salvini.

The governing coalition bombarded Italians by unfriendly messages and statements on the European Union. Matteo Salvini’s League and Di Maio’s 5-Star Movement have been repeating that the EU is the main sources of the many problems the country is facing. This rhetoric was maintained even after the general elections of last March, well beyond the “needs” of the electoral campaign.

In the European Commission there is the perception of Italy as a sort of special case. After the summer break the EU executive body has organized in the country six different citizens’ dialogue, from September to December (15 September, 20 September, 4 October, 9 October, 18 October, 7 December). In practice, more than one citizen’s dialogue per month took place in the Italian peninsula. Overall 21 citizens’ dialogues were organized in Italy in 2018.

Is this enough to highlight the challenging nature of Italy? If not, it must be kept in mind what the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, stated after the deal reached between Rome and Brussels on the Italian draft budgetary plan. “I hope that after today we can move beyond these caricatures”, he said soon before the Christmas break.

There is thus the perception of a Member States where the debate on Europe is based on fake-news. “Caricatures”, as Moscovici said, are maybe not 100% lies, but of course are not 100% truth, either. “The European Commission is not the enemy of the Italian people, that we are not a machine made up of insensitive bureaucrats, imposing austerity and denying democracy”, Moscovici added.

The European Commission wants to explain exactly all that. A specific 2019 calendar for citizen’s dialogue in Italy has not been drafted yet, but something is already scheduled for Italians: the 27th of February, 2019, it will take place in Trapani (Sicily) the event “Towards a European Public Opinion: My Vote Counts”, organized in the framework of the strategic dialogue between Italy and Malta.

It would be a major development if the European Commission would be ready to be on the offensive in all remaining 27 EU member states, including Italy. The situation differs from one country to another, but it is really dramatic in Italy – a pro-European country founder of the EU, in dire need of an effective counter-narrative against the one offered by the ruling parties and their leaders.

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