FORGET about Brexit – the real existential European crisis is taking place in Italy, a thousand miles to the south.
And if you thought the UK’s decision to abandon the EU ship was a grievous blow, it would sink the leaky old vessel without trace if “Italexit” ever happens.
Is that likely? I wouldn’t go that far, but it is far from inconceivable, largely thanks to the bone-headed stupidity of the pen-pushers in Brussels.
In March this year the Italian people, thoroughly fed up of a decade of EU-imposed austerity that has seen huge cuts in public services and rocketing unemployment, particularly amongst the young, voted in a new populist government.
The new administration was nothing like anything the Italians had seen before – a curious hybrid combining both the left-of-centre Five Star Movement and the right-of-centre Lega party.
They promised an ambitious programme of tax cuts, increased help for the poor and lowering of the retirement age, and this week they announced a budget to deliver on these pledges.
Whether these policies are wise is beside the point. Italy is in a terrible state – the banks are believed to be holed below the water line and the country’s debt has already reached an eye-watering 130 per cent of GDP.
It is questionable whether more debt will solve these problems, but at least the new programme has a chance of promoting much needed economic growth. Either way that is what the people voted for and – in a democracy – that should be that.
But the EU is not a democracy – never has been, and never will be. So along comes a European Commissioner by the name of Valdis Dombrovskis, who is not elected to anything, to loftily inform the Italian people that they are not allowed to enact the policies they voted for.
Instead, Mr Dombrovskis who hails from Latvia, a tiny country with a population of less than two million, ordered the democratically-elected Italian government to re-write the budget to conform to EU-imposed austerity rules – in other words to enact precisely the same failed policies that have led to such misery, and which sparked the populist revolt in the first place.
As we have seen first-hand in the Brexit negotiations, this sort of arrogant bullying is the default mode among unelected, unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats. Indeed, we witnessed similar bullying behaviour when the desperate people of Greece were persecuted and humiliated for daring to question EU austerity that has destroyed the livelihoods of entire generations.
But Italy is not Greece. Whereas Greece is relatively small and weak, Italy has a population of some 60 million and is the third largest economy in the eurozone – and it is flexing its muscles.
If Italy pulls the plug, there are serious doubts the EU could survive. Already, anti-EU sentiment is on the rise in the country. A recent survey by Eurobarometer found that only 44 per cent of Italians wanted to remain in the EU. That’s a smaller figure than the UK – and we are leaving!
The European Commission has ordered Italy to come up with a more acceptable budget – more acceptable that is to their political masters in Brussels – within three weeks. But so far there is little sign of the Italians backing down. Indeed, buoyed by a huge increase of its popularity amongst voters, the Italian government has wind in its sails.
This week the combative Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, dismissed EU threats and added: “They want us to cut the funds for health, for disability, for the rights to education. There’s no way! If they continue inflicting random blows, it makes me want to give the Italian people more money.”
The EU has lots of problems – the euro is failing, the economy is stagnant, some countries have levels of debt that will probably never be paid off, and it also has little clue what to do about uncontrolled immigration and the increasing terrorist threat.
But this episode exposes an even bigger problem – one that I believe will result in the ultimate demise of the EU.
If you have a small, out-of-touch cadre of unaccountable, unresponsive bureaucrats, who are entirely resistant to the smallest of reforms and who constantly attempt to thwart the legitimate aspirations of millions of people, there will only ever be one winner. And that is why the EU is doomed.