A nation of influence

Italy’s role in the European Union

Aimee Bateas
April 7, 2011

As one of the 27 member states of the European Union (EU), Italy, like, its fellow members, is faced with the ongoing challenge of standing out and exerting influence within it. To date, Italy has been one of its most influential states in the EU, an asset to the bloc, largely because of its considerable population, strategic geopolitical position, heavy economic weight and strong influence of the national government, all of which have allowed Italy to shine within the EU.


With almost 60 million people, Italy is considered to be on par with the EU's ‘Big 3': Germany, France and the United Kingdom (UK). Italy's population is only slightly less than that of the UK. Italy's geopolitical position also serves as a major point of influence. As a liaison between the West and East, Italy is in an advantageous position allowing it to connect the Balkan, central and eastern countries, the newest members of the EU, with the western countries, the original members. Italy, therefore, is in a position to bridge the strategic gap between both sides of the metaphoric fence. In terms of the traditional north-south divide in Europe, Italy again is in a prime position. The northern part of the country has long had close ties with continental Europe, while southern Italy has had a strong connection with Greece, Spain and other southern European and Mediterranean nations. Its position allows Italy to frame its policy preferences in any cardinal direction.


In the EU, like any other political system, the more economic power one has the more influence it can exert. Economically, Italy has remained a strong power in Europe. It is the world's 11th largest economy and a member of the G8, a forum for the major economies in the world. Thus, Italy's economic influence allows it to be a major player at the EU level. Within the EU, it is the second-largest manufacturing nation after Germany, and it is considered a world leader in the production of ceramics, textiles and fashion.


The condition of any country's national government also has a direct influence on its ability to exert influence at the EU level. Prior to 1994, in the period known as ‘The First Republic,' Italy had a difficult time exerting its influence because of near-constant parliamentary crises, which prevented it from speaking with one voice. From 1994 to the present, Italy has been consistently governed by mainly pro-European parties. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi may be less pro-EU than others, but his government can hardly be classified as anti-EU.


Italy's history as one of the six founding members of the EU has also made it an influential player. Currently, many Italians hold posts in the EU administration, and Italy maintains a large percentage of the voting weight in the Council of the European Union, the intergovernmental legislature, made up of representatives from member state governments. ‘The Big 3' hold about the same number of votes (allocated based on population) as Italy in the European Parliament, the only directly elected institution and co-legislator with the Council. Italy and the UK each hold 73 seats, while Germany holds 96 seats and France 74; by point of comparison, Malta holds five seats.


Within the European Commission, the initiator of legislation, each member state is allocated one commissioner, who is assigned a portfolio, the policy area for which he or she is responsible. Some portfolios are more important and prestigious than others. Antonio Tajani, the commissioner representing Italy, holds a prominent portfolio, that of enterprise and industry. At the European Central Bank, the one Italian on the six-member executive board is a Florentine, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, who will also be at the upcoming Festival d'Europa (see box) here in Florence.


Curious to learn more about Italy's place within the EU, I spoke with Edoardo Bressanelli, a researcher at the European University Institute in Fiesole, about public opinion of the EU within Italy and about the current eurozone crisis and its impact on the country. He explained that in the early 1990s, when Italy experienced major political and economic problems, the EU was seen as a means to reform Italy. At the time, Italy was preparing to adopt the common currency, the euro. The criteria set by the EU caused Italy to lower its public debt in order to be eligible to adopt the euro, and this greatly benefited the economy.


During the height of the recent eurozone crisis, when Greece was bailed out, scholars were discussing the idea of two Europes: a northern eurozone and a southern one that would return to its original currencies. Since Portugal did not fail and Greece was rescued, the idea of two Europes is no longer a topic of discussion as it was two months ago. Overall, Bressanelli believes, Italy's place in the EU is likely to remain strong, especially with a possibility for an Italian candidate as the president of the European Central Bank, which would send a big message to the rest of the eurozone countries.



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