Left-wing Italian lawmakers in the European Parliament are divided over the legacy of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti ahead of a key election on 24-25 February that is marked by rising euroscepticism.
The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani is on track to win the election, according to polls, closely followed by ex-Prime Minister Silvio Bersluconi's coalition, which has surged in polls recently.
But there is growing euroscepticism in Italy, marked by the the rise of the populist Five-Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo who is credited with a 14% to 18% share of votes, polls show.
The election campaign has revolved around eurosceptic sentiments linked to the fiscal tightening imposed on the Italian economy by Monti, the technocratic prime minister who took charge of the country in late 2011 to redress the situation and calm the markets.
Cuts, tears and austerity
Critics say anti-European feelings are a direct consequence of Monti’s past year of austerity reforms and the cemented Italian image of Europe being only “Cuts, tears and austerity,” said Niccolo Rinaldi, an MEP for the Italy of Values party.
Italy of Values is in the left-wing Civil Revolution coalition of Antonio Ingroia. But in the European Parliament, the party sits in the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group.
"Eurosceptic tendencies are very dangerous during this election," Rinaldi told EURACTIV. "But it's not only populism in the form of Grillo and Berlusconi which has helped demonise Europe.”
“Instead, what is really dangerous for Europe are Monti’s policies, which only propose cuts and austerity, draining Italians of any good perceptions about the EU," Rinaldi said.
Under Monti, Italy accepted several austerity packages, including a property tax. According to Rinaldi, such austerity measures, including hikes on VAT and economic restructuring, have been a major cause in the rise of Italian euroscepticism during the electoral campaign.
“Monti only proposes the negative sides of Europe, without properly applying the positive aspects like the implementation of environmental directives and proper practices on same-sex marriage, funding and upholding the sentences of the European Court of Justice,” said Rinaldi.
The prime minister defends his actions, saying Italy was forced into austerity measures due to its bad public finances and increasingly irreparable debt problems.
“The destiny of every country is no longer decided by its own borders but is determined and intertwined with the global systems in which it’s a member,” Monti said recently.
Monti’s new taxes and austerity reforms have raised concerns among voters who remain suspicious about governmental attempts at alleviating financial problems through fiscal hikes. His policies have nonetheless found strong support in Brussels from officials, including Olli Rehn, commissioner for European Economic Affairs, who praised Monti for his fiscal legislation and rises on property and consumer taxes throughout 2012.
Berlusconi's rhetoric against Europe
Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right Freedom Party (PdL), has also elevated his eurosceptic rhetoric during the election campaign, calling for Italy to remain tough on northern European countries and the EU as a whole.
Francesco de Angelis, an MEP for the Democratic Party, told EURACTIV that, contrary to Rinaldi’s beliefs, the real dangers of the Italian election remain eurosceptic tendencies tied to "Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo."
“A number of political parties are keen on blaming Europe for any structural faults that affect the Italian system. In reality, Europe has often, if not always, been a remarkable aid for Italy,” he said.
“Berlusconi has a track record and Grillo is heading a successful movement that will gain an important portion of consensus. Both have structured their electoral campaigns around anti-European arguments, making them Italy’s most populist and dangerous leaders at the moment,” De Angelis said.