The view from Piedmont

After over seven weeks of shut down in Italy, people weary of mask-wearing and worried about when they can return to work, despair at the lack of EU urgency. The time for summitry is over. They must be shown and not just told about solidarity. 

The EU struggles to deal with the crises confronting it.  As it now deals with its third major crisis this century, the stay-together-come-what-may argument is coming under renewed pressure. Sustaining it, even in one of the EU’s founding states, will be increasingly difficult if its citizens do not feel they are being listened to. 

Already, several weeks ago, whilst the EU was embarking upon a series of meetings to agree its Coronavirus response, Italian news channels were dominated by the arrival of Venezuelan and Cuban doctors. Whatever the ultimate scale of the EU’s financial assistance, it may be this immediate and visible support from the other side of the world which Italians remember.

They may remember the powerful, poetic letter from their Prime Minister Conte to the European Commission, reminding the EU of its historic vision and warning that to fail to help Italy would be to damage irreparably the EU’s chances of survival. Perhaps they will have noted the heartfelt apology to Italy from the President of the European Commission which it elicited.

Just as likely, they will remember – and be repeatedly reminded of - the angry proclamations of far-right leader Matteo Salvini who spoke of Italy’s humiliation at having to ‘beg’ its neighbours for assistance. If this view gains hold, it is a major threat to the future of politics in Italy and the wider health of the EU. 

Hundreds of European economists, intellectuals and activists wrote an open letter last week to Angela Merkel, calling for the introduction of European bonds. “It is of paramount importance to act now and show the people of Europe that we are actually doing so in an extraordinary way…signalling to the world that Europeans stand together in the face of this crisis.”

In one of the greatest ironies of the crisis, it may be the UK which presents an unlikely glimmer of hope for the cause of pan-European cooperation. Whilst debate rages about who is responsible for the country’s failure to engage in an EU equipment procurement scheme, encouragingly there has been relatively little in-principle opposition to the possible merits of participating in such continent-wide mechanisms. 

This, in the country where on the very day the WHO was declaring a global health emergency, preparations were underway to celebrate leaving the EU and its co-operation agencies, including the European Medical Agency.

Since ‘Brexit Day’, 

  • Sixty German ventilators have been received in the UK with thanks, if relatively little fanfare. 

  • Romanian agricultural workers are being welcomed back in the face of a shortage of qualified labour. 

  • Migrant nurses have been lauded as heroes in the pro-hard Brexit press. 

  • Most remarkable of all, with no apparent embarrassment, much was made of the UK awaiting a critical shipment of PPE equipment from Turkey – by some of the same people who led a xenophobic campaign against Turkey, holding up its EU accession as one of the greatest threats to the UK of voting to remain in the EU.

Reasonable charges of hypocrisy aside, perhaps, just perhaps, the recognition that the UK needs its neighbours provides grounds for all for optimism. Though unlikely to reverse our own separation, we can hope for a better future co-existence. If this is possible in the UK, Europe’s leaders must surely find the courage to heed their political, emotional convictions and to pave the way back to a Europe of true solidarity. We can transform the invisible Covid threat, which has forced us apart, into a strengthening of the invisible ties which bind us – and emerge from our physical distancing, emotionally closer.

Laura Parker was a candidate in 2019 European election in London and former coordinator of Momentum. She is in Lockdown with her husband’s family in Piedmont.

By Laura Parker - Former national coordinator of Momentum

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