ITALY ELECTION WARNING: Eurosceptics seek major gains amid growing anger with Brussels

Italy is a founding member of the EU and once Britain leaves the bloc will be its third biggest economy but it has always struggled to be taken seriously at the top table.

Observers note that neighbours’ interest in the country always tends to be fleeting but eyebrows have been raised in Brussels as anti-EU parties make headway in the polls.

Prime Minister Paulo Gentiloni’s Democratic Party has been floundering in third place behind former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance and the populist Eurosceptic 5Star Movement.

Brussels wants a grand coalition of pro-European centre-left and centre-right to emerge in Italy, preferably under Mr Gentiloni’s leadership, but an angry electorate may get in the way.

Italians are fed up with the EU for failing to help their country deal with with a flood of migrants across the Mediterranean and for forcing it into austerity during the eurozone crisis that prolonged their economic stagnation.

Italy has a population size similar to Britain and France but its unstable political system with frequently changing governments and weak public administration usually see it outmuscled in Europe. 

Marc Lazar, professor of history and political sociology at Paris’ Sciences-Po university and president of the school of government at LUISS in Rome, said: “The great transformation in Italy is that a country that was once the most pro-European has now become as Eurosceptical as France.

“Italy suffered more than most since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, even if there is now a slight return of growth.

“Above all, Italians felt abandoned by Europe over the migrants. They haven’t seen any European solidarity.

“The French think of Italy either when they have problems with Germany, or when Italy has an election that could spell trouble. 

“France and Germany have been a stable couple for 55 years of married life.

“The relationship gets a bit stale, so an Italian mistress looks attractive, if only to add a bit of spice to the Franco-German couple.”

Germany has always viewed Italy as a source of problems rather than opportunities knowing it is the one country big enough to bring the eurozone down if it suffers a major bank failure or loses access to financial markets.

Berlin, Paris and the European Central Bank were forced to step in at the height of the eurozone crisis in 2011 when Italian bond yields hit danger levels.

The near-miss forced Mr Berlusconi out of office and led to Mario Monti’s appointment as the head of a government of technocrats.

Mr Berlusconi is now back on the scene and leading his Forza Italia party into next month’s election in coalition with fellow right-wingers Lega Nord.

The election result could cause headaches in Brussels with a long period of political paralysis in Rome or a Eurosceptic government of right-wing, anti-immigration populists.

But experts believe Italy is unlikely to have much voice in reshaping and EU dominated by French and German voices regardless of the outcome.