In both Italy and Spain—two of the hardest-hit economies in Europe—I found a tendency to turn inward and focus on events at home rather than developments abroad. My visit to Spain, for example, coincided with an incident in the Catalan Parliament in which a lawmaker took off his sandal and threatened Rodrigo Rato, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who was testifying at a hearing about the large, bailed-out Spanish bank he had led, Bankia.
Naturally, the incident attracted a lot of media attention; almost everyone with whom I spoke in Spain mentioned it. What received significantly less press was the news that on that same day, in Beijing, Chinese officials had unveiled major economic reforms at the Communist Party’s Third Plenum. I noticed the same inward-looking attitude in Italy. For the past two decades, any visit to the country has been bound to coincide with some attention-grabbing news about Silvio Berlusconi and his relationship with power and, inevitably, women. This time was no different, with the buzz centering on the lead-up to the Italian Senate’s expulsion of the former Italian prime minister. And yet, if the decisions made at the Third Plenum help China avoid an abrupt economic slowdown that would harm the global economy—and prolong Italy and Spain's economic troubles—then what happened in Beijing will have a far greater impact on the lives of Italians and Spaniards than the theatrics of Catalonia’s sandal-toting legislator or the travails of Italy’s former prime minister. Despite these realities, I found that even well-informed elites in these countries are paying little attention to what is going on in China—or in the rest of the world, for that matter.
In fact, the “the rest of the world” increasingly seems to be a mere blip on the radar of many Spaniards and Italians. And, sadly, “the rest” now even includes Europe. Growing indifference to a European project that promised much and has fallen short of high initial expectations has been noticeable for some time now. And the region’s economic crisis, with its uncertain future and legacy of massive unemployment, has deepened disappointment and disinterest in the European Union. Granted, there is support for some of the more tangible features of the EU, like free trade and more open borders that facilitate the movement of people. But there is little backing for a more united Europe, and I could not find anyone during my trip who felt that deeper integration could spur the economic growth that crisis-stricken countries desperately need. On this subject, the opinions of Italians and Spaniards are consistent with those of their fellow Europeans. According to the Eurobarometer, a survey of 27 EU member countries, half of all citizens are pessimistic about the future of the European Union as an institution, and 69 percent express no confidence in it at all. Two-thirds feel as if their voice is meaningless in the decisions taken by the EU.