That apparent tension—between national sovereignty and continental unity—still animates much of the debate in Europe about Greece. It is a dynamic that is as much psychological as it is political, and goes beyond the financial and moral obligations of membership to a common-currency area. It is about how much austerity a country can withstand without breaking, about whether Greece needed to be punished, and about whether being part of the EU (and the euro) is a help or a hindrance.
Read: The Greek bailout’s legacy of immiseration
In Italy, for instance, few days go by without Matteo Salvini, the country’s right-wing populist interior minister and the man widely seen as a leader-in-waiting, saying that Italy doesn’t want to “meet the same fate as Greece.” In Salvini’s rhetoric, winding up like Greece means ceding national sovereignty to the baddies of the European Union, who in turn would impose an emasculating austerity regime on Italy. His party has long flirted with the idea of exiting the euro, or even creating temporary IOUs as a parallel currency—a notion that fires up the base, but is not likely to happen because it’s illegal and would cause the single currency to collapse.
On social media and in the piazzas where he’s been campaigning, Salvini frequently cites a figure from the past: Mario Monti, who led Italy at the height of Europe’s debt crisis, from 2011 to 2013, during which the country raised the retirement age in a pension reform that the current government in Rome is working to overturn. For Salvini’s voters, the mere mention of Monti, an unelected technocrat who governed Italy with the blessing of Brussels, triggers a sense of outrage.
That’s because in Italy, membership in the European Union has always been seen as an external constraint, something that forced the country to get its house in order before the introduction of the euro and that helps keep it in line now. The general perception is that Italy wouldn’t step up on its own unless compelled to. Monti’s government embodied that, and the current populist government came to power as a response to a perceived loss of national sovereignty.
Last summer, when forest fires ravaged an area outside Athens, killing 103 people, Federico Fubini, a deputy editor of Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, wrote a column asking whether budget cuts to Greek state services might have made the fires harder to contain. “You cannot imagine how viral that article became. I think I’ve never written an article that was received so violently,” Fubini, the author of a new book, Per Amor Proprio: Why Italy Should Stop Hating Europe (and Stop Being Ashamed of Itself), told me.
Euroskeptics from Salvini’s League party cited his column as evidence of how “austerity kills,” Fubini said, while “the pro-Europeans attacked me very violently because they said my data was fake.” Greece’s so-named troika of lenders—the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—is on the defensive about the social and human toll of the austerity it imposed on Greece in exchange for the country’s bailout. After Fubini’s column appeared, a senior European Commission official wrote a letter rebutting his argument. “The minute I provided the data, the whole discussion died out,” Fubini told me. But it showed how sensitive the issue of Greece remains in Europe.