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Italy and Europe

Milan, 05/02/2019, Roundtable for Aspen University Fellows

The first of the 2019 Aspen University Fellows round table discussions was dedicated to Italy’s and Europe’s prospects for a year that will see the qualms of Brexit intersect with European parliamentary elections and the economic uncertainty of a continent unable to generate shared prosperity and beset with rising social tensions.

The so-called “Erasmus generation” is inclined to take Europe as a fait accompli, almost a commodity, rather than a work in progress. Thus, participants examined both current events and underlying values and roots as well as on the achievements and problematics of the common project. This two-fold undertaking called for a solid historical examination of the European integration process in which Italy has been involved for the past 70 years.

Analytic hindsight revealed the benefits that the birth of the European Union brought to individual community nations. More than half a century of peace, reduced poverty, expansion of social welfare and civil rights are some of the goals that were met within the European framework. Many countries experienced high growth, of which the Italian economic miracle of the 1960s is a good example. The Italian manufacturing sector, a mosaic of small and medium sized enterprises and initially sceptical, succeeded in adapting itself in order to reap the significant benefits of the single market. More recently, the monetary union introduced a long period of low interest rates and contained inflation, a combination previously unknown to many member states. At the same time, in response to financial crises, the European Union has been able to offer instruments such as the European Central Bank’s Quantitative Easing and the European Stability Fund.

The discussion focused on the challenges that Europe now faces. It was underscored how the European Union cannot limit itself to regulating global phenomena, but must also foster innovation. The advent of the digital economy has facilitated the rise of near monopolies in markets such as on-line shopping and social network – a particularly strong consideration for younger generations demanding greater access to the web and social media. Nevertheless, the need to confront dominant web-based financial, technological and economic positions in areas such as data and privacy protections must not fail to create the conditions for a market capable of fostering the emergence of European entities capable of interfacing with American and Chinese giants.

Global concerns such as security, climate change and mass migration can only be confronted at the kind of supranational scale that Europe can offer. It was pointed out that the challenges of the 21st century can clearly not be addressed by individual European nations alone, which prompted the question of what is standing in the way of a European common foreign and defence policy (with significant associated gains in efficiency and effectiveness), and an efficacious and incisive common economic policy (with an adequate budget). Furthermore, the ageing of the population common to all advanced countries is an ulterior challenge requiring common or convergent policies. 

The European Union’s experience combines positive with equally problematic aspects and even failures. It is essential to safeguard what has been achieved; defending gains at the level of European integration also entails finding the strength to introduce changes and improvements. Its institutional architecture is a controversial element. Greater responsibility and powers must be assigned to representative European institutions such as the European Parliament and Commission, but a tendency to pursue what are often contrasting national interests persists, thus shifting the balance of power toward the European Council, another representative body. A poor understanding, common to both young people and adults, of how the European Union is destined to foment scepticism and a sense of exclusion, can lead to opting out of both the single currency and the EU.

Many Aspen University Fellows’ experience of European level study and their belonging to a generation that has always enjoyed the benefits of European citizenship, such as free and inexpensive movement, was one of the discussion’s main threads, with many questions raised about what instruments might best help citizens to see Europe beyond its economic and legal aspects, not least in light of the upcoming European elections. Understanding the identity that European citizens can most closely relate to is undeniably the key to deciphering what the European Union effectively is, and if it is still built of peoples and citizens. It is especially urgent to concentrate on the aim to create “a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress” described in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.