PoliticsSociety and CultureThe Risk Radar

June 2019: Italy as an emblem of European nostalgia

Italy is increasingly considered the problem child of Europe. Currently, a lot of attention is paid to Italy’s excessive debt, its deteriorating deficit and the EU sanctions it faces. But Italy has also become emblematic for other challenges that Europe is facing and that have changed the reality of Europe over recent years. These challenges entail two flows of people entering the continent, tourists and migrants, which have resulted in a different economy and political structure for multiple countries. Italy serves as a bellwether of what might await other European countries.

First, tourism has been rapidly changing Europe over the last years. Europe is the world’s largest tourism market. Since 2008, overnight stays in European cities have jumped 57%. While this significantly benefits the economy, the flipside of mass tourism is increasingly tangible. This is especially true for Venice, the Italian city that is fighting Europe’s worst tourism crisis. In Venice and similarly affected cities, overtourism is causing problems ranging from housing affordability and environmental degradation to the deterioration of local life. In the novel Grand Hotel Europe by the Dutch, Italian-based writer Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Venice is described as emblematic of the problems of mass tourism, as the symbol of a Europe that has turned into a museum, as an example of how Europe is living in and feeding off memories of the glorious past. Especially since Europe is rapidly ageing and burdening the young generations, the continent is literally becoming an old place to visit. The actual architecture of Europe is changing into an architecture of memory – with an ever-increasing number of museums, hotels, AirBnB apartments. Mass tourism, in the view of Pfeijffer, is problematic as it “tends to destroy what attracts it: authenticity.” As Italian cities are being transformed by the influx of tourists, a sense of losing one’s home, particularly in Venice, is becoming real for inhabitants.

Second, the ongoing migration crisis has changed Europe. While migration is rather a perceived threat than an actual threat to many countries, considering the relatively small number of people actually entering the countries, it has had a devastating effect on the political establishment. The fear of a “tidal wave of migrants” has been used in election rhetoric, has damaged traditional parties and given rise to populist parties across the continent. Again, Italy is taking center stage in this altering political reality, as most who cross the Mediterranean enter Europe through Italy. The incoming migrants have unleashed a fear of globalization, revived a sense of nationalism, and even brought back fascist sentiments. Migration was among the main themes linking the coalition parties of the new populist government. It has led to “Italy first” and anti-migrant policies such as refusing rescue boats permission to dock and persecuting NGO groups which aim to rescue migrants in the sea, as happened last month. Although job insecurity and unemployment may be of greater concern to Italians, migration concerns are easier to be capitalized upon by populist politicians, referring to a time that was better, without the presence of newcomers.

Italy’s struggle with mass-tourism and the fear of migrants do not bode well for any other European country that fails to address one of the two challenges, further fueling populism, nationalism, xenophobia, and polarization. Already, overtourism is considered a serious problem for many European cities this summer and is only expected to increase in the next years. An EU report on overtourism found 105 areas in a state of overtourism already last year. Furthermore, climate change will lead to new migration to the continent in the future.

  • Implications:
  • As a result, nostalgia for the old Europe is growing. The Bertelsmann Foundation research on France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Poland shows that 67% of Europeans believe the world used to be a better place, with Italy again leading with 77%.
  • According to the writers of Anglo Nostalgia, nostalgic nationalism is the current political malaise of Western countries, as it depicts the past in an idealized way while leaving out relevant details. “Make America great again” or “Italy first” are cries of “toxic restorative nostalgia”, capturing the economic pain of the left-behind, the fear accompanied with immigration, and the ambitions of a once-glorious country while not offering a future.
  • Nostalgia might further trigger disintegration of Europe. Italy has become the main exponent of the anti-EU sentiment in Europe. Nowhere has support for the bloc plummeted as dramatically as in Italy.
  • Voters inclined to nostalgia are typically politically right-leaning and critical of immigration, as 53% of nostalgic Europeans are convinced that immigrants “take jobs away”.
  • Among young people, the Italians are also leading the nostalgia survey: 64% views the past in a better light than the present. As young Italians are struggling with unemployment and have no faith in the future, the young generation is migrating en masse, even though they are desperately needed to rebuild the country.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 1: Policy uncertainty, protectionism

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