The famous Canova cafe, in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, was once Federico Fellini’s preferred spot for a morning coffee. This month, the Canova was in the spotlight again as it reopened its doors, in glorious sunshine, after two and a half months of lockdown. “It’s a beautiful, exciting day,” said Valentino Casanova, one of the cafe’s barmen, whose words were reported around the world.
The reopening of Italy’s restaurants and bars — albeit with tight restrictions in place — is undoubtedly an uplifting moment. Italy alerted the rest of Europe to the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic; the return of its osterie and trattorie feels like a triumph of civilized pleasures over the annihilating bleakness of the virus.
But no one in Italy is hailing a restoration of la dolce vita, as shutters are raised and tables are laid out in piazzas once more. In places such as Canova, seating capacity will have to be reduced by at least 40% for the foreseeable future. Running at around half capacity, with extra safety measures to pay for, many are likely to go the wall.
The bigger economic picture is equally challenging. Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, told fellow citizens that the country was taking a “calculated risk” by loosening the lockdown, but that it could not afford to wait around for a vaccine. After 20 years of stagnation, racked by huge public debt and heading for inevitable recession, Italy’s economy now faces the fight of its life.
The European commission forecasts a downturn of more than 9% this year. That would send the country’s public debt soaring to over 155% of GDP — easily the highest ratio, after Greece, in the eurozone. Yet with business on its knees, the government has been obliged to up the ante on spending. Conte’s government signed off on a stimulus package that, combined with a steep fall in tax revenue, is likely to drive the annual budget deficit up to more than 10% of GDP.
Governments across Europe are, of course, facing similar problems, after sending economies into hibernation. But Italy’s debt levels make it uniquely vulnerable. There are ominous signs that the markets are beginning to turn the screw. One ratings agency recently reduced Italy’s credit status to one notch above junk, and government bond yields are steadily creeping upward.
It is in this menacing context that the European Union may soon have a crucial judgment to make. Along with the leaders of eight other countries, including France, Spain and Portugal, Conte has called for a new common E.U. debt instrument to raise funds to assist recovery. Germany and the Netherlands have resisted this idea, pointing to existing options such as the European stability mechanism, which allows for countries in difficulty to receive guaranteed loans.
At root, this is a debate about how much Europe’s stronger economies should share risk with weaker members of the eurozone, in the context of an unforeseen public health emergency. How it plays out could have significant political consequences. Recent polls have indicated that Italian Euroscepticism is on the rise. Waiting in the wings, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, would hope to profit from any economic meltdown. As Italy unlocks, it is in the E.U.’s interests to ensure that does not happen.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE GUARDIAN