The devil is in the details, but EU leaders this week will wrangle a deal which might be a starter’s pistol for Brussels to fall on its sword.
The coronavirus in Italy is the European Union's worst nightmare in its short and unremarkable life. The public has watched, and Italians in particular, as EU nations choose self-interest over the greater good while the bloc itself stumbles to protect its more vulnerable members. Italy is now in a position to make or break the EU project.
In Brussels, the EU finally got its act together when its finance ministers threw their weight behind a 590 billion euro ($644 billion) "rescue package" which is primarily aimed at businesses and those who lost jobs.
At first glance, this looks like a step in the right direction, but the devil is in the details, and it is this facet which Italian MPs and MEPs will be studying in the days to come as. It now needs to be signed off by EU leaders and is in for a bumpy ride as countries in Northern Europe are about to overload it with conditions similar to those placed on Greece which began in 2010.
Yet whether the EU can survive the political fallout is another matter.
Many Italians don't believe their case is at all like Greece and therefore shouldn't be bailed out Greek style. Some believe that the debt should be at least shared. Others also think that the EU's credibility will not survive a Greek-style bailout. The more time that passes, the more people in Europe realise that the EU, to some extent, can be blamed for the spread of the pandemic – or at least the total failure to take collective action against it, once it gathered pace.
And so Italians are in a remarkably powerful position, despite being the poor man of Europe and being hit the hardest by the coronavirus.
Ironically, it could also save the EU, rather than push it over the edge, although the EU appears to be doing a great job at sailing full steam ahead towards the abyss.
The bailout, as a starter, is lined with a distinct undertone of defeatism by those in Brussels who see the EU as a once 'superpower'.
Firstly, it isn't a bailout, but a loan as the lion's share comes from the European Central Bank and the EU's commercial coffer – an opaque, if not shrouded, Luxembourg profit-making investment bank, the EIB.
Member states will be expected to pay this debt back, as in the case of Greece it is borrowing money from the EU to pay back its EU debts until 2060.
Many might argue that even if Italy agreed to the deal – during a new period where the European Union has almost a majority of its MEPs in the European Parliament from populist or far-right parties – that the message might be the wrong one: we didn't prepare any health policies against pandemics within the EU, despite blowing hundreds of billions of euros on a fake Directorate Generale of Health (with hundreds of overpaid eurocrats and a Greek Commissioner), but we will process a massive bank loan to you, now that you're in the toilet.
And as a footnote to that, of course, member states become even more indebted to Brussels and the EU project, which is all in line with the "fairy-tale" plans of the EU to grab more power from them through what some EU officials euphemistically call "consolidating" powers. We all know that means decentralisation of sovereignty away from capitals to Brussels institutions.
Yet it seems that the great minds which pushed for EU finance ministers to back the draft proposal on April 9 have shot themselves in the foot in the small print. Not only is the bailout a loan, but it also seems only to be targeted at eurozone countries, which gives you a clue as to where France and Germany stand on who gets to dig into the fund and who doesn't.
Could the same rescue plan be used by eurozone countries to bail out their own economies, in a move which masquerades as a rescue plan for Spain and Italy?
And is it even enough? When you consider that Spain alone signed off 200 billion euros ($200 billion) towards a plan to rescue failed businesses and the unemployed while the UK stumped up well over double that, it's hard to see how this amount will be of much use.
One eurosceptic country, the Netherlands, is kicking up a fuss over some of the conditions which EU finance ministers signed off on. Spain, France and Italy are holding out for a "corona bond" seen more as a way of giving Italy and Spain a loan which is effectively shared across the EU and less of a finance package for Italy to sign up to in its own.
Italy's opposition leader Matteo Salvini has sworn to fight it tooth and claw. At the same time, the country's former PM Enrico Letta warned in an interview with the staunchly pro-EU British broadsheet, The Guardian, that the coronavirus crisis could be the end of the EU – a point which was echoed by France's former European Commission president Jacques Delors who warned that a "lack of solidarity" posed a "mortal danger" to the 27 nation bloc he helped to build.
The EU doesn't do contingency plans. But the idea of Italy with its hand on the lever over whether the EU gets to survive or falls on its own sword is a bit like that that dinner party joke in the 1990s about Italy's finances, where the punch line is "I wasn't even aware Italy had a finance minister." I guess you had to be there.
But this week's meeting with EU leaders who will wrangle over the fine print is no joke. It's the greatest and most prolific threat to the EU's existence as we know it.
Many consider the EU as an old man riding a bicycle who, if he moves too slowly, will fall off never to get back on.
"If we do not seize the opportunity to put new life into the European project, the risk of failure is real," Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the BBC ahead of the EU finance minister's meeting, without a trace of irony when calling the EU a "project".
Indeed, the Italian PM's comment lends weight to the importance of helping Italy, but on terms which Italians can accept, but it also adds the second more chilling prospect of getting it wrong.
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