Italy’s Letta Signals Support for Britain’s European Reform Effort

The Italian prime minister agrees that the European Union should be reformed to keep Britain as a member.

Italian prime minister Enrico Letta attends a meeting of the Party of European Socialists in Brussels, June 27
Italian prime minister Enrico Letta attends a meeting of the Party of European Socialists in Brussels, June 27 (PES)

Italy’s prime minister Enrico Letta backed his British counterpart David Cameron’s desire to renegotiate the terms of his country’s European Union membership on Wednesday, suggesting that such reform could benefit Italy as well.

Although Letta told the BBC ahead of a meeting with Cameron in London that a British exit from the bloc would be a “disaster,” he argued that it was possible for the island nation to repatriate powers from Brussels. “We can have a new treaty negotiation for the United Kingdom to have a different link but remaining on board and for Italy or other countries in the euro to have a more integrated eurozone,” he said.

Cameron has promised his increasingly Euroskeptic electorate a referendum on membership after the next general election of 2015 by which time he hopes to have secured ample changes in Britain’s relationship with the continent to persuade voters to stay in the European Union — which he advocates because Europe’s single market makes it easier for British firms to do business abroad.

In Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, Letta wrote on Tuesday that deeper integration among eurozone member states is necessary to preserve the single currency. “This applies for instance to banking union, where an appropriate resolution mechanism should be established to match the progress made in the area of supervision. This will help separate sovereign and banking risks, mitigating the credit crunch and reducing the fragmentation of the financial markets along national borders.” Other Southern European countries were at risk of default when they had bailed out banks during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Britain, outside the euro, is wary of such schemes, however, which it fears could dilute the competitiveness of its financial industry. Letta cautioned that “greater integration in the eurozone should not challenge the integrity of the single market or leave countries outside the eurozone less comfortable with their membership of the union.” He particularly cited less regulatory meddling from Brussels as a condition from keeping Britain engaged.

We need to reshape the union so that it can accommodate the interests of countries which want to move forward toward greater political and economic integration and countries which prefer a cooperation around the single market.

Letta’s call on other European Union states to welcome Britain’s reform effort rather than shun it follows the Netherlands’ similar assault on “creeping” interference from Brussels last month. The government there, which, like Letta’s, is a coalition of the country’s largest left- and right-wing parties, argued that economic and political integration should be limited to where cooperation makes sense. “The time of an ever-closer union in every possible policy area is behind us,” it said.

Other member states have been less sympathetic. France famously rejected an “à la carte Europe” and promised to roll out the red carpet if Britain decided to leave. Germany’s frustration with Britain’s ambivalence toward European integration has compelled it to strengthen its axis with France instead, even if it has traditionally appreciated the United Kingdom as a natural balancer against a Mediterranean bloc that tends to be less frugal and more protectionist.