11 Jul 2023, 10:35

Q&A – Italy strives to become EU energy leader a year ahead of 2024 EU vote

In early June 2024, Italian citizens will head to the polls to elect their representatives in the European Parliament, along with the other member states. Public debate remains fierce with continued inflation and energy woes, and surveys suggest a higher turnout than last time. Concerns over the impacts of climate change have risen following one of the hottest and driest years on record, especially amongst the young, who are demanding faster and more ambitious action. Meanwhile, the sitting government, which took office less than a year ago, has repeatedly criticised European green transition plans, arguing that these could undermine Italian industry, even through it has shown continued support for European climate goals.

1. Which European climate and energy policy debates are important in Italy’s national conversation?

After the energy crisis that hit Europe due Russia's war in Ukraine, Italy has bid to become Europe's gas hub with the goal to achieve a greater importance and geopolitical role, and supply almost all of Central Europe. In the first days of 2023, the Italian government signed two new agreements between Eni and Sonatrach, the Algerian state company, which aim to further satisfy energy needs both through the creation of a new gas pipeline, which is also functional for the transport of hydrogen, the laying of an undersea power cable and the increase of liquefied gas production capacity. These efforts to make Italy an energy hub and connecting it to African countries has been referred to as the “new Mattei plan”, named after Eni founder Enrico Mattei. These plans will involve Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, but also Mozambique and Qatar. 

The Italian government, which took office less than a year ago, has generally been in support of revamping EU climate and energy policy through the Fit for 55 package of laws. However, in the past few months, Italy's government has often been critical of certain individual European proposals, worried that ecological transition could hit several industry sectors. Italy's decision to oppose EU plans to fully outlaw the sale of new petrol and diesel cars was one example. In another case, Italian right-wing parties opposed the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

Italian public debate over climate is polarised. An example is in the reaction to climate protests like those by the Last Generation, a climate movement which has used intentionally disruptive tactics like blocking traffic or spraying the facade of the famous Palazzo Vecchio in Florence with orange paint to draw attention to the need to decarbonise. A recent survey conducted by polling agency Ipsos Mori, suggests that 54 percent of Italians believe such protests are intolerable, with 35 percent believing the protests are excessive, but understandable.

Italy was one of only a handful of European countries which sent its National Energy And Climate Plan (NECP) update to Brussels in time for the 30 June deadline. The proposal aims for a 40 percent share of renewables in gross final energy consumption by 2030, with 65 percent for electricity consumption, 37 percent renewable energy for heating and cooling, 31 percent in transportation, and 42 percent hydrogen from renewables for industry.

However, according to an analysis by the think tank Ecco, a 65 percent renewables share in the energy system is still far off from the 76 percent needed to honour G7 commitments, signed by Italy, to massively decarbonise the energy system by 2035. According to NGOs WWF, Greenpeace, Legambiente, Kyoto Club, and Transport & Environment, the NECP seems "to lack a clear vision". While the government says it wants to pursue decarbonisation, it is giving too prominent a role to natural gas, they said.

Meanwhile, the debate of the role of nuclear in decarbonisation is gaining political salience. Through two referenda held in 1987 and 2011, Italy banned nuclear energy. Yet, actors from across civil society, academia and politics are calling for the reconsider nuclear energy’s place in the race to net zero. This was partially spurred by the recent energy crisis, despite Italy having steadily increased the share of renewables in the energy mix.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in helicopter over areas affected by flooding and landslides in Emilia-Romagna in May 2023. Image: European Union.
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen visited the areas affected by flooding and landslides in Emilia-Romagna in May 2023. Image: European Union.

2. What role will climate and energy policy play in the election campaign?

Looking at current polls, Italians are most concerned with inflation and the rise in the cost of living. While immigration continues to be a concern, the devastating floods that hit the Emilia Romagna region in May 2023 have seen the concerns over the climate crisis and hazards such as climate-change-linked floods and droughts rise higher on the agenda. 60 percent of people surveyed thought climate change was the key factor in driving the increasing severity of extreme events. A survey conducted by AstraRicerche for Greenpeace Italy on World Environment Day found that climate change was the most pressing environmental emergency facing Italy.

According to a Climate Survey conducted by European Investment Bank (EIB), 56 percent of Italians surveyed agreed that climate change remains one of the biggest challenges for Italy” ranking in the top three issues for these people. The poll demonstrated that “over three-quarters of Italian respondents (80 percent, 8 percentage points above the EU average) say they are convinced that their own behaviour can make a difference in addressing the climate emergency.” However, climate scarcely figures in the rhetoric of the right-wing government, which is mostly focused on bolstering national security, increasing birth rates, and cutting taxes.

Much attention is still paid to the management of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan funds (a recent poll showed that 62 percent are concerned of losing some of the NRP funding). These are a series of reforms and investments to retrofit Italy for greater sustainability, supported by 68.9 billion euros in grants and 122.6 billion euros in loans through the EU. Yet, according to the OECD, "expenditure of Next Generation EU funds is far behind schedule, and at the end of 2022 will be 50 percent less than originally planned."

The economy, as with most elections, is set to play a large role in the public debate around the 2024 elections. The energy and ensuing economic crisis hit Italy hard, with a quarter of the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion, especially in the South. Despite this, the government is set on reducing economic support for people facing economic hardship (the so-called “citizenship income”), replacing the current system with a new one that will cover about half of those affected. It remains to be seen whether welfare standards or the implementation of a minimum wage (Italy along with Denmark, Austria, Finland and Sweden doesn’t have a national minimum wage) will feature in the European elections.

3. What role did climate and energy policy play in how Italy voted in the 2019 European elections?

Looking back to 2019, there were few mentions of energy or climate policy. Rather, the dominant issues were related to economic growth, immigration and youth unemployment, although the centre-left parties pushed for a minimum wage at the European level. The Eurobarometer Post-Electoral survey showed that only a quarter of voters named climate change as one of the main issues which influenced their choice.

Overall, domestic issues dominated the campaign and, for the first time, the right-wing party Lega Nazionale claimed a victory against the centre-left. A lack of attention paid to climate and energy left the Green party with little of the vote share.

4. How important are the European Parliament elections in Italy?

According to a Eurobarometer poll from June this year, 64 percent of Italians said they are ready to vote, slightly up from 63 percent in 2018 before the last EU election. A further 58 percent said they were interested in the European elections, up eleven percentage points from 2019. However, these statistics stand in contrast to the results of the last elections, where Italy recorded a drop in voter turnout, at only 54.5 percent, down from 2014.

The debate now seems to be focused on building alliances of political camps at the European level, due the fact that the right-wing parties in Italy belong to three different political groups at the European level: Forza Italia (FI) to the European People's Party (EPP), Fratelli d'Italia (FDI) to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which Italy’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni leads, and the Lega to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group. The Lega leader Salvini and French far-right politician Marine Le Pen are pushing for a right-to-far-right majority alliance.

Italian centre-left parties could seek an alliance at the European level between S&D socialists, the Renew liberals led by Macron, Greens (Greens/EFA) and the radical left, with a common candidate for the presidency of the Commission. Yet, discussions are still going on.

5. Who gets to vote and how does the system work?

Italy is entitled to elect 76 MEPs – the third largest number of any EU member state after Germany (96) and France (79) – a group which is divided into five constituencies for the European elections (Northwest, Northeast, Centre, South and Islands).

The electoral system for the European parliament is proportional with a nationwide threshold for lists set at 4 percent. All Italian citizens registered in the electoral rolls of their municipality may vote; voting age is at least 18 years by the date of voting. Italian citizens will most likely be called to the polls on June 9, 2024, since usually elections in Italy are held on Sundays. Citizens living in other European countries are also eligible to vote if they are registered with Aire (Registry of Italians Residing Abroad). Voting is not compulsory.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.


Sven Egenter

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