It’s starting to look like a pattern.
As a large EU country heads toward an election, Brussels dials back the political pressure, postponing difficult decisions that could roil the electorate and possibly favor Euroskeptic political parties.
Ahead of elections in France and Germany last year, the European Commission waived off concerns over Paris’ fiscal discipline and gave Berlin a pass on controversial highway tolls.
Now it seems it’s Italy’s turn. Here are four ways Brussels showed unusual magnanimity toward Rome ahead of the March 4 election.
1. A new Dublin
Last fall, a politically explosive reform of the EU’s migration system, known as the Dublin Agreement, was put off from spring to summer. The issue is a highly emotional and divisive one, both among EU countries and internally in Italy. It pits front-line countries like Italy and Greece against Central European countries like Hungary and Slovakia who have refused to take in refugees under a supposedly mandatory EU scheme to relocate asylum seekers.
Rome complains that the current law puts an unfair burden on countries like Italy, as it requires asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they enter. But unswerving opposition from Central Europe means any negotiation to change it will be divisive, and there’s no guarantee the Italian government will find the outcome any more palatable.
2. Clean air
In January the European Commission gave nine member countries — including Italy — one last chance to come up with measures that would rapidly reduce air pollution. Otherwise, it would refer them to the European Court of Justice.
All nine environment ministers have submitted measures, and the Commission will review them and come up with a decision by mid-March. Under the EU’s rules, countries should have been in compliance with air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since 2010, and particulate matter since 2005.
It was the first time that national governments were given the chance to make such 11th-hour arguments in an ongoing environment infringement procedure, an EU official said. Italy has the highest death rates for air pollutants NO2 and PM10.
3. Food labeling
Like France, Italy has introduced mandatory food labeling, a measure that requires the national origin of rice and durum wheat in pasta be clearly marked on all packaging. Rome went ahead with the move without Brussels’ permission, despite the fact that food labeling rules are harmonized in order to protect single market trade — and despite the fact that the European Commission must vet and explicitly approve any national schemes.
Italy argues that the labels promote transparency and that most consumers want them. The Commission has so far refrained from fighting Italy over the almost sacred issue of food.
4. Debt flexibility
The European Commission’s czar for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, announced in November that Italy will not face any “procedural consequences” for failing to make good on its promises to introduce the structural adjustments it needs to tackle the country’s high levels of public debt.
The Commission earlier this year had instructed the Italian government to explain how it would tackle its public debt problem and to reduce its structural budget imbalance by 0.3 percent of GDP. But Italy instead announced that it is forecast to reduce its deficit by 0.1 percent, well short of the Commission’s demands.
When challenged by reporters, Moscovici defended the Commission’s approach, noting that populist parties are continuing to gain strength in Italy. “What would have happened had we imposed a different strategy?” he said. “The right amount of firmness, and flexibility on the basis of objective basis is necessary, and we’ve always worked on an objective basis.”
Florian Eder, Bjarke Smith-Meyer, Kalina Oroschakoff, Jacopo Barigazzi, Paola Tamma and Emmet Livingstone contributed to this article.