The Italian Mind

Reflections from the Boot

The Short Italian Memory

People leaving abroad enjoy a privileged and unique field of view on the society they are part of. This especially true about Italy. Foreigners living in the Bel Paese soon realize some of the stereotypes about Italians are not just that, and the real situation is in fact even worse. My post today takes into consideration Dany Mitzman‘s highlights in his article “How to avoid getting ‘hit by air’ in Italy” (published here). Most of what Mr. Mitzman says about how much Italians know about their anatomy and their fears – or rather hypocondria – is quite correct. Italians do have better knowledge of their body, for it is an important part of science classes in primary schools, let alone the fact that healthcare is State-funded in Italy. Whenever you feel sick or suffer the smallest pain, you attend a physician who explains what you may have or not. Illness-related drugs, if needed, are paid for by the State, so why in the world shouldn’t you pay a visit to your physician (no pun intended) and get a prescription for some placebos or drugs with actual effects? Mr. Mitzman’s article, however, focuses on physical symptoms and forgets one very serious problem Italians have: lack of memory.

Just as in the rest of Europe, Italy is not at ease. Economically speaking, the entire Old Continent is swept by financial waves generated by uncontrolled economic tides. Politically speaking, Rome has had a new government for a little more than a month. Its Prime Minister  started a series of substantial reforms only recently, but it was enough to spark several reactions, first and foremost by trade unions, and upset a large part of the public opinion. Equity is one of Mr. Monti’s keywords, together with development and growth. Many among those who complain about the Cabinet’s proposals and decisions say the reforms are not applied with equality. ‘Those who earn more, should pay more’, they say.

Theoretically speaking, this logic is flawless. When you have deadlines in the (very) short term, however, things are indeed different. There is a pressing need to increase cash flows as soon as possible. The entire Europe has been waiting for the Italian economic reforms Mr. Berlusconi and his predecessors as Prime Ministers have been unable to put in place. Immediate and larger cash flows can only be obtained by raising taxes and adjusting pensions accordingly. Anyone can complain, but it is as easy as 1-2-3. Structural reforms are much needed in Italy, as current systems are longer sustainable.

Nature, our Great Mother, has been teaching us a lesson over the ages of evolution: only those who adapt can survive; those who don’t, simply cannot. This is what Italy is going through at the moment, but all adaptation processes come with a price, which the limited number of richer people alone – call it 1% or whatever – cannot afford at the moment, irrespective of how much wealth is in their hands. The structural reforms the Italian Minister of Welfare is forging will affect higher incomes not earlier than three or four years from now. Meanwhile, the only way to make the pension system sustainable and reduce public debt is by imposing taxes on consumers (by increasing VAT) and estate properties. These issues have been raised many times and the many stakeholders managed to reach consensus on the ensuing required solutions, eventually. Now, the same stakeholders seem to find hard to remember that consensus has ever been reached, the Northern League being on the front row. Once again, it has dispelled any doubt about his ability to remember some items of its past political programme in support of Berlusconi’s government, where this kind of taxation had been strongly supported. The real estate tax (or IMU, in Italian) – which Berlusconi cancelled in 2008 and whose proceeds remained with the municipalities – will now be shared between local and central governments. Some Mayors belonging to the Northern League announced they will not collect the tax to avoid part of the proceeds be ‘stolen by Rome’.

Short memory is a serious problem for those affected, but not the only one the Northern League and Italy as a whole have.

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Secession & Independence: dreaming the impossible

The Italian Northern League party is advocating secession and independence from Italy, again. The separatist movement has realised its power and authority to influence federalism – a process supposed to give Italian northern regions a wider autonomy from the central state – has vanished with the fall of the Berlusconi government.

Umberto Bossi in Vicenza

Umberto Bossi in Vicenza

Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, and of his most loyal colleagues, such as Umberto Calderoli and Roberto Maroni, in fact two former Ministers of the last Berlusconi government, are taking steps towards independence from Italy, i.e. what they say is the clear and final objective of the movement.

“Italy as a state has lost the economic war and is at the end of its journey”, said Bossi to the crowd gatherred in Vicenza for the session of the Padan Parliament, and added “It will be replaced by our peoples, the peoples of Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont. Together, they will win in the Europe of Peoples, which represents the future”. And Calderoli echoed these words, recalling peaceful and mutually agreed separations, as in the case of former Czechoslovakia.

Should the situation be as Bossi and Calderoli depict, one may consider being moderately concerned and uneasiness would spread around. As a matter of fact, instead, no particular attention has been devoted to these aspirations or speeches apart from traditional media coverage. This is for several reasons, some of which I will try to explain later.
Meanwhile, there are significant differences that should be highlighted between this separatists and those who had independentist aspirations elsewhere in the past, the Basque Countries, Kurdistan, Tibet, Catalonia, the British colonies in the United States, and Kosovo being some examples among many others.
In many of these countries, separation from the Motherland was considered necessary as heavy taxes were imposed on colonies or – on the contrary – the dissolution of former empires led to parting ethnically omogeneous regions and assigning them to newly formed nations, as in the case of Kurdistan, Kashmir, and Kosovo. The polulations living in these areas became citizens of different nationality, whose respective governments were often engaged in territorial disputes, as in the case of India vs. Pakistan and Serbia vs. Albania.
Or indipendence was the legitimate aspiration of populations that had lived on the same territory for centuries and had their own autonomy, or even indipendence and sovreignity, before being (re-)conquered and put under someone else’s rule, as the population of Tibet knows well. Independence, however, is also the result of a process based on the alleged superiority of one race over another, as in the case of the Basque Countries, or of the cultural and linguistic differences one population (the Catalans) says it has with respect to others (the rest of Spain).

The issue in Italy is slightly different. The Northern League and its leaders advocate the separation from Italy for economic and financial reasons. The ideology of the Northern League stems from some historical considerations, or rather opinions of the many thinkers who wrote about this issue, Gianfranco Miglio being one of the most significant and renown. The basics of separatist aspirations are that the territories north from the Po River – which has been fictionally renamed Padania – is inhabited by peoples linguistically, culturally and historically different from those in the rest of the country. The same peoples where forced to take part to the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy in the 19th century and now demand to return to their original status. Honestly, there is not much to say about this.

First and foremost, the leaders and supporters of the Northern League have shown little knowledge of history and culture on several occasions. In this sense, the idea of being culturally different from others is indeed true. They forget, for example, that Italy is made of different ethnicities, whose differences are so strong to be almost surprising in some cases. People from Sardinia have nothing to do with those living in regions like Apulia or Sicily, or Tuscany. These differences have led to wars in the past, just as it happened in the history of unification of several other nations in and outside Europe. So far, nothing strange, especially because this resulted in a unified country much later, where divisions where preserved but no longer represented a problem. Perhaps there is a bitter taste in knowing – if known – that many of the thinkers and philosophers who inspired the Risorgimento were from the South, the same part of Italy the kingdom of the Savoia dinasty, whose hometown is Turin, has practically plandered after unification.

Another point the Northern League raises has to do with development. It is impossible that businesses may even be established in the South, they say, because of mafia and other forms of organised crime, which only allow the enterprises they control to have a place on the market. To a certain extent, this is true. If you try to establish your own business in the south, in most cases you have to pay for your “protection” or challenge the mob. The reason for that, however, is that mob-like organisations prefer developing business in the north of the countrys for two reasons. Firstly, new assets and resources have been allocated in recent years to address this phenomenon and results in the fight against organised crime are indeed encouraging. Secondly, northern regions are closer to continental Europe and the yields from corruption of private managers and state officials are far higher and require much less efforts. Organised crime has had an interest in global finance since the ’80s, and it never stopped ever since.

Being an independent region and preventing criminal infiltration at the same time is a wishful thinking, just as it is the idea of creating boundaries to cut Italy in two, or to establish differences that do not exist. Just to give a taste of how serious Bossi’s words are aonsidered, a funny sign was also shown outside the venue where Bossi and his fellowmen gathered two days ago saying “Padania = Ducksburg”. In order to avoid other fictional stories, the Norther League leaders should stop behaving as cartoon characters and show respect towards their own nation, as well as take stance against the current real enemies of Italy: their parlamentarians, who oppose the much needed structural reforms, and the international speculators and investors, who look very much forward to driving Italy into default and out of the Eurozone.

Is Italy up to the task now?

Italian PM, Mario Monti

Mario Monti, the Italian Prime Minister

After its former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned about one month ago, Italy has not enjoyed any improvement in terms of market trust. With the BTP-BUND spread index sill high between 450 and 500 base points, Italy seems to have a long and difficult march ahead before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. For those who strongly asked Berlusconi step aside for the good of the nation this suffices to say Mr.B was not the real issue. In fact, the market trust is based on the ability to pay debts and the Bel Paese is now facing one of the most difficult moments in republican history.

Italy lived a similar experience only once in its modern history. In the aftermath of WW2, the country was in ruins – literally – and the (re-)founding fathers had to take a serious burden on their shoulders. The souls of people took sides, with fascists and resistance fighters being the two faces of the same coin. But the past and current situation, albeit having several commonalities, show some significant differences. There are no ruins today, no country to rebuild, no consciences to wash clean, just as no post-war liquidity injections or support plans will arrive from outside as an helping hand. The Communist block vanished more than 20 years ago, and terrorism is not a single threat but rather a most complex one.

The war Mario Monti, the Italian economist President Giorgio Napolitano decided to appoint Prime Minister to rescue the Italian situation, is a different one and will be fought on a different ground. Europe as a whole, including leaders like the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, has this very clear. The debt fire the US have started with the subprime mortgage crisis in late 2006 still burns and is way out from being extinguished. Will Mr. Monti’s choices be enough to cope with it? Will his cabinet decisions the right extinguisher?

I will cover the issue of the attitude of Italian people versus their politicians in another post. Briefly, the ordinary people do not like the ample basket of privileges the people’s representatives enjoy, at all. And this is one point for Monti. The members of his cabinet – and Monti himself – are not politicians. They have not been elected nor are they supported by any political party. Practically no one of the ministers or undersecretaries has ever had anything to do with politics. On the contrary, all of them are technocrats and of course their area of expertise coincides with the task each of them has been assigned. Mr. Giampaolo Di Paola, for example, was a 4-star Admiral holding the post as Chairman of the Nato Military Committee before becoming the Minister of Defence. Mrs. Annamaria Cancellieri, a Prefect, has gained several experience on the field all over Italy until reaching the Ministry of Interior’s top position. The same can be said about all the ministers in the cabinet, which brings to another point: support.

Rarely has been observed such an overwhelming trust vote majority in the Italian Parliament. Instead Mr. Monti’s cabinet obtained 281 votes at the Senate and 556 at the Chamber of Deputies, an all-time win. It is too soon, however, to say the government will last. Both center-left, center and center-right parties, the Democratic Party (PD), the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) and the People of Liberties (PdL) respectively, have granted their support to what they recognise to be the most pressing needs Italy has to address: cut public spending and lift revenues, change the pension system, reintroduce a property tax on first homes and make it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, to help bolster Italy’s anemic economy. In sharp contrast to Mr. Berlusconi’s cabinet, whose clashing vested interests blocked economic reform, Mr. Monti’s cabinet draws from academia, banking, business and the upper echelons of the civil service. Some ministers have strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church, whose support is still needed for any Italian government to gain traction.

Italy’s debt accounts for $2.6 trillion and is the highest in the euro zone after Greece and one of the highest in the world. After the strong opposition of Germany to the rescue plan for Greece, no one can imagine what the scenario may be in case of an Italian default, especially if we consider the momentous impact such a possibility could have on the stability – or even the existence – of the European single currency. Or perhaps, everybody knows.

The new Italian government is certainly an improvement with respect to the previous one. The problem is that this may not satisfy markets, which in fact are quite unstable when Italian matters are at stake. Indeed, that is a tall order for a prime minister with little experience in the rough and tumble of Italian politics and no politicians in his cabinet. Mr. Monti said the lack of politicians gave the cabinet independence, but it remains to be seen whether that translates into the clout needed to change the laws and customs of a postwar welfare state built on a patronage culture that dates back centuries.

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