The Italian Mind

Reflections from the Boot

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The Knight Strikes Back: Episode VI

knight strikes backYou didn’t see it coming, uh?

One of the best strategists Italy has ever had has planned this thoroughly since 2011.
Silvio Berlusconi was still the Prime Minister of Italy when he realised the huge parliamentary majority he had obtained at the political elections in 2008 was everything but intact. The harsh divorce between Berlusconi and Fini, now Speaker of the House, with the latter leaving the Party of Liberties to found the ‘Future and Freedom for Italy’ Party, marked the beginning of the political demise of the then Prime Minister, an office he had hold for four of the five times he has run as a candidate. Or at least this is what many thought.

Confronted with a majority of one single vote, involved in many sex scandals, and hunted down by the Judiciary on multiple counts, the only wise move Mr. B could make was to step down as Prime Minister.
At the end of the day, he knew he couldn’t possibly lead the Country to fulfill the challenges and commitments he had taken with Europe. His line of thought was simple: “I take a step back before I lose a confidence vote. Mr. Monti will be appointed as Prime Minister. He’s a smart guy, one who can fix things quickly and easily. Of course, in order to do that, he can only raise taxes, but this is not a problem (for me). We can blame him later for that. Once the State budget is back on track, I can step forward again and exploit social resentment“.

Pretty simple, isn’t it?
I must say that, from a certain point of view, I admire the guy. I mean, he is such an impudent, shameless person, but has ideas. I don’t want to sound rhetorical, but Italy would be one of the most competitive countries in the world if only such evil minds would serve the common interest before their own.

So, what is Mr.B’s plan for the electoral campaign?

Naively, he thinks Italians have already forgot what the last 20 years have borne in terms of credibility of the country abroad, public debt, privileges for circles of people closer to him, scandals, you name it. But they have not. The feeling of disaffection versus politics in general and politicians at large is strong, and grows as much as the gap between these and ordinary people widens. So here’s the magic recipe: 90% of candidates in the lists of the People of Liberties should be unknown to the general public.


A person whom you can potentially trust is better than the widely known faces people have learned not to. Will this be enough? Recently, I was sent a funny sign of the “keep calm” type, suggesting not to vote for Berlusconi.
Conversely, a survey a remarkable weekly talk show (Ballarò) conducts reveals Mr.B’s party gained between 1.5% and 2% of votes in one week thus reaching 15%, just because he announced he will lead his party as a candidate Prime Minister (for the sixth time). With about three months to go before the elections, this may well account for a 12%-15% increase, which would bring the party share to 28%-30%, indeed not very far from where it was in 2008. Notwithstanding it may not be enough to win the elections, a similar result would definitely qualify him as the leader of a strong opposition. On the top of that, the ability of the ‘Cavaliere’ (*) to attract people to the dark…ehm sorry…to the blue side (**) is renown, thus diluting an apparently wide centre-left majority over time. Will this be the revenge of the sixth (time)?

What do you think the reaction of Italians will be?
Does Berlusconi deserve any trust?
Would you vote for him?

Please comment below.


(*) ‘Cavaliere’ is the Italian word for ‘knight’. Given his remarkable and undeniable business skills in the field of estate building, Berlusconi was awarded the title of Knight of the Order of Merit for Labour in 1997 and is most commonly known as ‘Il Cavaliere’ (the Knight).

(**) Blue is the colour of the People of Liberties


Italy’s GDP Growth Slower Than Expected

Italy’s Recession Graph

During his intervention at the annual Ambrosetti Workshop in Cernobbio on Lake Como, the Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti referred to the upcoming elections of next May saying it is “inconceivable that a democratic country as Italy cannot find qualified candidates on the ballot to lead the country”. Monti declined the opportunity to run for another mandate as PM, his current appointment ending in 2013.
These words are paramount to recent news about the slower growth of Italian GDP, which recorded a contraction, based on the data published yesterday by the Italian Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). The fourth successive contraction has raised concerns about the ability the government of technocrats has to get public finances back on track. Gross Domestic Product dropped 2.6 percent compared to the estimate of 2.5 percent on an annual basis. In spite of that, the Prime Minister has shown optimism. “The data available do not reveal an economic recovery has started yet – Monti said – but it is now within reach and I believe it will soon arrive,” he added.
So far, Monti’s cabinet choices – however hard to withstand for many tax-overladen Italians – have only succeded in cutting consumer spending and boosting unemployment, thus slowing GDP growth. The Italian economy has been contracting for four straight quarters now and its recession will very likely continue during 2013.

Stem Cell Analysis Resumed for ‘Compassionate Reasons’

Celeste Carrer, a toddler suffering from muscular atrophy has been injected stem cells taken from the bone marrow of her mother Elisabetta over the past eighteen months. Such tratment reportedly enabled her to move her head, arms and legs, which were close to final paralysis.

The treatments were administred by Dr. Mario Andolina, MD at the City Hospital in Turin, Northern Italy, as part of ajoint effort with the Stamina Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in 2009 to push stem cells- based treatments.

A decision of the Turin’s prosecuting attorney Raffaele Guariniello put an halt to the treatment in May, while he also ordered an investigation into medical operators at the non-profit foundation.

Police raided the hospital’s laboratories whereas agents from the national drug agency blocked the “collection, transport, manipulation, cultivation, storage and administration of human cells” at both the hospital and foundation.

“The block may sadly cause the death of many patients,” Dr. Andolina said.

Elisabetta Carrer and her husband started a civil suit and won the legal approval in January 2011 to re-start the transplants.

“Clinical evidence show that Celeste’s condition has improved thanks to the treatments”, the mother of Celeste recalled, adding that they are administered under a decree approved in 2006.

According to current laws, stem cell analysis is allowed in Italy only when a patient is in an exceedingly serious health condition.

Will Italy Overcome the Crisis and Make it to Next Year Elections?

Italy’s spending cuts are at the heart of reforms

“Recession in Italy is close to an end and the euro zone must not represent a source of friction amongst northern and southern Europe”, the Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said recently at a conference in Rimini. He also added that the euro zone’s third largest economy is in better shape than it was actually a year ago.
Since taking over from Silvio Berlusconi, Monti has triggered a programme of reforms, including strong overhauls on the labour market and pension, spending cuts and deregulation. Monti said the government would not expected such reforms to stimulate the growth of a heavily-hit economy in the short term. Instead, he explained he had hoped the falling of borrowing costs would make it simpler for recovery to commence.
Monti also repeated once again he is concerned for the tensions arisen among northern and southern European countries in the euro zone, and the Union is endevouring to resolve its recession and preserve the single currency.
“It would be tragic – he said- if the euro, the highest form of European aspiration to integration and unity turned out to be a factor of disintegration, and the cause for prejudices, of north standing against south”.
Internally, Monti has underlined once ahgain that budget-rigour goal is instrumental to the growth of public finances. The Government will focus on debt reduction and asset sales among the coming months as it puts together measures to raise competition, put an end to energy costs and support start-up companies. Monti, who imposed austerity in the initial half of his 18-month term, is asking his ministers to draft policies in order to pull Italy out of its fourth recession in almost ten years. He is well known as one who jumped in in Italy’s deficit with both feet and lowered money borrowing costs thanks to a program that included tax increases on fuel, real estate and luxury goods, all vastly unpopular among the population. The Minister for Economic Development, Corrado Passera – however – didn’t say whenever the new government measures to promote the economy could be finalised.

(If) Silvio Strikes Back

In one of the hottest Italian summers, the air becomes even thicker when it comes to politics. A few months after Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi as the Italian Prime Minister, the latter has announced he will run for 2013 elections as the leader of the People of Freedom, the multifaceted and multi-faction conservative alliance he has been leading for almost two decades with mixed results.
Long waited by a large share of his supporters, the announcement caused significant turmoil in many environments, including political, financial and industrial control rooms. For many, Berlusconi is the only one to blame for Italy’s current financial and economic situation. The public opinion sees him as a slow and mediocre statesman, whose reasoning skills become very quick and clever whenever his personal interests are at stake. This includes ad hoc laws passed by the Parliament, in fact by the parliamentary majority he was leading at the time, to ease Berlusconi’s position in the many judicial proceedings against him or to benefit selected industrial targets. Needless to say, Mediaset – the media and showbiz network he has built in over 40 years – is among these.
In the political arena, the leaders of the opposing parties, Pierferdinando Casini of the Christian Democratic Union and Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party above all, referred to the possibility that Berlusconi runs again for the Prime Minister’s chair with expressions like ‘horror movie’, or adjectives like ‘creeping’ or ‘blood-curdling’.
Apart from these considerations, which may be part of the usual and mutual discrediting attacks politicians are very well used to, no one seems to consider the most important factors in elections, i.e. voters. The feelings in the two major movements on the Italian landscape and among those who will poll their preferences are still very different. Centre-left and centre-right parties and respective followers have opposite predictions about the outcome of elections. After recent surveys have revealed Berlusconi’s party has reached an all-time low in preferences, Silvio now says his coalition can collect 28% of votes with him at the helm; indeed a very optimistic forecast. Conversely, Bersani & Co. see a darker future, predicting he will obtain nothing more than 12% of overall votes.
Politics as a whole is a largely unpopular subject in Italy at the moment. The economic crisis and the unchanged span of privileges politicians continue to enjoy based on laws and regulations they themselves approve make this job not very respected and increasingly distant from the concepts of community service and public good Aristotle envisioned in ‘Politics’.
The unresolved issue is if and how Berlusconi will persuade his followers, his political opponents, and those who sit in-between that he is changed and that electing him again can make a difference, if not for Italy, for Italians at least. The common people seems to have no preference for one politician or the other as ‘they’re all thieves’, a quite common refrain you can hear here and there across the entire boot, and the main reason why newly formed populist movements – like the 5 Star Movement, led by former comic actor Beppe Grillo – obtained lots of votes during the last administrative elections a few weeks ago. ‘Politics made by people, not politicians’ is one of the slogans of a group of people who wants to bring political power back into the hands of ordinary citizens. Quite an interesting exercise of direct democracy but perhaps a reckless choice when it comes at striking the right balance between what you want and what you can actually obtain. That is a professional politicians’ job, not something you would live in the hands of a newbie.
The fact that Silvio Berlusconi wants to be called again to impersonate that professional, well, is another story…

– Posted by Jerald using BlogPress for iPad

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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