Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The party animal is ruining Italy´s birthday
The Times - March 17th 2011

Birthdays are not always happy occasions, though you might have thought that simply to have reached the ripe old age of 150 would have brought on a smile. Not for Italy: the anniversary of its unification, on March 17th 1861, is proving a rather sullen affair, notwithstanding all the efforts of its nice 85-year-old grandpa-cum-president, Giorgio Napolitano, to cheer everyone up. Yet the sullenness is not for the obvious reason.

            The popular explanation is that the day to celebrate unity is being marred by regional divisions, especially between the prosperous north and the poorer, crime-ridden south. And there is some truth to this: senior figures in a small but rising political party, the Northern League, have made headlines in the run-up to the anniversary by shunning the national anthem and making disobliging remarks about southern Italians (of which President Napolitano, as his name indicates, is one). The head of the province of Bolzano, just near the Austrian border, has refused to join the celebrations saying he would rather still be part of Austria, as his region was until 1918.

            Yet it is hard to take this divisiveness seriously. The Northern League is nominally separatist, claiming to represent an area that has never actually existed as a sovereign entity, Padania, in Italy’s north-east. Yet in Britain such a separatist party would be calling for a referendum on independence as the Scottish Nationalists are, or in Spain might even be associated with terrorists, as with the Basque separatists. Not in Italy: the Northern League not only has parliamentarians from a much larger area than its “homeland” of Padania, but is actually part of the governing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi.

            The more extreme members of the Northern League actually seem to hate foreigners—ie, immigrants—rather more than they dislike their fellow Italians. Some can be heard, admittedly, repeating the old northern riff to the effect that the supposed military hero of the 1850s, Giuseppe Garibaldi, did not unite Italy when he threw the Spanish monarchs out of Sicily and Naples, but rather divided Africa. Yet their main political act now is to support the prime minister who imported the phrase “bunga bunga” from Libya, and who, although Milanese himself, prides himself on his support in the South.

            The divides are real, and do reflect genuine differences about whether unification was a good idea. Some Southerners see the creation of Italy in 1861 as having been essentially a colonial occupation by the Savoy king from Turin, Vittorio Emmanuele II, engineered with the British-financed help of Garibaldi, and the next 150 years as having consisted of imperial exploitation and suppression.

            Some northerners, by contrast, see the direction of exploitation as having been the other way round, with undeserving lazy southerners essentially living off subsidies from the north. While the north-eastern Veneto region around Venice succeeded in lifting itself out of southern-style poverty to become now one of the richest regions of Europe, the south has failed to emulate it. Southerners have improved their standards of living mainly by migrating to the north or to America—or indeed by joining the ultimate laisser-faire capitalists, organized crime clans.

            The trouble with this explanation lies, first, in that absence of real conflict, or really serious desires for separation. But second, it is nothing new: Italy has always been a collection of regions, even of city states, where local loyalties and networks mattered more than national ones. This is neither worse nor better today than before.

            Rather, the more plausible explanation for today’s sullenness, for the lack of cheer surrounding the birthday, lies in two other factors, one temporary (we hope), the other more enduring.

            The temporary factor is the political paralysis that has gripped Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, particularly since his latest spell in office began in 2008. Scandals, shouting matches, battles with the judiciary, cavorting with minors, bunga bunga: all these mean that virtually no laws are being passed, nothing is being reformed, government has more or less ceased, and politics is deeply polarized. It would be hard to have a happy national birthday party against that sleazy and depressing backdrop.

            The enduring factor is that the public money has run out. This is true of all West European democracies, and austerity is never cheerful. But in Italy individuals have always had an especially ambiguous view of the state: many have considered it a menace to be avoided, have seen laws as there to be broken, and taxes as there to be evaded, and yet have also seen the flow of public money as a way to soothe wounds, buy off opposition or curry favour, and certainly to ease regional divisions.

            With public debts at 120% of GDP, Europe’s second highest after Greece, that music has now stopped. Hence the Northern League’s push for “fiscal federalism”, by which is meant “more of our tax money for us, and less for the south”. In that way, the regional divisions do have a new edge to them. But beyond that, the need to cut public spending more broadly and to trim back the state is producing a sort of national confusion. There is not quite yet a proper debate about what to do, but many politicians and commentators know that there has to be. It won’t really start until the nation’s greatest party animal has left office and even politics altogether. Hence the sullen, rather mute celebration. Happy birthday, Italy.



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