Italy: Shaken and Stirred

Peter Fieldman[1]

As Theresa May grapples with Brexit she should spare a thought for Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as he prepares for his own referendum on 4 December in an attempt to bring major reforms to the third largest economy in the Eurozone.

peter-fieldman-italy-torn-apart-600x450 Italy: Shaken and Stirred
Peter Fieldman: Italy torn apart

The country which gave the world the Renaissance and holds perhaps more artistic works and cultural monuments per square mile than anywhere else in the world with a heritage dating back over two thousand years, is being torn apart politically and physically.

For months Renzi has been touring the country maximising media appearances to convince his fellow countrymen of the need to reform the country’s notorious slow and inefficient parliament and civil service. After decades of constant changes of Government with an entrenched immovable, political class, Renzi is locked in a battle to modernise parliament and bring stability with his chosen team of younger, well-educated and loyal ministers.

The proposed constitutional reforms proposed by Renzi and his deputy, Maria Elena Boschi, have already been through Parliament and are radical in their conception attempting to bring – to use an appropriate definition – a seismic transformation of the country. The measures include reducing the number of members and power of the Senate and its electoral process, transforming and modernising the country’s institutions to make them more efficient and changing to the way the President is elected.

But ever since he took office in 2014 in a carefully orchestrated mini coup, which would have earned the admiration of the Medici family, the charismatic young premier has had to face stiff opposition not only from his adversaries but also from members of his own party where he has made more enemies than Julius Caesar ever had. Italy’s politicians are the highest paid in the European Union and Renzi has sent a message that. “If their sole objective is to destroy this Government December 4 will be their last chance to prevent the end of their privileges and power.”

To the right he faces Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party and the Liga Nord. On the populists side, the Movimento Cinque Stelle, created by Beppe Grillo, who made his name as a comic, is filled with a new idealistic breed of young inexperienced politicians – known as the Grillini – who have shaken the establishment as the Podemos party have done in Spain. Their biggest coup to date has been to win the local elections in Rome where the new Mayor, 38 year old Virginia Raggi, is confronted by the old guard who have run the capital for decades and is loathe to see its power and privileges be stripped away.

Bringing changes was never going to be easy and Renzi’s task has been made more complicated by the daily diet of high profile financial and political corruption scandals, which have always plagued the country. And if the scandals were not enough, since the summer a spate of violent earthquakes in the central mountainous Apennine region has reduced many centuries’ old villages to rubble leaving tens of thousands homeless and devastated agriculture and industry.

The earthquake has brought to light a failed political system. Italy’s mountainous spine is prone to earthquakes. In 2009 after a violent tremor destroyed much of the town of L’Aquila, experts discovered major failings in the construction process and called for the introduction of safer, and more costly, anti-seismic techniques. Yet many of the new buildings and those, which underwent major repairs in the towns and villages affected by the earthquakes, simply collapsed.

Engineers clambering over the rubble following the latest quake discovered schools, hospitals and apartment blocks built with more sand than cement and no steel reinforcement; a litany of negligence from the town planning stage to building completion. Renzi has appointed an earthquake Tsar to carry out a thorough investigation of the contractors who carried out the works, their methods and oversee the reconstruction programme. In contrast to the failings of the regional and local authorities, the country’s civil protection and fire services have acted efficiently and with total dedication working tirelessly to organise the rescue operations and provide temporary shelter and food to those who lost their homes and livelihoods.

Corruption and tax evasion are endemic in the Italian public sector. Massive sums of public money have disappeared in an orgy of overpriced public works contracts, commissions and fees implicating local politicians and Italy’s powerful organised crime organisations. They are believed to have infiltrated many large construction companies extending their influence from their traditional base in the south to the industrial north of the country. Politicians and contractors involved in the 2016 Milan Expo, the Venetian flood barrier, new high speed train tunnels, motorway construction, rubbish collection and disposal, public transport and social housing have all come under investigation for fraud and links with the mafia.

Italy’s banking system is also under threat. The 2007 financial crisis left several of Italy’s major banks, including its oldest establishment, the once revered Monte Paschi de Siena, toppling on the verge of bankruptcy. Several savings and mortgage banks – cassa di risparmio – are being investigated for fraud and misuse of clients’ funds after thousands of people lost their savings.

With an estimated 360 billion Euros of bad loans in the system the Government has been forced to create a bad bank to provide a lifeline and banks have been obliged to merge. The Government is aware of the need to restructure its monolithic financial sector with too many banks and branches. But at the present time it cannot risk the fallout from the massive job losses, which would inevitably follow.

Apart from the earthquake damage, the country’s ageing infrastructure is in urgent need of repair. Roads across the country are pitted with cracks and holes and thousands of schools are considered dangerous with cracked walls and ceilings, one resulting in the death of a pupil. In 2015 the major road link between Palermo and Catania in Sicily was shut down when the pillars of a new viaduct simply buckled bringing down the road above.

Last month a bridge with a weight limit known to be structurally weak over the busy dual carriageway between Milan and Lecco collapsed when an overloaded truck tried to cross it. Miraculously only one person was killed by the huge concrete slab which crushed a car as it was passing beneath the bridge. These incidents have been blamed on administrative failings, the lack of decisions and money to carry out regular maintenance and necessary repairs, adding to Italy’s worsening economic situation.

Despite his domestic problems, with a national debt of two trillion Euros – the largest in the EU after Greece – Renzi has had to find time to travel to Brussels to negotiate with Pierre Moscovici in order to obtain some flexibility in the strict EU budget reduction requirements, seek aid for the earthquake disaster and to cope with the migrant crisis. He succeeded in antagonising the EU and engaged in a war of words with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, over the migrant issue.

Italy is at the frontline having to deal with hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants and refugees who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to Sicily and Lampedusa. Not only is Renzi criticising the EU for not sharing the responsibility of dealing with the new arrivals, but the distribution of migrants around Italy has led to anti migrant demonstrations and resistance by the local population adding fuel to the extreme right parties’ opposition to Renzi’s policies.

The political rivalry and economic situation are dividing an already fractured nation and the pillars of the unification, Cavour and Garibaldi, would be turning in their graves. The unemployment rate remains at over 11% with a high percentage of young people unable to find jobs to suit their academic qualifications. The wealthier, industrial north of Italy of Lombardy, Piedmonte and Veneto with Milan, Turin, Genoa and Venice once capitals of powerful states, discreetly nurtures the dream of a break away state called Padonia. The regional politicians blame Italy’s woes on the graft, waste and crime, which they believe begins in Rome, known as Mafia Capital, due to the number of financial scandals exposed over the past years, and filters south into the poorer, crime ridden, Mezzogiorno region extending from Naples to Sicily.
Italy is at a historic moment. Fifty year ago on November 4, rising floodwaters overflowed from the river Arno. Rising to a level of up to six meters, the waters devastated much of Florence’s historic city centre killing over 100 people and destroying or damaging an immeasurable number of the city’s cultural artworks. Matteo Renzi, who was mayor for five years before becoming Prime Minister, was in the city with the country’s President, Sergio Mattarella, for the commemoration ceremony.

His visit coincided with the 7th edition of “Leopoldo” an annual American style political weekend convention for his PD party to muster support for his programme. Thousands of supporters filled the converted railway station gathering under the banner “E Adesso il Futuro” (The future is now). Renzi together with senior Ministers appealed to the nation to back the Government’s programme and respond with a massive “SI” in the referendum. In his closing speech he first praised the efforts of the rescue units following the earthquakes and then sent a message to the people. “Italy needs a change of philosophy, a stable parliament and laws which are for the benefit of the people and especially more investment in education.”
Renzi also found time to visit the recently reopened Lungarno Torrigiani road on the banks of the river Arno close to the Ponte Vecchio. It collapsed earlier this year when a burst underground water pipe caused a gigantic sinkhole closing the road. When Italians vote on 4 December in what could be called a new Risorgimento, Renzi also risks sinking. His future and that of the country will be at stake.

  1. Peter Fieldman, NUJ writer
  2. Peter Fieldman is the author of «The World at a Crossroads» published in London
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