A sinking Italy is grasping for direction
Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, is now in the most critical of situations. If many different things do not go well for the bel paese in the next year, it may attract the use of the word “founder” in its other, more sinister meaning: to sink.
As the euro zone crisis – which has traumatized Greece, put painful squeezes on Ireland and Portugal, and now engulfs the banks and the economy of Spain – laps around the beaches of Italy’s peninsula, the mood has soured.
In the past week, interviewing some of Italy’s leading journalists for a book on journalism in Berlusconi’s Italy, the country I found was one of profound doubt. Italian journalists are not the least cynical of their profession and often greet new events with a we’ve-seen-it-all-before shrug. Not now. Now they follow and record and comment on the news with journalism’s customary hyperactivity. But they admit they have no notion of what will come – or even how their country will be governed. What might come is, by large consent, possibly, even probably, bad.
Mario Calabresi is the editor of La Stampa, the liberal daily published in the northern city of Turin and owned by the Agnelli clan, who control Fiat. He’s young for an Italian editor, at 42, and is seen as one of the profession’s brightest stars. He’s also the son of Luigi Calabresi, an officer in the Carabinieri who was murdered in Milan in 1972 at the age of 34 by far-left terrorists. Calabresi says, “I must be an optimist,” but he doesn’t sound like it:
This is a temporary government, and the true issue is what comes after. Unfortunately there aren’t many people with whom to have a debate about the future because there aren’t many real political players. There’s a large risk that next year there will be a trend towards populism, attracting protest votes rather than parties having a proper reformist agenda.
At a quite different place, but with the same lack of optimism, is Vittorio Feltri, in his late sixties, slim, white-haired, and courteous. He has been the doyen of Italian journalism of the right for the past 20 years, bringing some of the techniques of tabloid reporting into the world of Italy’s heavily political newspapers, attacking enemies on the left with both a scalpel and a bludgeon. Speaking in his office in Milan’s Il Giornale daily – owned by the Berlusconi family – he says:
There is no credible political force now; the right is disorganized and split, the left is weak, the center nowhere. Populism is the vogue. What comes after Monti is simply unknown; at present there is nothing.
When Mario Monti took over as prime minister in November, Silvio Berlusconi had lost all credibility with his peers in Europe, and had seen a once-secure base erode over two years of scandal and hollow assurances that all was fine when it was not. Berlusconi pledged the support of his People of Freedom party to Monti, as did the center-left Democratic Party. But now that support wavers as the parties’ power-seekers find it popular to distance themselves from, or even oppose, Monti’s politics of austerity.
Monti himself, in public as precise and calm as ever, talks up the problem rather than disguises it. In an interview last week with the Catholic magazine The Christian Family, he said previous governments had racked up huge debts that had “put a burden on Italians who were then children, or had not even been born – that’s the great harm that was done to families … eighty per cent of our time is taken up trying to secure a country devastated by irresponsibility.”
His government, he said, was in an unprecedented situation: having to impose “very harsh measures, necessary to remedy the failures of the past.” No greater contrast could be imagined between the baroque bluster of Berlusconi and the dispassionate dryness of Monti, in both style and substance. Italy switched, in a day, from a showman to a puritan. Yet whatever relief originally came with the country being in the hands of a grownup, albeit a gloomy one, now dissipates.
This leaves the temptation of populism. The roly-poly figure of Beppe Grillo is its manifestation. A comedian of great talent in his mid-sixties, Grillo’s exasperated incredulity at the corruption and uselessness of the political class has now made its way into politics. In local elections last month, his “Five Stars” civic movement confounded the skeptics, broke through, garnered some 15 percent of the vote nationally and won the mayoral seats of several towns.
Both right and left are transfixed by “Grillismo”. Some of the up-and-coming figures of the left are pressing for an alliance with Grillo, or the creation of their own “civic lists” of ordinary, non-party people who will enter politics without the taint of a failing party system. Berlusconi is widely reported to be examining the possibility of becoming “Grillismo” of the right. He’s rallying those in the working and lower-middle classes who had been enchanted by his own brand of populism for nearly two decades. He believes, it is reported, that they can be roused once more by a leader who, at 75, seems still to have the heart, and certainly has the money, for a fight.
This in spite of yet another trial, now under way in Milan, in which he is accused of having sex two years ago with a then-underage girl, Karima El-Mahroug, a Moroccan known as Ruby Heart-Stealer. The weekly Espresso last week printed an interview with the Brazilian Michelle Conceicao, who claimed she was one of the “harem” paid by Berlusconi to attend his parties. She swears, and says she will do so again in court later this month, that Ruby had sex with the premier, and received 5,000 euros – apparently the going rate – for the coupling. A spokesman for Berlusconi dismissed the claims; as has, in the past and repeatedly, El-Mahroug herself.
Thus Berlusconi still titillates his country and the world from beyond the political grave. He still seems to be having fun, his trademark brilliant smile flashing in photographs and TV clips – while a dour Monti struggles in the coils of the Italian political serpent, a fearsomely powerful beast. Beauty, charm and creativity have done much for Italy in the decades since the war; it is now the turn of discipline, austerity and grind, and no one knows how it will take to that.
ILLUSTRATION: Elsa Jenna/REUTERS