Sixty years ago, pondering the question of an unruly populace, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht mused, “Would it not be easier / In that case, for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”
As we saw last week, Africans are desperately risking, and losing, their lives in the struggle to get into Europe. They come above all from the war-afflicted states of Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They trek to Libya (itself now increasingly in bloody turmoil, a Spring long gone) or Tunisia, and from there seek a boat to the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost piece of Italian soil, nearer to the north African coast than it is to Sicily.
How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.
The pace of European disintegration continues to quicken. Recession deepens in the 17-member euro zone; it is now the longest downturn since the currency was launched in 2000. In Italy, a new left-right government, launched on an anti-austerity program, finds the neighborhood more austere than it had hoped. In France, Maurice Levy, boss of the advertising giant Publicis, did a survey showing that northern Europeans – Poles, Germans, Brits – were moderately optimistic while southerners – Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and the French – were deeply pessimistic. France dipped into recession earlier this month, for the third time in four years. The union is pulling apart.
Let’s begin with two glimpses of the workings of the Italian state.
First, it was announced last week that passengers would be required to mount a bus only at the door in the front, and pay the driver on entry. The present system, in which tickets are bought in cafes and other shops and stamped at machines on the bus after entry from any one of several doors, has resulted in such widespread evasion that it’s calculated that only a minority of riders buy tickets on publicly owned buses. In Naples, three out of 10 play by the rules. The wonder is that three bother to pay.
Jim O’Neill, head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, thinks Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement is a greater threat to Europe and the euro than the trials of little Cyprus. That’s because Grillo received more than a quarter of the votes in February’s election in Italy and has since gridlocked the political system by refusing any dealings with the established parties. A government can’t be formed.
In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability.
Storms in the Mediterranean, calmed in the latter half of last year, now whip up again. Greece’s woes hardly surface in the rest of the world now, but they’re deep and the people remain restive. Seamen struck last week over unpaid wages and extended the strike this past Sunday. The strike cuts off the many islands around the country, and limits exports and imports. For a country so defined by the sea and shipping, it takes on an iconic quality. A 24-hour general strike has been called for Feb. 20: Golden Dawn, the far-right party that targets immigrants and that stands third in the polls, held a thousands-strong rally in Athens on Saturday. No one can say whether the lid will stay on until matters improve – or, indeed, if matters will improve.