Bologna — As of this week, Matteo Renzi is Italy’s third prime minister in a year. He follows Mario Monti (November 2011-April 2013) and Enrico Letta (April 2013-February 2014). At 39, Renzi is absurdly young by Italian standards, where in politics one’s sixties are seen as an apprenticeship period and one’s seventies are the time of full flowering. Renzi is full of reformist plans, as were his predecessors. He has had no national governing experience, but neither did Silvio Berlusconi when he came to the prime minister’s office in 1994.
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.
FLORENCE — In Silvio Berlusconi’s 20th year on the scene of Italian politics, he has finally been found guilty by the country’s highest court of tax fraud. Berlusconi winked and nodded at tax evasion throughout his career. He protested that no one should pay more than one-third of their income in tax, even while the government he headed demanded up to 50 percent. He paid fortunes to dozens of the most expensive lawyers to delay, obfuscate and time-out charge after charge. That is the man who has been judged guilty of a vast fraud. In a country where tax crime runs from the bottom to (especially and most lucratively) the top of society, a judgment of this kind is even larger than the shock waves it will send through the country’s political system.
FLORENCE – Waiting for the judgment on Silvio Berlusconi is more nerve-racking than waiting for Godot, but should be over sooner. The Court of Cassation, Italy’s Supreme Court, should this week confirm or deny the lower courts’ sentence on the former prime minister of four years in prison and five years of exclusion from public life. (The court’s name derives from the French casser, to break: it can “break” the judgments of the lower courts, but none can break its own.)
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.
“I’ll be back” has been Silvio Berlusconi’s frequent slogan since he first departed from the political field two decades ago. His first government, in 1994, lasted a mere year. It ended in semi-farce when his main ally, the Northern League, pulled out. Prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption while he hosted a G8 meeting in Naples. But he was back in 2001 through 2006, when he lost by a whisker to the left; then back again in 2008, when a stumbling left government lost its majority.