Opinion

John Lloyd

In Italy, enter the wreckers

John Lloyd
Feb 25, 2014 21:22 UTC

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.

The new thing about Renzi, nicknamed the rottamatore — the wrecker — is how he wants to change the ways of doing politics, business and administration in Italy. Another, even newer thing, is that so do his competitors.

There is no viable political force in Italy today that is politically conservative. Each of the leaders of the three major political groups says he wants to overturn the settled order. Each excoriates much of what has been the way of doing politics for much of the post-war period and proposes a leap into a new era.

The most remarkable of these leaders is the never-to-be-dismissed Berlusconi. Judged guilty last summer of fraud, sentenced to a year of community work and a six-year ban from parliament, he remains leader of his party, now re-named Forza Italia. And he is still the main force on the right with 67 deputies in each of the two houses of parliament. It seems likely that he will play the card that will most embarrass Renzi: euroskepticism.

Euroskepticism — a distrust in the European Union — has in the past two years soared in EU countries (it has always been high in the UK). In 2007, just before the financial crash, a little more than a quarter of Italians said they didn’t trust the EU. In a Euronews poll last summer that number grew to more than half (53 percent). For months, the newspapers of the right that support Berlusconi and Forza Italia — led by Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family — have portrayed the EU as a malign institution and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a demonic force. Merkel had reportedly conspired with President Giorgio Napolitano to remove Berlusconi from power, so frustrated was she by his refusal to initiate reforms.

Maybe don’t give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses

John Lloyd
Oct 8, 2013 16:16 UTC

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.

The emigrants pay up to 1,000 euros to traffickers, who sometimes take their money and disappear, sometimes pack hundreds of them into fishing boats, which might normally carry a dozen men. From there they set off to cover the 80 or so miles to the lovely island, a luxurious resort with some of the best beaches on the planet, and now the fevered hope of some of the world’s poorest.

At the end of last week, a 66-foot ship with upwards of 500 of these people sank less than a mile from Lampedusa. More than 150 were rescued; as many as 350 may have drowned. Italy, mired in recession with burgeoning unemployment for all, and especially for the young, is no more generous to illegal emigrants than the rest of Europe, but the scale caused shock there and throughout the continent. Unlikely, though, that it will it cause a change in attitude.

Goodbye to all that centrism

John Lloyd
Sep 30, 2013 20:17 UTC

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.

While Europe’s economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that’s fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany’s, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.

Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.

Italy confronts its fate as Berlusconi meets his

John Lloyd
Aug 1, 2013 21:37 UTC

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.

Judge Edoardo d’Avossa, in the first hearing of the fraud case in Milan last October, referred to “an incredible machine of fraud” set in place under the aegis of one who “had a natural capacity for crime.” The venerable judges of Italy’s Supreme Court took their time weighing in. Outside the vast palace that houses the court, a few enthusiasts for and against the former prime minister shouted at each other, and the broadcast reporters, half-demented by the need to fill the airwaves hour after hour, gave variations of “I have no clue what’s happening.” A little further off, a cinema showed posters advertising the French film L’Immortale, a story about the Marseilles mafia. The irony was picked up and bounced around the airwaves: would Berlusconi continue his apparent immortality?

No. But what does this mean for the coalition government, half of which is sustained by Berlusconi’s recent creation, the People of Freedom party? Despite an unpromising beginning, yoking together two parties that contained many who loathe each other and led by a modest man who was number two in the hierarchy of the center-left Democratic Party, it has given signs of real determination. It has a grasp of what must be done and a certain urgency, in the first three months of its life, in doing it. Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the man overseeing the coalition, may have a modest demeanor, but he has the advantage of surprise in a political culture that tends to privilege the flaunting of power. So far, he has shown more than a little steel beneath the mildness. He has said he wants to make large privatizations; to reduce the power of the Senate, which is presently co-equal with the lower house, leading to frequent blockages; and to change an election law that privileges tiny parties, incentivizing splits in larger ones.

Berlusconi awaits his judgment

John Lloyd
Jul 31, 2013 17:39 UTC

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.)

The case that set Berlusconi on this path was one of tax fraud by his Mediaset company. He has also been found guilty of using an underage prostitute named Karima El Mahroug — “Ruby the Heartstealer” — and of abusing his office by securing her release from prison. 

The engines of his supporters, both in his party, the People of Freedom, and in the media, have been revved up to the highest pitch these past days, as the final judgment nears. They have claimed that it is absurd that a court should impose such a heavy sentence for what was a “mistake” in a tax declaration. They have underlined again and again what has been a major trope of Berlusconi’s 20years at the top of Italian politics — that the judiciary is a nest of communists waiting for the chance to destroy him. They have said, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that someone who has been as popular, and so often elected, as he has been should not be brought low by mere courts.

The Italians have caste their lot

John Lloyd
Apr 30, 2013 21:24 UTC

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.

Second, the ruins of Pompeii, buried by lava from the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD and thus preserved as a Roman town, is one of the world’s wonders. It is also among its worst-preserved wonders. The Italian authorities have taken such poor care of it that several buildings have collapsed, and much-needed European Union money has been withheld because of the bureaucratic chaos.

The Italian state is one of the most swollen in the democratic world. It has some 330,000 police officers in a dozen different agencies, more than any other country in the EU and twice the number in the UK, which is slightly bigger in population. The private sector in health, education and welfare is tiny. The administrations, at district, city, provincial, regional and national levels, have their own councils, bureaucracies and, in many cases, police forces.

Beppe Grillo’s anti-disappointment party

John Lloyd
Apr 3, 2013 17:37 UTC

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.

O’Neill warned that if growth does not come soon to the euro zone’s third-largest economy, stalled for longer than any other in Europe, even more people will start to support Grillo’s movement and its call for a referendum on membership of the euro zone. What, he asked, does Grillo think? His response: “Does anyone really know?”

I do, Jim.

Grillo and his collaborator, the slightly mystic Gianroberto Casaleggio, believe that the Web is the new form of democracy, infinitely superior to the representative parliamentary kind in which, they say, leaders frame the politics and politics fail the people. The Five Star Movement, said Casaleggio in a recent book, believes the word leader “is a word from the past, a dirty word that leads you astray. Leader of what? It means that you attribute intelligence and the power of decision making to others, so you aren’t even a slave, you’re an object.”

Italy elects the impossible

John Lloyd
Feb 26, 2013 16:22 UTC

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

Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.

Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.” 

Italy’s important election

John Lloyd
Feb 19, 2013 20:13 UTC

“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.

His resignation in 2011 was supposed – even by him – to be the final word. Instead, by the middle of last year, halfway through the austere term of the technocrat Mario Monti, he sniffed the air of a return from the political grave (or, according to his many detractors, recalled that being prime minister with the immunity of parliament was handy for one still facing criminal charges). Thus he inserted himself back into the leadership of the party he created, the People of Freedom. At 76, Berlusconi was on the stump once more. With bravura, he has promised to pay people back – in cash -- for the property taxes they have paid since his departure, he won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV show and he grabbed every minute of broadcast space that he could. One could admire his tenacity if he had not been such a disaster — economically, politically and morally — for his country.

Berlusconi has a chance of winning this weekend’s elections. Roberto D’Alimonte, one of Italy’s leading political scientists, argues that the People of Freedom are a mere five points behind the left coalition’s 31 percent poll score. Berlusconi’s tally may be too low if some people are ashamed to tell pollsters they will vote for him. He’s a master of the late surge (as in 2006, where he narrowly snatched victory after trailing badly).

Silvio Berlusconi rises from the dead (again)

John Lloyd
Dec 11, 2012 16:43 UTC

It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

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