What can be made of Italy? Here is the third biggest economy in the EU, and it is sinking slowly in a sea of debt, neglect and bureaucracy. No other country quite encapsulates the romance of Europe.
Despite its quirky
trains, and appalling TV (thanks Silvio), Italy has always had a special place in the European heart. Italy is the capital of style. Italians ooze that elusive ‘something’ that Northern Europeans can recognise but not emulate. We love the Tuscan landscapes, and the Umbrian hill towns, Capri, Sorrento, and wonderful Rome itself. We crave the sun drenched evenings, and the simple ‘ambulare’. We love the culture, not just the historical stuff of Roman Legions, or operatic heights, but even more so, the frisson of illegality, of Don Corleone, of borderline resistence to authority. We love imagining a spook at every corner, and a Don in every town. The food, the wine, the community… Such an Idyl, such a life!
On top of this Italy has been one of the industrial powerhouses of Europe, and has seen its GDP more than double between 2000 and 2008. Since then the wheels have started to come off. Like many perfect storms there are many elements, and it isn’t just debt in Italy’s case (although debt is a major problem, now 128% of GDP; thats about two and a half trillion euro to you and me). It seems that the Godfathers on every street corner, are neither elusive nor romantic. Public works and politics are contaminated at every level by some very non-romantic people. The Ndrangheta butchers are spreading their Calabrian style gangsterism throughout Europe. Rubbish chokes the beautiful city of Naples. Judges and police are assassinated. Public contracts are tainted, and public works are corrupted. The black economy thrives.
The political system appears to have ground to a halt. The cumbersome system of electing a Government makes finding a political solution near impossible. What other country could throw up a choice between a clown and a septegenarean accused of soliciting underage girls a quarter of his age? What other country could allow such a man to monopolise the media, and dictate the political agenda?
The price for all this is human and very real. Unemployment has doubled in the last five years to three million(12%). Youth unemployment rate is over 40%. Some 89% of youths aged 18-24 are relying on their parents. In a sad statement, Prime Minister Letta announced a Government program to reduce Yourth Unemployment to 30%, and suggested that this was progress. Italian industrial production is down 25% as austerity and debt takes hold. Even the (reverse) takeover of Chrysler by Fiat, seems to be a retreat from Italy by the car giant. Though this would have a far more symbolic than real effect, the optics are terrible.
While Italy is a member of the “PIIGS”, it does not really belong. It is a founder member of the E.U.. It is in the G8. It is a military-industrial giant. It is synonymous for most of us cold-fish, with being the essence of Europe. If it fails, it is not a Cyprus, Ireland, Portugal or Slovenia. If it fails, so does the concept of European Economic Unity.