Italian politicians have a pretty high opinion of the themselves on the whole. They are furbi or cunning, and are, after all, the heirs of the inventor of modern politics, Niccolò Machiavelli and no one is sharper than him…
The self-congratulatory Berlusconi has declared himself the best prime minister Italy has ever had and has rated himself on par with Justinian and Napoleon as a lawgiver. His colleagues are no less modest.
But they are now dangerously distant from the national and international reality. For the third time in two months, there is an emergency austerity budget before Parliament – this is yet another attempt to inject some confidence into the Italian economy; like the others, it will be very painful for all taxpayers and especially the poorer ones.
As part of the belt-tightening move, Parliamentarians cut some of their allowances in an early draft. The version that the Senate passed on Wednesday and that the Chamber is likely to pass this coming Wednesday reduced that reduction so we’re almost back to square one. And since the Government called for a vote of confidence on the bill, there no possibility of amending it.
The proposal to abolish the provinces (Italy has four levels of government to most other countries’ three) has been tabled as a constitutional amendment meaning that even if this legislature runs its full course, the amendment will not have the time to be passed.
Cutting Parliamentarians’ perks, allowances, pensions and salaries will not solve Italy’s debt problem. Even drastically reducing the number of politicians at all levels will not bring Italy’s debt down to the euro norms but addressing the questions will make it just a little bit easier to persuade the rest of the country that the austerity measures are fair. But the politicians don’t get it.
Four years ago, Gianantonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo published La casta (The Caste) documenting politicians’ privileges in painful detail. It became a bestseller and the title has become normal usage. Over the last few months, revelations and bitter criticism have increased. One summer example: lunch in the Senate restaurant costs less than €10, a plate of turbot €2.50 served in a delighful Baroque dining room by elegant waiters…
Parliamentarians are also given a generous pension after just a single legislature ostensibly to guarantee that they do no abuse the position of power that they held. And even very eminent older politicians have been vehemently defending this precious guarantee of democratic righteousness.
More important on the international scene is the government’s stubborn unwillingness to accept that Italy is in the middle of a major crisis and one which risks seriously damaging the euro, possibly even destroying it.
The president of the employers’ federation, Emma Marcegaglia said last week that the government should act or let someone else do it. The Milan stock exchange has been in free fall for almost two months.
The European institutional leaders have also been putting pressure on both President Napolitano and on the government. These last few days have seen the publication of intercepts between Berlusconi and a fixer-pimp who is alleged to have been blackmailing the prime minister which apparently include disparaging sexist remarks on Angela Merkel, one of Italy‘s potential saviors. This is juicy stuff but even if the language is presumably less graphic, I would be far more interested in the conversations between the ECB’s present and future presidents, Trichet and Draghi and Chancellor Merkel and in what they have been saying to Napolitano. The Italian president, after all, is not responsible for the budget and strictly speaking is overstepping his institutional powers when he urges the Prime Minister to act decisively.
It is relatively easy to explain why the parliamentarians are so arrogant in their defence of privilege. First, they are indeed out of touch with their electorate; they are elected from fixed party lists and not directly from a defined constituency or district. The second reason sounds absurd but is still true; the majority of Italians are not yet angry enough with la casta to do anything concrete about it. Twenty years ago disgruntled Romans threw coins at Bettino Craxi to show their contempt at his venality. This has not happened yet.
As for the government, the explanations are more nuanced. Berlusconi has two contradictory spins. The first is that there was no crisis until a couple of months ago and even now, the Italian economy is actually sound. Nothing has changed dramatically in the financial or business world since July, except that now the markets no longer feel that Italy’s debt is secure; the dastardly speculators are wrong according to Berlusconi. But blaming the markets is like blaming the thermometer when you have a temperature. Berlusconi doesn’t get it.
His second explanation is that he didn’t create Italy’s massive debt, as he repeated just yesterday, it was the catto-comunisti, the Catholics and the Communists in the ‘80s. It was actually his friend and protector, Bettino Craxi more than anyone else who made Italy’s debt balloon out of control (and sponsored Berlusconi rise). And he can hardly claim he is the new kid on the block who has to clear up the mess left by a predecessor, like Enda Kenny in Ireland or David Cameron in Britain, or even Papadreou in Greece.
Italian growth has been low or even negative for almost 20 years now and Berlusconi has been in power for all but two of the last ten years.
Then there are the personal and electoral reasons; Berlusconi finds it impossible to deliver bad news and harsh measures because his popularity is more important than the country’s or Europe’s interests. This is for psychological reasons as well as for obvious electoral interests. His allies even more, are terrified of facing an electorate after cutting resources.
They also have an underlying presumption that “it’ll all turn out all right in the end”. This is part facile optimism and part the idea that there are “grown-ups” in “Europe” who will sort everything out. “We’ll raise the pension age but only if Europe tells us to” said Berlusconi a couple of days ago.
The problem is that Italy’s mess is too big for “Europe” (Commission, ECB and Germany) to sort out without a major effort by Italy itself.
But they don’t get it.