Friday, August 24, 2012

Italy’s Other Crisis

The weak economy is visible to all but there is a parallel crack in the system which is at least as dangerous to the country’s wellbeing and stability and undermines the very structures of the country. It is the clash between the powers of the state; the law on one side and the executive and legislature (usually referred to as la politica) on the other.

Both crises have been a long time brewing. The material hardships are due to a declining economy over the last 20 years combined with an uncontrolled growth of public spending. The crunch came when the waves from the US and then European bubbles hit Italy.

The institutional crisis also goes back a long way; 30 years when Bettino Craxi first bridled at magistrates investigating corruption in his Socialist Party in Genoa; 20 years ago when the Milan magistrates began prosecuting the kickback system used by all the parties. The conflict between “the judges” and la politica has rumbled on since then with occasional squalls; the final storm has now broken and is likely to be a very rough and dangerous one for the ship of state.

The opening lightening was an appeal by President Napolitano to the Constitutional Court. He is asking the Court to declare that the calls made to him by a former minister under investigation (and now charged with perjury) should be destroyed. The former minister is Nicola Mancino (above, with Napolitano) who was Minister of the Interior between 1992 and 1994 when there were secret negotiations between elements of Cosa Nostra and politicians and law enforcement officer apparently to alleviate prison treatment of convicted mafiosi in exchange for stopping the mafia bombs. Mancino is not accused of complicity in the deal but he swore that as minister he knew nothing of the negotiations; this turned out to be untrue, hence his indictment for perjury.

While Palermo prosecutors were preparing their case on these negotiations last year, they obtained judicial permission to intercept Mancino’s phone. He made a number of calls to the Quirinale seeking Napolitano’s intercession in the case. Most of the these calls were to the president’s legal advisor, Loris D’Ambrosio. These have been published and are part of the court records; in them Mancino pleads with D’Ambrosio to ask the President to move his case from one court to another where he thought his position would be improved. D’Ambrosio for the most part stalls (and between the lines, it is clear that he is trying to get Mancino off his own and Napolitano’s backs) but he does give a generic assurance that “the President is looking into the case”.

Later, it came out that Mancino had spoken directly with Napolitano. The Palermo prosecutors have already said that the conversations were not relevant to their case and the recordings would be destroyed as soon as the investigating judge orders it (and after the defence had been heard).

We can only guess that Napolitano reassured Mancino but made no commitment and that Mancino did not admit to any knowledge of the negotiations. The two men have known each other for decades and have been in government together and if an old friend or acquaintance makes an improper request, it is probably brushed aside or ignored politely. Whatever they said, it was irrelevant for the prosecution.

This was not enough for Napolitano who has made a presumably banal albeit embarrassing exchange between two old friends into a constitutional issue which risks tearing apart some of the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy – the separation of powers.
Napolitano is trying to convert his constitutional immunity from prosecution for his presidential functions (normal in most constitutions) into presidential untouchability. If a legitimate telephone tap reachs the President, that call should not even be transcribed and destroyed, he argues.

The only parallel that I can think of is if Governor Blagojevich (of Illinois, who was caught trying to sell President Obama’s vacated senate seat and is now in gaol) had called Obama when his phone was already being tapped. No US court could grant the president inviolability from incoming calls from louche characters.

Instead, in Italy, the media, the judiciary and the political classes are divided. On the one side are Napolitano’s supporters who have introduced a new phrase “judicial populism”. They feel that the prestige of the President has been damaged by the knowledge that the intercepts exist. They do not admit it, but the subtext is once again that anyone in politica (elected members of the legislature or executive), should be protected from any interference of the law.

On the other side are those who can see no constitutional prerogative in the single case and are terrified that if the Constitutional Court decides in favour of the President (both are “Guardians of the Constitution”) this would be a major blow against any judicial monitoring of the political world. In effect making the President into an ancien regime absolute monarch.

Prime Minister Monti weighed into the fray with an interview in the Catholic paper Tempi calling the Mancino-Napolitano intercepts “a grave abuse”. The founder of La Repubblica, veteran journalist Eugenio Scalfari has dedicated his last two Sunday columns to defending presidential prerogative (a position weakened by faulty logic, incorrect data and the possibility that he might be one of the next life senators appointed by the President).

Judges and academic lawyers have defended the Palermo investigators’ procedure.

All the government parties support the president with some of them insinuating a conspiracy of the independent paper Il Fatto Quotidiano, the ex-magistrate Antonio Di Pietro and his Italy of Values (Idv) Party and the Genoese comic Beppe Grillo with his 5 Star Movement (M5S) that allegedly would want to install a government of judges.

The judiciary, once again, complain that the criminal law is only used when politics has gone beyond any reasonable behaviour, in order to clean up the Augean Stables.
Whatever the Court’s verdict (and we will probably have to wait until after Napolitano steps down next year), the Presidency, politics, the Court itself and the whole magistrature will come out looking weakened and somehow sleazy. In the meantime, the thunder rolls and the lightening flashes. This is not the sort of storm Italy needed when facing its economic woes.

The constitutional conflict is the most serious and most abstract part of the spat. At the same time, much more concretely, the Palermo investigations on mafia 20 years ago and today are weakened not only by Napolitano’s appeal but by a combination of inspections and rearrangements of personel, in practice dismantling working police and judicial networks carried out under the veil of everyday bureaucracy.

Even more dangerous is the message which has now been put forward that telephone taps should be further limited. At the moment in Italy (and elsewhere), they are the cheapest and most effective way of investigating almost any form of crime. They are carried out under judicial supervision and with a warrant. Until now, it was mostly Berlusconi and the right which wanted to limit taps – now it is a good part of the left as well and the bill is ready in Parliament and could be passed by Christmas. This would be a body blow not just to investigations into mafia and political corruption but just about any other sort of crime.

Again, not the sort of message to send to a world wondering whether to invest in Italy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

American and Italian Universities

Summer in Italy is not just sun and sea, pasta and pizza, there is culture too, music for all tastes but also quite serious discussions. This was one of those summer initiatives that Italy is so good at; a beautiful setting, a balmy temperature and a good roundtable debate sandwiched between a good meal and divine almond and then blackberry granite or granulated water ice.

For the last three years, the Reggio based online paper,, has organised “Tabularasa” a month long series of encounters and debates on a wide variety of subjects. Local and visiting speakers sit on a stage overlooking the Straits of Messina with a public seeking the evening cool and perhaps some enlightenment.

On my evening, we considered the merits and faults of the Italian and American university systems. The panel was made up of Salvatore Berlingò, a Roman lawyer and rector of Reggio’s University for Foreigners, Francesco Russo, an engineer from the University of Reggio Calabria, Susana Cavallo, from Loyola University’s Rome Campus, Massimiliano Ferrara, political scientist and functionary from the Calabrian regional government and Phil Pullella, Reuters’ Vatican correspondent. The discussion was chaired by the two editors of, Raffaele Mortelliti and Giusva Branca. Some of us had experience in both systems, some only in one.

The two most important questions at the basis of any discussion on this topic have to be – what are universities for? And how should they be financed?

Italy is unclear on both questions. There is a presumption that universities are primarily research institutions and that faculty should above all be judged on their production. And yet successive governments have consistently reduced funding for research. There is also a lack of consensus on how faculty should be rated and two of the panel had a heated discussion on that point – today there are new criteria, more or less international, which are being used to grade academics but Italy is still a long way from adopting the UK quality assessment methods or the US outcomes assessment. Particularly in the humanities, there are many Italians who feel that supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” criteria of peer review and citations in scientific journals miss the point. Maybe, but they do not come up with more convincing metres. This was the division between the Roman lawyer and the engineer on our panel.

On the cost side, there is even less consensus. Italian students are beginning to pay real money especially when they also have to pay for bed and board away from home, though the costs are still tiny compared to the US or even the US, they are much higher than in Scandinavia, say.

Student loan debt in the US is apparently now greater than mortgage debt for houses. UK student enrollment is down because of rising costs. The prospect of starting one’s working life seriously in debt is already discouraging British students from going to university.

For all the disadvantages of costly education, the cash nexus does mean that students are much more central to universities’ raison d’être. The buzzword for decades has been “student-centered learning” in the US. In the American system, we have to concentrate on what we expect students to have learned or be able to do after a class, a course or a degree. Not what we are teaching. The substance is almost identical but the focus is reversed. Whereas in the Italian system, I am very conscious of colleagues concentrating on their own skills and erudition rather than what the skills or knowledge that the students should acquire.

The US is far more responsive to the market – not just for jobs or for who will set up an endowment fund but also to social demands. The pressures are more varied than in Italy: students, social demands, commercial and industrial demands, city, state and sometimes federal government demands. Pluralism in education, as in government contributes to democracy. In Italy, the pressure is limited to the universities and the ministry with occasional outbursts from students when the situation is already terrible. Today there is an increasing input from the private sector but it is still a long way from the American model.

The American system is more democratic in the pressures that move university policy but is seriously flawed in internal university governance which in the majority of cases is structured more like a heirarchical business corporation than the traditional European model of an universitas studiorum where responsibility lies with faculty rather than boards of directors formed by outsider appointed officials. This model is unfortunately taking over in many parts of Europe too. Even in Italy where the system went too far in the other direction with university barons running a feudal power system, today there are administrative boards made up of local businessmen and politicians who are beginning to dictate policy as well as managing teaching content, research and even employment .

Another difference that many Italians, even those who work in universities, forget about is the huge difference in quality within the US system. Italians often presume that all American universities are Ivy League schools. There is an abyss between them and a backwoods community college, or worse, some radical religious foundations or for-profit institutions, whereas Italian state universities and even and private or religious institutions show less difference.

A point which we all made is that American higher education is mostly residential so that students are able to take advantage of much more than lectures in classrooms; sport, culture and above all student social life in which in its best version, students from different social and ethnic backgrounds studying different disciplines exchange ideas and form lasting friendships.

Most importantly, the American universities are based primarily on merit which the Italian ones mostly are not; we also discussed legality in the systems. A colleague here at the American University of Rome, Francesca Conti has studied Italians who leave the country to work in Britain; a recurrant theme is the difficulty of being judged on merit in Italy. In an article to be published in the Bulletin of Italian Politics, she quotes a graduate from the south of Italy who had moved to Britain and who speaks for many of her respondants:

The United Kingdom has offered me things which I would have never had in Italy. What I adore about this country is that they judge you for what you can do; there may be internal games but, in my case, I think that I would have never managed to get to the same position in Italy.

As if to underline this point and the one we addressed at Tabularasa explain, the day after the discussion, one of the local papers had an article about the 26 year old son of a local boss providing help to pass university entrance exams. He had shown his own mettle by passing 9 exams in 41 days. It shows how the Calabrian mafia, the ndrangheta adapts to modern needs and loses no opportunity for power and profit; it also makes my point that merit is secondary quality, far less important than loyalty and having the right friends.

The bane of the Italian system is the raccomandazione.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

All roads lead to Taranto

Today is Ferragosto when Italy normally sinks into a torpor and the most serious worry is whether there is space on your favorite beach or mountain path. But this year is not normal and the question of how to deal with the Ilva steelworks in Taranto cannot wait till September. Even Parliament is working in August.

It is rare that a single political issue has so many strands to unravel and even now, the battle lines are still muddled though they are becoming clearer day by day. The steelworks encapsulate some of Italy’s most intractable problems from the relationship between government and the courts (once again) to industrial restructuring (and the relationship between public and private responsibility), labour relations and health and environmental protection. It is a Big Issue, hot enough to override August lethargy. On Friday (17th. a very unauspicious day in Italian superstition), two cabinet ministers (Development and Environment but significantly, not Health) will be in Taranto to try and solve the problem while lawyers and engineers are working in Rome on other aspects.

The history is easily told. In 1965, the state owned Italsider company decided to set up a steel processing plant in Taranto. The economy needed steel in all forms for a booming economy, Taranto has one of the best ports in the Mediterranean to bring in the ore and the coal and take out at least some of the finished products and it is in the south which had a desperate need for jobs and development. It became the biggest steelworks in Europe.

But like any heavy industry, especially then, it was highly polluting. The combination of ferrous dust and coal smoke was and still is lethal. Cancers and respiratory conditions are significantly higher in Taranto directly correlated to the distance from the plant.

For years various authorities have tried to force first Italsider and the the Riva family which bought the steelworks in 1995, to reduce pollution to the legal limit, but without success. Court orders were ignored or promises made but not respected. Then a fortnight ago, the Taranto court ordered the judicial confiscation of the steelworks and set up a committee to manage the plant and see that anti-pollution measures were implemented, including if necessary plant closure. Management and government made new promises. The CEO, Bruno Ferrante, was appointed as the head of the court appointed oversight committee.

Then a week ago, the Investigating Magistrate, Patrizia Todisco, dropped a bombshell with an order interpreting the Court’s general verdict. She said first that Ferrante could not be part of the committee as he represents management which is responsible for the pollution and secondly, she said that “closure” means closure.

Today 11,500 are directly employed by Ilva, thousands of others depend on it indirectly and most of the other Italian steelworks depend on Taranto for semi-worked products. The Riva family has said they would have to close down their other steelworks in Liguria if Taranto closes, a thinly veiled threat. To turn off furnaces and close steel rolling mills would take months; many months more would be needed to install the anti-pollution measures and many more to restart. Years in all. In practice this would mean the end of steelmaking in Taranto and either downsizing or closure for the other plants as customers would not wait years for Taranto to restart. There is no doubt that fulfilling the court order immediately would be a major disaster, not just for Taranto and the Riva family but for the country’s whole industrial policy.

The Ilva question has once again laid bare the most serious issue in Italian politics today – the role, and rule of law. There are many failings in the administration of justice in Italy but the biggest in not the fault of the legal system. The Law is called upon to carry out functions it was never supposed to do. It is used as the remedy of first… and last resort for almost any conflict.

Health authorities and local government have a duty to apply anti-pollution regulations but in Taranto they have done nothing for years so that finally the courts were forced to intervene.

A government minister, Antonio Catricalà, has threatened to take the case to the Constitutional Court to resolve a supposed conflict between powers. He suggested that the magistrate had overstepped her powers and was managing national industrial policy. Since then, government has backtracked but if the Friday meeting does not stop the closure order, they might still go ahead.

Then there is the relationship between the Riva family and government over the question of who should pay for the cleanup. They contributed to both the major parties in the last elections which adds to public suspicion.

In civil society, the divisions are curious to say the least. Half the work force supports management demonstrating against the magistrate and overturning traditional labour relations. The more left wing FIOM has refused to demonstrate agaist the magistrates and supports immediate action to start the cleanup.

There is a surreal air to the whole business. In the shimmering southern summer heat steelworkers demonstrate on the Appian Way, Diocletian’s road to Egypt. They are demonstrating about a plant whose cycle is measured in years rather than closure tomorrow. With them management and government draw up appeals to different courts and yet another cleanup plan.

And meanwhile the red dust piles up and the people of Taranto cough and some die.
There is so far no Erin Brokovich who took on heavy industry and won but there is the great Apulian rapper, Caparezza who said it all in a 2008 number “Vieni a ballare in Puglia”, (“Come and dance in Apulia” “Tourist, you want iodine and sea air but you get the stink of sulphur; the devil’s arriving. You’ll get tanned with fright with Ilva’s dioxins, you’ll get red spots brighter than Milva’s hair”.

I don’t know where he’s playing today but it’ll take more than a good rapper to solve this August problem.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

More haywire history – Italian war criminal honoured.

Italy has always had difficulty coming to terms with its past but with the passage of time, instead of the past becoming clearer, it becomes dirtier and dirtier.

It was bad enough when a street was named after a corrupt politician like Bettino Craxi. But it gets worse, much worse. (The new mausoleum - left, Graziani - below)

Yesterday the town of Affile in southern Latium opened a Commemoration Park and Mausoleum in honour of a convicted war criminal, Rodolfo Graziani. The mayor, complete with mayoral tricolour sash, representing the Republic of Italy inaugurated the monument accompanied by members of the Latium Regional government and a senator. He declared that he hoped Affile would become "the Predappio [Mussolini's birthplace and fascist cult turism destination] of Latium". After the ceremony, there was a conference given by a priest from the Roman curia entitled “The memory of the General”.

The general in question, or rather, Field Marshal, was sentenced to 19 years for war crimes by an Italian court in 1948.

His political and moral responsibilities were much greater.

Twenty years before he had commanded Italian forces in Libya where he earned a reputation for unmatched brutality and the title “the butcher of Fezzan”. He set up concentration camps for civilians where thousands died of disease and starvation as well as executing large number of insurgents. The war ended when Graziani captured and hanged the Senussi leader Omar al Mukhtar after a summary trial. Qaddafi made good propaganda use of the story but I doubt that anyone in today’s new Libya can be very pleased at Graziani’s new honour.

When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Graziani was given command of the southern front with Badoglio in overall command leading the invasion from the north. Italian forces used gas extensively despite having signed the conventions banning poison gas.

He was made viceroy of the new colony and in 1937 there was an assassination attempt which seriously injured Graziani. Thousands died in the reprisals (corpses on left) and in particular, Graziani ordered an attack on the monastery of Debra Libanos because he suspected that the Ethiopian Church had had a hand in the assassination plan. More than 400 monks were killed as a result (although some studies put the figure much higher).

In 1938, he added his voice to the support of the Manifesto della Razza, the declaration which served as a basis for the Racial Laws depriving Italian Jews of their political and civil rights.

After the September 1943 armistice, Graziani opted for Mussolini and the Germans rather than the king, Badoglio and the Allies. He was made Minister of War in the Italian Social Republic, the RSI or Repubblica di Salò, Mussolini’s neo-fascist puppet republic. As such he organised the anti-partisan war complete with torture and reprisal. His best known decree threatened any young man who did not answer the draft with execution and many were actually shot (poster, left). It was for these crimes that he was tried by an Italian court in 1948 and sentenced to 19 years. The British had worked very hard to prevent Italian war crimes suspects (in Libya, Greece, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia) from being prosecuted as it would have upset the new Cold War balance. So Graziani was never prosecuted for what he did in Libya or Ethiopia.

He is not a Goering or a Goebbels, not quite, but that is hardly a good reason to honour him today. (Can you imagine what would happen if a small German town honoured even a minor German war criminal?) This is a man who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Libyan, Ethiopian and Italian civilians and as a soldier ignored the Geneva protocols. He never recognised that there had been anything wrong with fascism and the year before he died, he reaffirmed fascist values. By honouring Graziani, the mayor of Affile and the Regional Government honoured what he stood for.

In Europe in 2012, this is a terrifying prospect, not because a village of 1,500 people has a not-so-crypto fascist mayor but that there is no indignation from political and civil society leaders.

To add two insults to the injury, the park cost €130,000 of public money, paid for by the Latium Regional Government. Regions are responsible for the health service in Italy and Latium like most others has been closing hospitals, cutting back on services and increasing the price of others. Honouring Graziani would have been an obscenity even if it had been paid for by a fascist benefactor and even if the benefactor had added a donation; but this use of taxpayers’ money is particularly dishonest.

The second insult is that today is the 68th anniversary of the Stazzema Massacre where German SS soldiers killed 560 Italians including old men, women and children in a reprisal. Graziani’s RSI troops worked closely with both the Wehrmacht and the SS. President Napolitano reckoned the anniversary was significant enough to send a message and Martin Schulz, German Social Democrat and President of the European Parliament, was present at the commemoration saying “I am German and the language I speak is the same as those who committed these crimes and I will not forget that.” Schulz, by the way, was the European Socialist leader who Berlusconi offered a movie part as an SS, so is particularly sensitive to issues of Italy’s fascist past.
Harry Shindler of the British Army’s Italian campaign veterans’ “Italy Star” association was shocked at the news and reminded me of the Stazzema anniversary asking “what did they all die for?”

There are millions of Italians that are profoundly shocked as well (if and when they know about the episode) but while the rift persists (and grows) Italy’s ethical identity becomes even more uncertain.