Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Falklands are still the Falklands in the Vatican even with an Argentinian Pope.

In the third loggia above the Belvedere Courtyard are some of the offices of the Secretary of State, in practice, the government of the Vatican. A portion of these are the Dicastery of Relations with States, in practice, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs where I went with students last week. And as one might expect in the Vatican, the loggia is decorated with 16th and 17th century panels of maps of the papal possessions in Italy and more generic maps of the rest of the world.

Off the main gallery, there is a modern map of the world showing where the Holy See has its delegates and nunzios; it follows 20th century cartography but with somewhat improbably invented Graeco-Latin names. The capital of Chile (itself renamed Chillia) loses its sainthood and becomes the not entirely euphonious Jacobopolis (tho’ I doubt that many people actually pronounce the word out loud). On the other side of the continent, there is the Argentinian capital, Bonaeropolis, only slightly less contrived.

But the real surprise in what must be the oldest diplomatic organisation on earth, is the unequivocal commitment to British sovereignty over those islands in the South Atlantic “Insulae Falklandianae”. (top left, thanks to Peter Cardena for the photo).

Long before the 1982 Falklands War, I met a Czechoslovak girl in Buenos Aires who explained with sardonic confusion her problems in high school. In her French classes, she told me, they stated punctilliously that “Les Îles Malouines étaient decouvertes par des pecheurs de St. Malo et alors, elles sont françaises”. Then the English teacher arrived and told the class, no less uncertainly, that “the Falklands are British and ever more shall be so”. Finally in history, “las Islas Malvinas son argentinas y nada puede cambiarlo”. “What am I supposed to accept?” She came from a country hardly 50 years old at the time and which was to have only another 20 to run (and when they did break up in their Velvet Divorce, it was with no fuss and no violence) so one could understand her confusion. Territorial nationalism does not run very deep in either the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

It is good to see that it does not run deep in the Vatican even with a Supreme Pontiff who hails from the country with the loudest claims to the islands. The first time I saw the map, some six or seven years ago, I asked if it represented a political rather than a cartographical one and received a mumbled and uncertain response (often I’ve seen airline maps where the islands are ignored or conveniently covered with other script – the Vatican could have finessed the matter similarly).

Obviously the Falkland-Malvinas question is not a priority for the Pope or even for his diplomats but it is a healthy sign that they are so laid back about it.

Their predecessors divided the Americas and the rest of the world between Spain and Portugal in 1495 with the Treaty of Tordesillas so they have some experience in that part of the world and even for the Holy See, priorities change in half a millenium (or even half a century).

As for the Latin, my classicist colleague, Paul Gwynne told me that 36 years ago, the Vatican had its Latin name for the islands and it wasn’t the Falklands:
Appellantur vulgo Malouines eo quod nautae Galli ex urbe Saint-Malo eas lustrare consueverant. Nomen Malo Latine sic redditur: Maclovius, ii; re quidem vera urbs illa ex usu Curiae Romanae (urbs) Sancti Maclovii nuncupatur; incolae vero Gallice audiunt: Malouins (m.) et Malouines (f.); merito ergo eae Insulae Latine Maclovienses dicuntur.
Caroli Egger, Lexicon Nominum Locorum (Officina Libraria Vaticana: 1977), p. 193

That's as maybe but if you start by calling the Falklands then the rendering into Latin is plausibly “Falklandianae” as the Vatican cartographers give it to us.

Much more serious things are happening in the Vatican and I will try and address some of the issues in my next blog.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Mussolini on the road to Sainthood.

Rome provides unlikely images and stories which have delighted travellers and resident observers for centuries.

In his “Roma” (1972), Fellini was more the poet than the documentarist but he surely would delight in the juxtaposition of tourist tat on sale near the Vatican today; of another famous son of Fellini's Romagna with rather more sacred images.

After a visit with students to the Vatican’s foreign ministry this week, I was having a coffee with them in a bar back in Italy, together with an historian colleague who works on the Vatican and fascism. Next to us was a shelf full of statues of everyone of note from Romulus and Remus to the present Pope. Casting my eye over this sub-Berninian panoply, I noticed a very prominent jaw, sheathed in cellophane but still very recognisable. I turned to John and asked him “Is that who I think it is?” He nodded gravely.

Between the she-wolf, Jesus Christ and assorted saints, was Benito Mussolini, a 30 cm bust on sale at €75, a substantial enough price to tempt only true believers. (top left, photo by Peter Cardena)

It was a Wednesday morning, just after the Papal Audience so the place was choc-a-bloc and hardly suitable for a long chat with the owner, but one day soon, when they have a moment, I will go back there and ask how many they sell and to whom.

For the last 20 years or so, fascist memorabilia has been increasingly available on the open market without need to go into back alleys and sneak away with a plain brown paper bag. On Christmas stalls there are coffee cups with Mussolini in various poses and newsagents sell Mussolini calendars.

That is shocking enough and so are all signs of a rehabilitation of both Mussolini and fascism but I was extremely surprised to see him scowling out sternly from between ancient Roman and Catholic icons.

Obviously we ought to be more concerned with the modern fascists in various guises who are active in politics today across the whole of the EU but without a clear and unequivocal message that the original version and its leader are unacceptable in Italy and Europe it is very difficult to condemn the ideas of Mussolini’s heirs. There must be many tourists who make a silent equation of the moral value of people depicted in plaster on those shelves… a chilling thought.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Berlusconi’s endless endgame

While government and parliament deliberate over the budget where the final vote in the Senate is due this week, the foreign media (and the Italians for that matter) are more interested in guess-who.

And he is doing his best to concentrate political and media attention on himself and his imminent expulsion from the Senate. On Saturday he gave an impassioned version of his stock speech to the young members of his new Forza Italia. According to this narrative, he is the victim of a left-wing judicial conspiracy; he railed against the judiciary and the Left which has never been able to defeat him politically.

If, as is almost certain. he is expelled, according to Berlusconi, it would be a coup d’état and the end of Italian democracy. It would not only be an affront and humiliation to him if he had to do social services “cleaning loos”, as he said, is obviously a serious fear for him. “Rehabilitation” would no doubt really be humiliating for him, but he maintains it would humiliate the whole country. He told his audience that he had brought the US and Russia closer together and various other statesmanlike deeds. Hyperbole apart, he sounds much like Josefa Idem, the minister for equal opportunities who was forced to resign in May because she had fiddled the tax use of her gym “After all the Olympic medals I have won for Italy, I should not have to go”.

Even if Berlusconi’s claims about his world statesman role were true (which they’re not), it is hardly the point. On 1st August, he was convicted of tax evasion and tax fraud after three levels of judgement in trials that lasted a decade; he had the choice of the best lawyers in the country and for most of the time, two of them were members of parliament working on lawmaking committees which could and sometimes did change laws in their client’s favour. He used his position either as prime minister or as member of parliament to delay hearings in the hope that the statute of limitations would have the case dismissed.

After the guilty verdict, he has hinted at, asked for and demanded that President Napolitano give him a pardon, the last time on Saturday when he said explicitly that he was not going to ask for it (which would imply the acceptance of guilt) but that Napolitano should give it to him against all the rules and the precedents. Napolitano has responded (the first time on 13 Aug., the last on Sunday) patiently explaining that he cannot do so legally.

There are many valid criticism of Italian justice and judges do make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, but no one can accuse the judiciary of running kangaroo courts.

The other element of Berlusconi’s narrative that no one challenges him on (most recently on RAI 1’s “Prima di tutto” this morning) is that because “the Left” (never the “centre-left”) cannot defeat him politically, they have taken the “red judges” as allies to kill him legally. Berlusconi was defeated at the polls in 1996 and again in 2006 by Romano Prodi; he was removed from office by his ally Umberto Bossi’s defection in 1994 and again in 2011 by the gradual disintegration of support for his coalition caused by his inability to face the euro crisis. This year his party did very well compared to the opinion polls a month or two before the elections but it polled 7.3m compared to 13.6m in 2008, a real collapse.

On Wednesday 27th the Senate will debate and vote on Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate. It will be an open vote as the regulation was changed. Normally personal matters involving a single senator are secret votes allowing single representatives to avoid the party whip or public opinion but the PD and some of the opposition decided that this vote was not a personal one involving Senator Berlusconi but was a question of testing a new law, the so-called Severino after the then minister of justice. This is an anti-corruption measure passed in December last year which prohibits anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office or standing for office. It has been applied to city and regional councillors and to candidates in the general election in February but never to parliamentarians up to now.

Berlusconi has threatened a big demonstration on Wednesday bringing a warning from Napolitano that it should be legal. Certainly there will be a big crowd outside the Senate on Wednesday bringing on fears of the apocalyptic images in the finale of Nanni Moretti’s 2006 film “The Caiman”.

A canny move would have been for him to resign before the vote; the Senate would have to deliberate (and vote) to accept the resignation and that would take a few weeks. Above all, it would be a secret vote. But on Saturday he said very explicitly that he was not going to resign. Instead he has announced new evidence to which would prove that he was not guilty in the Mediaset fraud case (and therefore the Senate should not vote on Wednesday). The other parties have said that the vote will go ahead.

Even with less than 48 hours to go before the vote, it is by no means certain that it will actually take place. Berlusconi is desperate not to lose his immunity because he is terrified of preventive detention for his prosecution for having bought a Neapolitan senator seven years ago. With Berlusconi's old friend, Putin in town, there is a wonderful rumour flying around that Putin will make him Russian ambassador to the Vatican…

Even when it’s over, it won’t be over…

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Special Arabic

The office dealing with the prying and spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently goes under the coy euphemism of Special Collection Service.

A long time ago, a colleague on the University of Maryland’s programme for the US military told me of another spooks’ euphemism used back then (and now for all I know). He had been teaching at the US Air Force listening post in Crete, one of various then scattered strategically around the Soviet Union. One was at Chicksands in Bedfordshire, another near Brindisi and another in Japan. When I taught on the Brindisi base, (closed in 1994) a student told me that they listened to Moscow radio taxis – I wasn’t sure if it was a polite way of telling me not to ask questions or if he was commenting on the results of the huge expense of maintaining the base.

The aerials are huge affairs, a circle of steel girders looking like a gasometer designed by Botero, more than half a mile in diametre. The listening personnel were supposed to be native (or very competent) Russian speakers able to deal with oral en clair or decrypted communications. At the Brindisi base, all the support buildings were grouped together with only a few technical huts around the perimeter. Apart from Russian speakers, given the location, I presume that there were a few Albanian and Serbo-Croat speakers but I didn’t meet them. On Crete, not surprisingly, there were Arabic speakers and as for the location of facilities, in contrast, apparently, there was a second, smaller, but substantial group of buildings diametrically opposite the main site.

This was, my colleague told me with more than a wry smile, for speakers of another semitic language used in the eastern Mediterranean but whose native speakers in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s probably would not have been happy being quartered with native speakers of Arabic. These were speakers of “special Arabic”… Hebrew.

Since my friend told a good tale, I was always a little skeptical about the story; surely Mossad was not going to be fooled by “Special Arabic”. But then the German intelligence community presumably is not fooled by the “Special Collection Service” so I checked and found that the euphemism is indeed used and even that there were Hebrew speakers on the USS Liberty, the navy audio-surveillance ship attacked by the Israelis in 1967 during the Six Day War.

That the Liberty was spying on the Israelis has not been proved but the Americans were certainly listening to Israeli traffic then and presumably now… and vice versa.

Today’s scandal is different though. It is not a Spy vs. Spy game (although the Liberty incident was hardly just a game – 34 men died in the attack) between professionals. Today NSA is accused of listening to the leaders of two of the US’s closest allies; worse, President Obama is accused of knowing about the tap since 2010, a major breach of trust and another blot on the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winner (the latest spoof is the usual picture of Obama with “Yes, we scan” underneath and in some versions, next to it, “Stasi 2.0”.

The security and economic interests of the US and EU remain the same and so relationships will be patched up even if worse revelation are to follow but international relations depend on trust between leaders as well as big interests and that is not going to return for some time.

Here in Italy, everything is calm, at least until tomorrow.

Prime Minister Letta has dismissed any possibility of inappropriate behaviour by the Americans in Italy but tomorrow the parliamentary committee in charge of secret service oversight, the Copasir, meets and will ask questions about the Rome Special Collection Office and we might get to know if Italan leaders’ phones have been tapped . One Copasir member has already said that US and Italian agencies have worked together listening to Italian leaders.

If they have, there will be outrage not just from the usual anti-American elements on the left and right but across the spectrum – everyone apart from diehard contraries like Giuliano Ferrara editor of Il Foglio.

If they have not, the hurt pride will almost be worse at the idea that Italian leaders are not worth listening to and are somehow not at the same level as Merkel or Hollande.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Unaddressed Immigration Questions.

At the European Council today, immigration policy is once again on the agenda. Italian prime minister Enrico Letta has put forward a number of plans for immediate implementation including cooperation between EU countries in patrolling the Mediterranean, EU offices in transit countries like Libya to deal with asylum requests for the whole of the Union (and presumably Norway and perhaps Switzerland) so that potential refugees would not have to risk their lives on the crossing and, from Italy’s point of view, would not have to be processed in Italy. Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU Internal Affairs Commissioner agrees that this is the Commission’s agenda too. Italy also wants European financial support for the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers.

There is no doubt that asylum-seekers who arrive in the EU through Italy are the most dramatic and come with a terrible cost in human life but large numbers come from Russia and Serbia and most Afghans (the biggest single group in 2012) do not come in through Lampedusa. In absolute numbers, Italy does not have the most. And when it come to those who are granted asylum, it is Germany that takes the lion’s share at 23.2% with France (18.3%) and Sweden (13.1%) following and Italy taking 5.2% or around 17,000, the same as Austria with an eighth of Italy’s population.

There is a confusion over the issues – humanitarian, economic and social.

In the days after 3 October sinking which cost more than 360 lives, there was a host of polemical articles most of which missed the point in the horror of the tragedy.

On the one side there was Magdi Cristiano Allam in the Berlusconi family's Il Giornale. Allam is a former immigrant himself and convert to Chistianity. The headline said it all Basta con le ipocrisie gli immigrati ormai sono un lusso (“Enough hypocrisy; immigrants are a luxury by now”), an article which was extraordinarily full of venom, out of place as the coffins were being lined up in Lampedusa and out of place given Allam’s own welcome in Italy (and his new Christian or old Muslim obligations of charity).

On the other side was the invitation from a Milanese immigrant NGO to a demonstration in piazza del Duomo under the banner “BASTA MORTI NEL MEDITERRANEO! DIRITTO DI ASILO E ACCOGLIENZA PER TUTTE/I!” Enough deaths in the Mediterranean. Asylum and welcome for all”. In a Europe just coming out of recession and with a rising populist right, “asylum for all” would be a policy disaster.

Another confusion was in the government initiative to increase Navy and Coast Guard patrols which sent a mixed message to Italians (“we are protecting you from the immigrant invasion… but at the same time, we will stop future disasters”) which convinced no one and an unequivocal message to the traffickers (“whatever rustbucket you use, help will be close at hand”) which they immediately acted on and sent a whole fleet of unseaworthy craft heading towards Lampedusa and Malta.

The issues reminded me of a psychological test once used to gauge a patient’s values.

The central figure is a woman who lives by a river; the other five characters are the husband, the lover who lives on the other side of the river, a friend, a boatman and a bandit who stalks the bridge and kills anyone who passes. The woman takes the ferry to see her lover but when it is time to go home, she realises that she has no money for the ferry. Neither lover nor friend will give her the money and the boatman does not take credit. She takes the bridge and is killed. What order do you put the responsibility for her death?

To give the responsibility an order, each one of us has to create back-stories for the characters and make our own decisions about the relative importance of legal responsibility and human solidarity as well as the relative weight of the woman’s links to husband, lover and friend.

So with the migrants.

An adult who entrusts his or her life (and that of an infant child) to a criminal trafficker and an unsafe boat knows the risks. The skipper of the boat is clearly directly responsible but while he was earning a few thousand euros for the trip and risking his own life, his bosses back in Tripoli had already taken hundreds of thousands of euros. Then the governments or non-governments in the Horn of Africa or Syria are responsible for making life so dangerous and impossible that anything is better. At the Italian and end, there is a responsibility in the 2002 Bossi-Fini law which regulates immigration and above all Roberto Maroni’s 2009 decree law which makes irregular immigration into Italy a crime; this discourages other boats from intervening. Further along the causal chain are the longterm European responsibilities in the instability which makes people seek asylum. The normally pro-European and liberal Barbara Spinelli compared Europe to Sophocles’ Creon ignoring Antigone’s appeal to universal rights.

There are no easy answers to the questions but certainly some of the confusion has been grotesque. A few days after the disaster, prime minister Letta promised a state funeral for the victims; instead most were buried in Sicily with survivors confined to Lampedusa and not allowed to attend and Eritrean authorities invited even though they are part of the problem.

Less serious in media terms but much worse for the longterm management of the issue is the almost complete absence of distinction made between asylum-seekers (which Italy has a legal obligation to process and then give status and protection to those granted refugee status) and economic migrants. President Napolitano tried to explain that the Lampedusa victims were all would-be refugees and most of them would certainly be given that status. But neither politicians nor media continued the distinction, reverting to a generic “migrant”.

Whatever they are called, they will not go away and whenever there is a crisis combined with an availability of money, the traffickers will move in and find a way to shift those migrants towards Europe.

Today’s Council meeting has not solved the problems but if it can move towards a solution before the next disaster, it will be a start.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

San Marino and Turkey.

One of the more bizarre interview requests I have received was this afternoon when Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) sent me an email. I presumed it was about the usual Italian questions; instead the topic was “to discuss San Marino and its refusal to be a member of the European Union”, not an item at the top of either my own news agenda or most others for that matter.

Now we all know that Turkey has had a long and sometimes troubled relationship with the EU and previous incarnations for 50 years and so could be expected to show an interest in others would or would not like to be part of the club. But San Marino? Turkey has a population of 74 m., San Marino with 32,000 does not reach half of 0.1%. It is wholly surrounded not just by Italy but a single region of Italy, the Marches (most of the Sanmarinesi who live “abroad” are in the Marches or Emilia Romagna, a different country to be sure but the same accent and variety of Italian, the same food and same architecture). It has also had agreements with the EU since 1991 covering most economic matters.

On Sunday, they were asked to vote on whether San Marino should apply for EU membership; a very small majority said yes 50.3% to 49.7 saying no but as only 20% of the electorate voted and the threshold is 32%, the results were declared invalid. The ruling Party of Socialists and Democrats (PSD) was pro-accession, the Christian Democrats were neutral and the right was against so the result was a blow for the PSD.

But it was hardly a blow for the EU. Clearly the majority of Sanmarinesi had better things to do than go and vote; accession would not change the lives of anyone except perhaps the few who aspired to a Brussels job. The everyday questions would hardly change for most of them. The centre and the right were neutral or against the application. Some had worries that membership would prevent San Marino from controlling immigration. Until 2008, San Marino was a tax haven, mostly for local Italian businesses but then the Italian authorities started looking for Italian tax evaders and the EU authorities started applying international banking regulations much as they have done with the Vatican.

The EU too is not keen to consider microstates like San Marino, Andorra or Monaco so an application was unlikely to be successful which discouraged many voters.

Supporters of the application hoped that membership would modernise the country but they will have to wait for another opportunity.

More interesting than the San Marino vote is why an international Turkish broadcaster dedicated more than five minutes of a 45 minute show to the issue. The questions emphasised that San Marino had “rejected” the EU and whether this meant that the “European dream is over”. I could only answer that the Sanmarinesi were not “dreaming” about anything. They took a very pragmatic decision based on their interests. In a Europe riddled with different crises, few have dreams but most know that an EU is better than no EU. Even England, if it ever comes to that, will realise that the advantages of “Europe” in all its forms outweigh the disadvantages. The Serbs who aspire to membership, are inspired and moved by Russia and the greater Slav culture but they have no desire to become part of a greater Russia; they have no emotional attachment to Brussels but they very much want to be part of the EU.

The European “dream” which the founders certainly had, was intentionally masked by two resources which could not have been more concrete: coal and steel, essential to rebuild a ruined continent. Since then, “Europe” has always been short on inspirational rhetoric and long on tedious regulation.

Turkey wanted to dream in the Sixties when they first applied while the Europeans stalled. Today, it is Turkey which is full of doubts but they have little to console themselves with from San Marino.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Italy’s problems beyond Berlusconi.

So Silvio Berlusconi is barred from holding public office for two years; yesterday the Milan Court of Appeal handed down its verdict after the Supreme Court had declared that their previous sentence of 5 years did not comply with the law.

In immediate personal terms for Berlusconi and political terms for the country, nothing changes with the sentence. He will not be expelled from the Senate tomorrow (that will depend on the Senate ratifying the Court and will take weeks, possibly months) and he is hardly likely to apply for a public service job either now or in the next two years, though he might like to serve on some public industry board.

The only immediate effect is a reminder to him and to the world that Berlusconi is a convicted criminal, something he does not like to be reminded of. His next hurdle is the vote in the Senate, probably in the next fortnight or so, to expel him under the terms of a 2012 anti-corruption law (called the “Severino” after its sponsor) which bars anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office at any level. Regional and city councillors have no option and a number have already been expelled but as the Senate is sovereign, it has to ratify the expulsion of one of its members. The vote will almost certainly be secret (they are arguing the point) and Berlusconi hopes to be able to persuade enough senators to betray their party whips – possible but unlikely.

Some reports had him threatening to bring the government down if he is expelled… again. It didn’t work at the beginning of the month and it is unlikely to work next month; much more likely to split his own party as happened three weeks ago.
There is still a lot of newspaper copy to be wrought from the Berlusconi saga (not least on the more prurient side as all sorts of courtiers and courtesans begin to sing) but less and less on the political effects.

This should mean that Italy’s real political problems will be debated. Some are institutional and structural, others are human and political. Not surprisingly, the first are easier to resolve than the latter but their resolution depends on solving those latter problems.

Italy is the only parliamentary system with perfect bicameralism. Both houses have equal power and any government needs the confidence of both houses. Until this year, there was never a time when the majorities were different but the February parliament gave no one a majority in the Senate; hence the major difficulty in forming a government.

The number of parliamentarians is also perceived as excessive, not an obstacle to government but it certainly undermines public confidence in the institutions so there is general agreement that along with reducing the Senate’s powers, the numbers of both houses should be reduced. We can expect passive resistance to both measures.

The electoral system itself is perceived as an obstacle to government formation because of the different majority in the two houses (a problem which would go away as soon as the Senate lost its equal power). It is also perceived as being unjust – the winning coalition in the Chamber automatically takes 55% of the seats even if as in February, they only took 29.55% (compared to the losers’ 29.18%, 125,000 votes). Finally, as a fixed party list system, it gives absolute power to the party leader or leadership (and not the electorate) as to who gets elected first.

These are technical problems which could be easily solved but like all technical problems, their solution depends on the human priorities behind them.

Forming a government coalition is not “technical” in any way; it requires a will and some compromise. The Italians themselves did it happily and successfully for 44 years under the present constitution. The majority of other countries have coalitions… even Britain has a coalition now. And from the end of April, Italy too once again has a coalition but this time of very unwilling partners. The problem is less ideological (the partners’ policy differences are no more than in Germany, Austria or Britain and often less) and more the personal animosity which has been built up over the last 20 years by Berlusconi and the opposition to him. His time in politics is passing but his heritage will stay on for a long time. The acrimony and personalisation have been made worse by Beppe Grillo’s style and substance which are averse to any form of compromise.

The other, and I think even more serious, obstacle to effective government (making a decision – hopefully the right one – and then implementing it) are the divisions within the parties themselves. All show signs of serious fissures.

Last week, Mario Monti resigned from Civic Choice (Scelta Civica, SC) which he had founded in December. He felt that his party was veering towards the more moderate elements of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (Popolo della Libertà, PdL) and supported the Letta government’s budget uncritically. In practice, he had lost control.

The PdL and Democratic Party (PD) have had visible cracks for months. The first between Berlusconi diehards on one side and the so-called governativi on the other who support the government and are not prepared to go down on the sinking Berlusconi ship. On the centre-left, there are left-right divisions but personalities are more important. The Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, looks as if he will win the elections for the secretaryship but it is far from clear if he wants the menial and mediatory tasks of a secretary – he wants to be prime minister. And he is a divisive figure. As for the third big grouping, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), there were divisions from the moment they were elected, a division on how decisions should be taken and by whom. Only last week, a group of grillini supported a motion to abolish the present immigration law, only to be upbraided by Grillo.

These are all major problems of leadership, not of policy choices and they will not be solved either easily or quickly whether Berlusconi is officially a senator or not.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Silvio Berlusconi’s long and bumpy Sunset Boulevard.

Last week was a helter-skelter in Italian politics as Silvio Berlusconi tried to re-establish his undisputed leadership over the centre-right and to protect himself in some way from the effects of his August conviction for fraud and tax evasion.

For the whole week he told Italians that he and his party were leaving Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition government and would vote against the government in any confidence vote. Then on Wednesday morning, he made the dramatic U turn; after delivering a seering criticism of Letta and the government’s action, he ended his speech by saying that a stable government was necessary and that he and his party, the People of Freedom (PdL) would be voting for the confidence. Since the difference between confidence and no confidence is one letter (fiducia/sfiducia), a lot of people were left wondering what they had heard. The senators had no doubts and half the chamber broke out in peels of laughter. A very surprised prime minister Letta was caught on camera mouthing a very obvious “Grande!”. Shortly afterwards as they went through the division in alphabetical order, Berlusconi was one of the first to give his support to Letta.

For most of the week, Berlusconi, his hardline supporters in Parliament, his newspapers and television channels had been sharply criticising Letta and his government. The reason was his desperation at the prospect of being expelled from the Senate, a process which started on Friday with the from the Senate Committee on Immunity to expel him and will almost certainly end by mid-October with the whole Senate will vote to expel him. It will be a blow to his prestige and a bitter reminder that he is a convicted criminal but more importantly, it will leave him open to the possibility of arrest in some of ongoing trials as he loses the parliamentarian’s protection.

In the parliamentary manoeuvres, he needed to show his control of the party and his power to bring the government down and call snap elections

Berlusconi seemed to show his usual dominance of his party – a fortnight ago he inaugurated the new Forza Italia (FI) headquarters and changed the PdL’s name back to the old party name, all without any reference to party members. Then on Wednesday a week ago, he announced that all the parliamentarians would be resigning and provided a form which almost all of them signed; again with no discussion in the party and to make matters worse, while Letta was in the US and Canada trying to present Italy as a stable and reliable country to the UN and potential North American investors. When Letta returned, he and the cabinet suspended action in order to confirm that they really did have the support of parliament. On Saturday 10 days ago, Berlusconi upped the stakes by ordering the five PdL Cabinet ministers to resign which they promptly did, writing “irrevocable” letters or resignation.

Superficially, it looked as if this was the same old Berlusconi, the boss and owner of the PdL-FI in the same way that he is the owner the Milan football club. Nowhere else in Europe could a party leader demand such loyalty from ministers and parliamentarians.

It looked to good to be true and so it was.

On Sunday, three of the ministers publicly expressed their doubts as to the wisdom of resigning and said that Berlusconi had been “ill-advised” by the hardline, “hawkish” wing of the party. Then Angelino Alfano, the deputy prime minister, PdL party secretary and Berlusconi protegé said that supported Berlusconi “in a different way” to the hawks. Alfano had always been a yes-man in complete thrall to Berlusconi who had even insulted him in public, saying that he didn’t have the backbone to be a leader. By Sunday, he was showing independence and it was evident that there was a significant number of dissidents in the PdL.

Still, on Monday, at a meeting of PdL Parliamentarians, Berlusconi explained that they would be voting against the government. Once again, there was no debate. But the following day, it was clear that enough senators would go against Berlusconi and support the government. Letta had carefully postponed the confidence vote to give his negotiators another 24 hours to convince wavering PdL senators.

Berlusconi was left with the alternative of sticking to his hardline and splitting the party or in effect jumping on the doves’ anti-Berlusconi bandwagon. On the morning of the vote it still looked as if he was going to vote against the confidence motion and some of the early speakers confirmed the hardline.

In the Senate, the PdL group left the Chamber during the debate in order to decide what to do. There was an increasing flow against Berlusconi and at the last minute, he decided that his best tactic was to change.

With the U turn, he hopes to be able to regain control of the PdL and stop a real split but the major fissure in the party is only papered over and that paper will tear very soon, in days or weeks leaving a moderate centre (they were already toying with the idea of Italia Nuova, “New Italy” as a name) and rump Forza Italia controlled by Berlusconi out of Parliament and under house arrest or doing community service (he will have to choose by mid-October).

But even with clipped wings, he will still have influence. More than 7 million Italians vote for his party in February; he has huge financial resources at his disposal and fierce loyalty from a good portion of his supporters.

He is down but not yet out.

On the other side, Enrico Letta has come out of the fray greatly strengthened in personal prestige. He has shown calm and resolve over the past week, never wavering in purpose and unwilling to make compromises over Berlusconi’s judicial problems. For the time being at least, his success has ended any discussion over the leadership of his own Democratic Party (PD)

His coalition is also stronger than before the confidence vote but it still by no means certain that it will last to the target Spring 2015. The PdL support could turn out to a poisoned chalice so unless Letta manages to win the support of a new centre-right group out of Berlusconi’s control, when (not if) the next crisis hits, he might find himself going through the whole business again. In an interview, he said that he felt he was living through “Groundhog day”, even after today’s success, that must still be his nightmare.

For their part the sighs of relief from President Napolitano and the European partners was audible across the continent as Italy will continue to be able to service its debt, pass a budget and begin to approach the deepseated economic problems.

This is an updated version of Silvio Berlusconi’s long goodbye published on BBC News, 2 Oct.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Andiam, votiam!

One of the caricatures of Italian opera is the call to immediate action usually launched by the tenor “Andiam! Partiam!” (“let’s go, let’s leave!”), sustained heartily by a robust chorus… for the last 25 minutes of act III.

The People of Freedom (PdL), or at least part of them, are singing that tune, except that instead of the lead tenor, we have Daniela Santanché at the moment Silvio Berlusconi’s most outspoken supporter. She and the other so-called hawks have been saying that unless Berlusconi is granted some sort of agibilità politica, a neologism which more less means a “licence to act politically”, despite his conviction to gaol and a bar to holding public office on tax evasion and fraud charges, then they will bring the government down.

Forza Italia (FI), Berlusconi’s original 1994 party has in practice been resuscitated and is on an election footing; Berlusconi has declared as much and his people have promised (threatened) aerial publicity over the beaches on Thursday, Ferragosto, Italy’s second most sacred holiday after Christmas. There are already posters up in parts of Milan. It is significant, but hardly surprising that the end of the PdL and the rebirth of FI has taken place with no discussion, deliberation, motions. In that party, the boss decides and no one questions his decisions.

But even if Santanché is spoiling for a fight, we are unlikely to have a first ever autumn election.
The end of the present government, headed by Enrico Letta, would mean an automatic increase in VAT (the default setting which the government would like to change), it would mean the automatic payment of the IMU property tax which the PdL promised to abolish and the application of another local service tax, the TARES for a total of €7bn according to the reliable CGIA thinktank.

IMU is a double-edged sword. The PdL hawks threaten to bring the government down if it is not abolished but if they do, they risk taking the blame for the inevitable tax increases that would follow. Letta has said that the cabinet will deal with the IMU and other tax issues on 30 August.

Another reason for not having a snap election is that on 3 Dec., the Constitutional Court will rule on the present electoral law, nicknamed the Porcellum or Pig’s Dinner. If they declare it unconstitutional – it gives the winning coalition 55% of the the seats in the Chamber even as was the case in February, they only won 29% of the vote – then a Parliament elected in November with the old law would lose its legitimacy.

In any case, elections with the Porcellum would most likely result in a similar result, forcing another “broad agreement” between PD and PdL, or worse if Grillo were to come out with the relative majority in the Chamber, he would have the 55% premium and could call the shots – not likely but a nightmare scenario for the PdL and PD.

Then there are the divisions within both PdL and PD which would make snap elections even more uncertain. For the PdL, there is the question of succession. The further Silvio Berlusconi moves from centre stage the more the divisions in the centre-right become apparent as they did last year before Christmas when they were polling a mere 15%. This is precisely why Santanché would like elections now but of course there is no way to do it.

The PD is hardly better off. At the moment, their divisions are merely comic – at their last Directive meeting, the two party vice-presidents issued conflicting statements over the date of their autumn congress. But there are real differences over policy and leaders which they hope will be resolved by the congress but which are still open wounds.

Hovering not very far in the background is another nightmare scenario for the PdL which is Napolitano’s threat to resign if the government falls. If that were to happen, there is a fair chance that this time, the centre-left would succeed in electing Romano Prodi, Berlusconi’s nemesis.

Outside the limited sphere of direct self-interest, Italy takes over the EU presidency in July next year and no one really wants to see the country in turmoil. On the economic front, the public debt continues to grow and the GDP to fall but positively, the difference between German and Italian interest rates which govern the cost of servicing the Italian debt is at the lowest for two years. These are mixed signals and no one wants to be responsible for making them wholly negative.

But over the short term, it is Berlusconi’s agibilità politica which conditions the noise levels of Italian politics – for the government, Letta has shown himself to be even more unflappable in public than his predecessor Mario Monti.

The Senate committee on eligibility for election is due to decide “by October” on whether he should step down now under a 2012 law which bars anyone with more than a two year conviction from holding or standing for public office. They will almost certainly declare him disbarred from being a senator though he will almost certainly appeal against the decision.

Then some time over the next two or three months the Milan Court of Appeal will declare on the exact length of Berlusconi’s bar on public office, one, two or three years. Until then, even if he wanted to, Napolitano could not issue a pardon or any other measure on what is still an indetermined sentence. He has promised a statement today or tomorrow but however much he wants the government to hold, he would be foolhardy to try and overturn a Supreme Court verdict before the full sentence has been published (in Italy the verdict is given one day but the reasons for it are not made public for 60 days).

The original “Andiam, partiam” aria was in Gounod’s Faust, act II so we still have a long way to go till the grand finale. It is just possible that Letta’s government will survive its full term to 2018, but highly unlikely; he could make it to his own self-imposed term of 2015 but only if his ability and circumstance allow him to exploit the divisions in the PD and PdL (and their successors) rather than be brought down by the ever more serious bickerings within and between the two parties. Or he could last until next spring when there is a new electoral law and the two parties think that they can face elections or at least the cost of staying together would be even higher.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Civil War – Intolerance of Regulation

Many countries have had civil wars – mostly long and bloody affairs fought over deeply held principles. After Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and tax evasion, one of his advisors, Sandro Bondi expressed the possibility for Italy. This civil war, thankfully, will not be bloody but it will be drawn out and it is being fought over a deeply held principle, respect for the law against loyalty to the chief.

Three episodes last Sunday perfectly illustrate Italy’s “civil war”.

Silvio Berlusconi addressed a few thousand supporters gathered outside Palazzo Grazioli, his Rome residence. He proclaimed his innocence after his conviction on Thursday explaining that the judiciary were mere unelected functionaries and that they were undemocratic when they deprived him of his liberty and political rights. He was not prepared to accept their judgement, even that of the Supreme Court after two appeals. This was a repeat of the extraordinary performance a few hours after his conviction when he distributed a speech (shown by most media) where he appeared with the European flag and the Italian tricolour behind him dressed up as a head of state or government. His message, though, was profoundly subversive as he attacked the judiciary, one of the institututions of the state.

In a peripheral story on the demonstration, it seems that Berlusconi had not even asked the Rome council for authorisation to put up the stand from which he spoke.

Finally, the Guardia di Finanza, the tax police checked hundreds of businesses in tourist resorts from the upmarket Costa Smeralda and Capri to the much more downmarket Riccione on the Adriatic. The super-rich Flavio Briatore complained that this would discourage super yachts from going to Sardinia while at the other end, mayors made the same complaint that an economic recession was not the moment to be too severe…

The Supreme Court, taxes and municipal permits, so the message goes, are constraints on citizens’ freedom and therefore “undemocratic”.

But something is changing.

For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted at the third and final level of judgement. Italy’s Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation confirmed the verdict of the two lower courts; they confirmed the four year prison sentence and sent the five year bar on holding public office back to the Court of Appeal to correct a technical flaw. The new bar will be between one and three years (the prosecutor at the Supreme Court asked for three years last week).

President Giorgio Napolitano said within an hour of the verdict that “now” the justice system can be reformed – a possible implication being that the judiciary had won this battle, Berlusconi had lost and now we can move on and change a system which is in desperate need of reform, especially the civil law which apart from being unjust in its delays (“justice delayed is justice denied”), is one of the biggest single elements discouraging development. Others have been less generous in their interpretation and suggest that now that Berlusconi has taken a drubbing, there should be some restrictions on the judiciary, particularly the criminal law, a sort of return match.

The Democratic Party (PD) secretary, Guglielmo Epifani said also within an hour of the verdict that sentence must be implemented; curious as a party leader has nothing to do with the implementation of a sentence but he was talking to his own base. Since then he has repeated that statement as have most other PD leaders; their not-very-hidden message is to their own members to keep calm and not rebel against the leadership for being in a coalition with a convicted tax evader.

Berlusconi and his followers have complained that after creating so many jobs and paying so much in taxes, he was convicted for a mere €7m. This is a grand echo, in technicolour of the former minister and Olympian Josefa Idem who justified her alleged cheating on planning permission and local taxes by saying that she had won lots of medals for Italy. She has just regularised her position with a €3,000 payment but her political career is ruined (she resigned as minister after the allegations were made). To paraphrase Behan on terrorists, a small tax evader is a low-grade criminal, a big one is saviour of his country.

These last ten days have seen Berlusconi offensives on all fronts. They aim to either change the verdict (impossible) or reduce its effects and allow Berlusconi to continue a public life. The offensives are against the president of the bench that convicted him (go for the man, not the ball; but not very effective as there is no way to overturn the conviction); against President Napolitano – the leaders of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party from both houses went to see him to implicitly ask for a pardon or they would bring the government down (Napolitano has rejected the pardon as legally impossible but some rumours suggest he might be working on some other solution); against prime minister Letta, again threatening to bring down the government (but they risk an own-goal if the government falls before it has dealt with some tax reductions at the top of the PdL agenda; the (re-)launch of the old party Forza Italia with a new but recognisable leader, Silvio’s eldest daughter, Marina Berlusconi (she has been less than enthusiastic and many PdL leaders don’t like the idea of a dynastic party either).

So Silvio Berlusconi is down but far from out yet. But barring some sort of electoral coup (snap elections where Berlusconi wins a relative majority and is crow-barred into office – not very likely even if some of his supporters dream of it), he will not hold elected office either in this or the next Parliament. His influence will remain and indeed some of Italy’s most successful criminals, like the leader of the New Organised Camorra, Raffaele Cutolo, have continued their businesses from inside gaol – Berlusconi will not actually be in gaol so it will be even easier. But it is a declining influence – and the civil war between Italians who do not accept laws and regulations and those who do will outlast Berlusconi.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Waiting for the Verdict. Berlusconi contra Legem.

For the last month, the Berlusconi family paper Il Giornale has put a countdown on its front page (yesterday's left), a countdown to the hearing for the appeal to the Supreme Court in which Silvio Berlusconi's “Mediaset” conviction will be reconsidered. Berlusconi was convicted on tax evasion and accounting fraud charges first at the court of first instance, then confirmed on appeal. The Supreme Court cannot re-examine matters of fact so whatever verdict they give, it will be based on law alone. If they confirm the conviction then Berlusconi will have a four year gaol sentence, three years of which have already been amnestied and he would never serve the remaining year in gaol because of his age. More important is the five year bar on holding public office. This would not take immediate effect as his Senate seat would have to be considered by the Senate itself and voted on in order for him to lose it.

The hearing starts today and if there is a verdict, it will probably be handed down tomorrow or Thursday. The alternative is a postponement or some form of retrial.

The number just below Il Giornale’s masthead is not the only dramatisation of the case. Their headline yesterday made it very clear that the Court’s verdict is a national question and not one that concerns Senator Berlusconi. “Così le toghe della Cassazione 
giocano col futuro del Paese" (This is how the Supreme Court judges are playing with the country’s future). Pro- or anti-Berlusconi, no one is in any doubt that the verdict if the conviction is upheld will be a watershed.
There are immediate political repercussions and more longterm judicial and institutional consequences.

Politically a confirmation would through the two biggest government parties into confusion. Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom (PdL) is divided between hawks and doves playing good cop/bad cop. The hawks say that a conviction would be “an attack on democracy” on the curious ground that the votes of 10 million people somehow trump the rule of law. One of them even suggested that if the Supreme Court upheld the conviction, it would be the same as the Egyptian army removing president Morsi. They would like to bring the government down and go to immediate elections. The doves also maintain that Berlusconi has been persecuted but they, and Berlusconi himself present a “responsible” calm and “for the good of the country” will continue to support the government. If the conviction is maintained, there will no doubt be demonstrations and violent language but the PdL will not bring down the government.

On the other side, the Democratic Party (PD) risks bringing the government down because of its own internal divisions. A large portion of the party has been very unhappy in bed with the PdL. They fought a tough election campaign entirely against the PdL and Berlusconi and then found themselves in a coalition with "the enemy". Now if the conviction is upheld, "the enemy" will also be a convicted criminal and that could be too much for some to stomach especially as it is combined with other divisions in the party. But for the same reasons that the PdL hawks are unlikely to pull the plug, the PD dissidents are also likely to go on supporting what is after all “their” government “for the good of the country” and because the risks of snap elections are too great.

Then on the judicial and institutional side, there is the conflict between “politics” and the “the law”, a rift which opened up more than 30 years ago and which Berlusconi increased enormously. Not very deeply buried in the subtext of Berlusconi’s conviction last month in the so-called Ruby case (7 years in gaol and a life ban on holding public office) is a strong statement from the judiciary that they are an independent organ of the state and that their authority is not to be trifled with. Today’s Mediaset case is not only about whether Silvio Berlusconi was directly responsible for his company’s tax evasion and fraud, it is also about whether a politician and man of power and wealth is subject to the law.

As for the result, there are three alternatives.

The first is the confirmation of the conviction – the Supreme Court accepts the Court of Appeal’s verdict.

The second is an acquittal because of some flaw in the legal argument.

And the third is some form of postponement or retrial. If Berlusconi’s lawyers give up the statute of limitations (this hearing was brought forward from the autumn because by one calculation, the statute of limitations would have invalidated any action after 2 August meaning that Berlusconi would have been not guilty because there could be no verdict), then the court could allow a postponement. Or a different calculation of the statute of limitations deadline might allow both sides more time. There is also the possibility that the court might order a retrial because of procedural flaws. That would almost certainly mean that the statute of limitations would prevent a verdict being reached.

Nanni Moretti’s “Il Caimano” a thinly disguised account of the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and his hypothetical fall, ends with an apocalypse, riots and flames in front of the Palace of Justice. He got a lot right including the exact sentence for the Ruby case and the assault on the Court by the Berlusconi figure’s supporters but for the moment, whatever happens in Rome today, tomorrow or the next day is unlikely to start a civil war, thankfully; but the consequences will be farreaching nonetheless.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Constitutional Reform – the Creeping Summer Transformation of Italy

Italy’s summer lethargy is masking a radical change which if passed will unleash the country’s least attractive instincts and give them a constitutional validity – not far from almost any political initiative in Italy is the acceptance of weakly checked power and the desire to have someone take charge and solve the country’s problems.

At the moment a structural change to both the institutions of the constitution and its intentions is under way. If passed, these will complete the de facto changes which have happened over the last couple of years. All with almost no debate in Italy and none at all abroad. Over the last few days the Five Star Movement (M5S) has brought the issue to the top of their agenda and Il Fatto Quotidiano has launched a petition hoping to reach half a million signatures but for the rest, the heatwave (appropriately named Charon, the ferryman to the Inferno) seems to have stifled any discussion. As well as Charon is the fact that most of the issues are arcane and none will change the number of jobs available or the price of pasta, hence the general lack of discussion.

The first step is a bill, the DDL 813 passed by the Senate a three weeks ago which until the M5S filibuster, was due to go to the Chamber before the end of the month. It is a constitutional amendment which would make future amendments even easier. All codified constitutions are in some way “entrenched”; they are more difficult to change than normal legislation because constitutions should not be subject to the political fads and fashions of the moment. In Italy, an amendment at the moment needs to be passed by both houses twice with at least three months between the readings, a very simple and rapid process compared to most constitutions where the entrenchment is much deeper.

The present bill would change article 138 which regulates constitutional amendments. It would cut the three months to one and set up a bicameral commission which would act in a similar way to a constituent assembly following a tight schedule.

This is a government bill which is unusual. It is explicitly part of the government’s 18 month reform programme and includes a very tight schedule as part of the constitutional amendment. The bicameral committee set up by the amendment must be formed within 15 days of the law’s passage, if not the Speakers will appoint members, and the committee must start work within 30 days. This is also very unusual as constitutional amendments are normally excluded from emergency measures.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta hoped that the bill will be passed by the Chamber at the end of the month so that the two Chambers could re-pass it in early November and the commission will start its work before the end of November. This would be rapid for ordinary legislation, for a constitutional amendment it is supersonic. The M5S filibuster has probably delayed the first passage in the Chamber till September unless the government keeps parliament sitting in August.

This first amendment would then allow the substantial reforms to be passed rapidly. There are two elements in the reform proposals: the nature and relationship between the two chambers of Parliament and the nature of the state and government itself.

On the first score, no one seriously argues in favour of maintaining Italy’s perfect bicameralism where the two chambers have equal power. This flaw and potential wrench in the works has been pointed out since the constitution was passed in 1948 but it was only in February this year that there were different majorities in the Chamber and the Senate. The US is used to the concept of gridlock between the two houses, but a presidential system can deal with it – a parliamentary system which depends on the executive having the confidence of both houses, cannot.

Nor is there much explicit defence of the numbers of parliamentarians: 630 + 315, more than most comparable systems.

There could well be stalling tactics as some senators at least do not like the idea of reducing their powers while both houses are nervous about reducing their numbers.

The other suggestions are much more controversial.

There seems to be a consensus among government party leaders (Democratic Party (PD), People of Freedom (PdL) and Civic Choice (SC)) that the executive should be greatly strengthened either introducing a presidential system or more likely, something similar to the French semi-presidential system. They would at least like to see a directly elected head of state with the implication that the new president would have much greater legitimacy and therefore power.

The vision is still vague but their idea is to confirm President Napolitano’s de facto increase in power, to enhance it and enshrine it in the revised constitution.

Strictly speaking, Napolitano’s job is mostly symbolic but for two years now, he has been increasingly active in everyday politics and party issues. The reforms would make these changes constitutional.

Two weeks ago he admonished parliament not to support a no confidence motion against the minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano. The week before the Supreme Council of Defence, an advisory body chaired by the president, issued a statement saying that Parliament had no veto on defence matters, in particular on the decision to purchase of 90 F35s. There was no protest from the legislature on either count.

Parliament has already been seriously weakened by the electoral system which gives party leaders the control over who is elected and who is not. Candidates do not campaign and have no link with any territory. They are beholden either to Berlusconi, Monti or Grillo or to the PD apparat.

In 1946-7 the Constituent Assembly drew up a document which gave the legislature the most power. They had just come out of 20 years of dictatorship so wanted to curb the executive. Today, Berlusconi or his successors, or the PD’s aspiring presidents are not going to be Mussolini but the damage which Berlusconi has wrought over the last 20 years and Napolitano’s inexorable slicing away at the legislature’s powers are cause for concern, a concern which is only shown by a few senior constitutional lawyers but no widespread debate.

Without a debate, the only hope is that other Italian vice, getting stuck in a bureaucratic swamp or that the government fall on some other issue.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Stably unstable

A week before Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s meeting with his British opposite number, David Cameron, I was at a meeting talking about some of the issues the two leaders might be discussing. Most of the meeting was about medium and long term issues like banking regulation, relations with Europe and Italian institutional reform but then the elephant in the room waved its trunk and woke us up: would there even be a Letta government by the time the two men met (very probably); would it last after Berlusconi’s Mediaset judgement due on 30 July if the Supreme Court confirms Berlusconi’s conviction (likely); would Letta last his planned 18 months to complete his reform programme (far less certain on both counts – the duration of the government and the completion of the reforms). The government did indeed last until the two men met.

So the next big shock will be next week when the Supreme Court hands down its judgement but these last ten days have been richly laced with events which show Letta’s fragility. Only one was strictly speaking a government matter and this in itself underlines that fragility – that non-government issues can threaten the government.

The threats come from two quarters. The most visible is of course Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) whose support Letta depends upon and which controls key ministries. Every time the Mediaset case is mentioned, a PdL hawk threatens a walkout of ministers and/or deputies and whenever one of their pet issues like the abolition of the IMU property tax on first houses or the increase in VAT comes up, they threaten to leave the government if the issue is not dealt with.

On the other side Letta’s own Democratic Party (PD) is so riven that there is the real possibility that one or other of the PD factions will bring the government down because they perceive an electoral advantage. No one has made these threats explicit but they do allow the rumours to fly.

Most of this is posturing as for the time being as no one either wants or can afford new elections or some other crisis. The huffing and puffing from the PdL will increase to paroxyms next week if the verdict goes against Berlusconi and from the PD will gradually increase as their winter congress draws near. But it will just be huffing and puffing unless some other factor comes into play.
The three this last fortnight have been serious enough and I will write a separate blog on each.
The first and only government-related issue was the purchase of 90 F35 fighter-bombers due to come into service in the 2020s. The left wing opposition and M5S are against them along with part of the PD but the High Council of Defence, a ministerial advisory body, declared that defence spending was an executive decision and no one in Parliament objected so the purchase plan continues. It will come back though.

Then there was the racist insult made by former Lega Nord (LN) minister and now one of the deputy speakers of the Senate, Roberto Calderoli against the minister for integration, Cécille Kyenge. The PD, the prime minister and the left (but not M5S) called on him to resign as deputy speaker, the PdL merely called on him to apologise; there was a strong division between the two government parties even if Calderoli is in neither but instead, Kyenge accepted the apologies and the crisis ended. Again, this is not the last racist remark from the LN.

Finally, and most serious for the government is the deportation of Alma Shalabayeva and her 6 year old daughter, Alma. They are the wife and daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov, dissident Kazakh wanted by his own government but who has been granted asylum in the UK. Italian police took mother and daughter at the end of May and after holding them briefly, handed them over the Kazakh authorities who had a private jet waiting in Ciampino.
As the details of the operation come out, it is clear that serious irregularities were committed and almost certainly crimes. It looks very like a kidnapping and rendition operation. The minister of the interior, deputy prime minister and PdL secretary, Angelino Alfano has said he knew nothing of the operation. There are calls for his resignation: either he knew and was responsible for the rendition or he didn’t in which case he was incompetent. But the PdL threatened to bring the government down if he lost a vote of confidence so the PD voted solidly to support him after being admonished by by both Letta and President Napolitano. There is a lot more to be revealed about the Shalabayeva deportation and that is bound to put pressure on Alfano.

On top of these, a Milan court convicted three of Berlusconi’s friends and associates on prostitution related offences committed at his parties in Arcore. This was a separate bench to the one that convicted Berlusconi himself in the “Ruby” trial and so is further corroboration that the parties were not the “elegant soirées” that his defence argued. But scarcely a ripple reached Berlusconi or his (political) party. The fact that the former prime minister and some of his friends have been convicted of prostitution offences doesn’t seem to matter “because everyone is innocent until the final verdict”.

And for once, that “final verdict” will very likely be handed down next week and that will be the next storm.

The constitutional reforms have hardly been discussed so far even though they would revolutionise the whole structure of government; but they are another potential for division.

The wits have been saying that Napolitano appointed Letta because he is from Pisa and so could deal with precarious architecture; his government is certainly leaning but if it lasts even a thousandth of the time the Tower has been up, he will be doing well.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ruby, Berlusconi and Bloomsday, on the day of judgement.

More interesting than the legal approach to the Ruby trial is the literary analysis, a week after 16 June, Bloomsday.

A couple of year’s ago, at a Bloomsday reading I was enthralled at the idea that the ever-prescient James Joyce had foreseen Berlusconi’s arrival and his friendship with Karima al Mahroug aka Ruby .
Berlusconi appears in Ulysses as the Commendatore Bacibaci Beninobenone, the doyen of the Friends of the Emerald Isle. The indication is almost explicit apart from the mistake in his title – Berlusconi is cavaliere not commendatore (a few rungs higher). But he is or would like to be full of kisses (baci) and for him everything is fine (benino) or even better (benone). Even the Friends of the Emerald Isle is full of significance (if you, like Joyce, have a dirty mind). FOTEI is the passato remoto of fottere (in Triestino as Joyce wrote Ulysses in Trieste, of course, which abhors double consonants), translated more or less politely as “I have screwed”.

As for the object of the verb, we have the reference in a book which Leopold finds Molly reading a book entitled
Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler's. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we'll break our sides. Families of them.

Berlusconi’s parties did not reveal any sado-masochistic pastimes (apart from a girl apparently dressed up as Ilda Boccassini, the prosecutor in the Ruby case), but a circus they certainly are as is the rest of the political scene. The double meaning of “ring” is something that B himself would appreciate but rather more crudely, and the “doped animals” are, I suppose, the longsuffering Italian electorate who are part of the spectacle. There are plenty of illustrations on the cellphones of the girls who took part in the parties and you can take your pick of who plays the “fierce Italian with the carriagewhip” or the “monster Maffei”. It could be the three defendants in the parallel Ruby case against the alleged organisers of the prostitution ring. Another performer in the circus is “Leo ferox, the Libyan maneater”, surely a reference to B’s erstwhile friend Qaddafi, who, according to Berlusconi introduced him to bunga-bunga. There is even a sinister reference to the end of Qaddafi “Block tackle and a strangling pulley will bring your lion to heel, no matter how fractious”

The conclusive proof that Joyce was referring to Berlusconi is in the passage where the members of the FOTEI have a fight (over whether St. Patrick’s day should be 8 or 9 March – after a major battle, they compromise on 17), the Commendatore is extricated from the wreckage and his “his legal adviser Avvocato Pagamimi” (a clear reference to his lawyer Nicolò Ghedini) gives “several hundred gold and silver watches” to the assembled company, a reference to Berlusconi’s habit of distributing Rolexes to friends and followers.

A couple of days after Bloomsday, Rupert Murdoch’s Irish Sun took advantage of the G8 north of the border to run their story, a scoop, they said, that Silvio Berlusconi is under investigation by the Garda for possible tax evasion. If that leads to a trial, we might have more Berlusconi in Ireland.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ruby – spinning in opposite directions

Tomorrow we will have a verdict in one of the two trials involving Karima el Mahroug aka Ruby. In one, the accused are the model agent, Lele Mora, the former journalist and anchor, Emilio Fede and the former Lombardy regional councillor, dental hygenist and lover of Silvio Berlusconi, Nicole Minetti. In the other, the accused is Berlusconi himself and this is the one that will come to judgement.

Last week, the Italian Constitutional Court turned down an appeal from Berlusconi which if it had been accepted would have prevented another case, the so-called Mediaset tax fraud case, from coming to judgement. If it does and if it goes against Berlusconi, he will be barred from holding public office for four years.

Not surprisingly, neither the Fede-Mora-Minetti trial nor the Mediaset verdict were given any coverage in the international media. In contrast, not surprisingly, the camera crews are already staking out the Milan Court, waiting for the Berlusconi Ruby verdict while most of the Italian media are not overly excited about it.

This is a reflection of media values and priorities and it’s a pity.

Obviously if an ex-Prime Minister of a major European, G8 country is convicted of abuse of power and having sex with an underage prostitute, it is a great story. Even if he’s acquitted, it’s a good story. It’s pretty straightforward; sex is sex after all (well, it isn’t, according to the law, but we can’t explain those intricacies in a 90 second piece, can we?) and abuse of power is just that, Berlusconi bullied a policeman into handing over Mahroug to a friend rather than the juvenile judge (that is what he accused of). We can be sure that whatever the verdict, it will lead tomorrow afternoon’s stories on most international sites.

Even if he is convicted, though, it will change almost nothing. Certainly it will be shocking to have a court say it explicitly rather than most people just thinking that he was a dirty old man but it is not as if Berlusconi had a serious reputation to lose. If anything it would confirm all the stereotypes held in Italy and abroad, in favour and against Berlusconi.

But it is the court of first instance and there are two more levels and may be five years to go and Berlusconi has always maintained that he is innocent until found guilty by the Supreme Court. We’ll have plenty more of Ruby. But for the moment, she is not going to influence the government.

The Mediaset case, on the contrary, is already exercising a very insidious pressure on the government. Last week one Berlusconi deputy threatened that there would a mass resignation of his party’s parliamentarians if the Mediaset verdict is upheld. The so-called doves in the party played down the threat but their good cop-bad cop routine is blatant. The nuclear option of bringing the government down and forcing early elections on the single issue of Berlusconi’s conviction is still there.

In the meantime, the negotiators are said to be at work; there is a real and ongoing overcrowding crisis in Italian gaols and the bill to deal with it is being discussed and there is another bill on security where an article might be added. One option is to include an article in one of these bills to raise the lower gaol sentence necessary for a bar on holding public office to be valid. At the moment, the bar to public office needs a 5 year minimum sentence (which is what Berlusconi has been given). If that is raised, then the bar on public office will lapse. Alternatively, some crimes (like for example tax fraud) might be removed from those punishable with a bar on holding public office.

There are rumours of more desperate measures like putting pressure on President Napolitano to make him a life senator though it is not clear how that would be different from being an elected senator as he is at the moment. Or some sort of special immunity law also with Napolitano’s complicity. Berlusconi and his supporters have until autumn to work something out.

It is of course, possible, just possible that he take the conviction on the chin and continue leading from outside Parliament like Beppe Grillo. But somehow, I doubt it.

So that is why Berlusconi’s Ruby trial really deserves a lot less coverage and Mediaset much more.
As for the other Ruby case, did you ever hear the one about the agent, the anchor and the dental hygienist providing underage girls for an insatiable old man? It’s actually a much better story, if you’re interested in that sort of thing…

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Turning up the heat.

It’s going to be a hot week in Rome; it was 33 today and we have 38 threatened for Thursday but that is nothing compared to the ordeals that Berlusconi is going to go through and because of them, the government and the parties.

Tomorrow is the most important day. The Constitutional Court will pronounce on the so-called “legitimate impediment”. In 2010, the Court of Appeal was hearing the Mediaset case where Berlusconi had been convicted of tax evasion and fraud. On 1 March there was a hearing and a cabinet meeting called by Berlusconi, then prime minister. He did not appear in court arguing that he had good reason (“a legitimate impediment”). The Court rejected his argument and proceeded to judgement, confirming the lower court’s conviction of 4 years in gaol and a 5 year bar to holding public office.

So Berlusconi appealed to the Constitutional Court which delayed and delayed trying to avoid handing down judgement in a politically sensitive moment. They are, apparently, very divided.

If they accept Berlusconi’s suit, he will be off the hook for the Mediaset case as there is no way that there can be a new appeal before the statute of limitations closes the procedure next year. If they reject it, then Berlusconi and the rest of us will have to wait until autumn when the Court of Cassation (Italy’s Supreme Court) will confirm or reject the Court of Appeal’s sentence.

On Monday, the Milan court will pronounce the verdict on the Ruby case where Berlusconi is accused of having had sex with an under age prostitute and of abuse of office. It’s a great media story and no doubt there will be plenty of coverage but politically it will have no effect if he is convicted. This is the court of first instance and there are two more levels which will take many years so the final conviction, if there is one, is a long way off.

Much more serious next week is the motion tabled by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement arguing that Berlusconi is ineligible to hold elected office. A 1953 law prohibits anyone who has a concession from the state (like a broadcasting licence) from holding elected office. For almost 20 years, the law was ignored but now the grillini want to apply it. It will be embarrassing for Berlusconi but even more so for the Democratic Party which will be forced to choose between consistency (they have accepted Berlusconi for 20 years) and legality and political expediency (they cannot be seen to be outflanked by Grillo).

Back in the courts, the civil courts, there will be the final verdict confirming or rejecting the judgement which awarded half a billion euros damages to Berlusconi’s archrival Carlo De Benedetti because of the fraudulent takeover of the Mondadori publishing house. Even for a man of Berlusconi’s substance, it is a hefty sum, all the more stinging coming in the middle of the criminal and political travails.

Although Berlusconi is no longer in government, he is still very much the power behind it. Prime minister Letta depends on the votes of Berlusconi’s PdL for his survival (though some members of the PD are trying to make a deal with dissident grillini as a sort of insurance policy). Whatever the results of the cases over the next days, even if they all go against Berlusconi, he is not going to pull the plug on the government quite yet. He has been playing the elder statesman blessing the Letta government one day and then playing the cheeky chappie saying that European fiscal constraints can be ignored the next.

He will continue to play that game for the next six months, one day threatening, one day feinting with the government and the court until the Court of Cassation delivers.

If they uphold his conviction in the Mediaset case with its bar on his holding public office, then we will see Silvio Berlusconi slip from the statesman role to the rabblerousing populist with uncertain and dangerous possibilities. He has already begun to deploy his "army", l'Esercito della Libertà. Not brown or blackshirts but blue, well-heeled and well made up, and disturbing.

What happens of the next 10 days will be a foretaste of both final court verdicts and Berlusconi’s reactions. Then the temperature might go down for a time.

Friday, June 14, 2013

New Italians, New and Old Italian Racism II

This is the second blog on racism in Italy, all the more relevant after a local councillor in Padua yesterday asked on her Facebook page why no one had raped Cécile Kyenge “I didn’t mean it” she said after the predictable explosion. The rest of the blog is an answer to a long, thoughtful and disturbing comment from an American friend contemplating a return to Italy. It warrants a careful answer and probably more evidence than I am able to present.

Kyenge has by now become a lightning rod for racist remarks bringing out the worst from the racists and sometimes forcing condemnation from people who otherwise might have remained silent. Yesterday’s remark came from a Northern League (LN) councillor and brought immediate condemnation from LN leaders as well as of course the rest of the political world. The incident serves as a good introduction to the observations that were put to me:

I saw you quoted last week in's exhaustive analysis on racism in Italian soccer. The whole racism scene in Italy deeply disturbs me. As you pointed out, so much has changed in the last 10 years. I left Rome in 2003 and have been trying to get back ever since. Now I'm wondering. Racism is spreading across Italy like typhoid. Even a Roman friend tried justifying the monkey sounds at Balotelli, saying they weren't making fun of his race. They were taunting him for being a jerk. Huh? Whatever happened to whistling? I told my friend he should ask Boateng if he thought they were only heckling Balotelli.

I had a very disturbing discussion about it with my Italian instructor here in the US. Yes, I've been keeping up with my Italian, which isn't easy in the Rockies. Our Italian neighborhood consists of a guy named Guido living off Lincoln Street. My Italian instructor, is from Campania. She said making monkey sounds at giocatori isn't racist in "a soccer context." I said, "But racists think blacks look like monkeys." You know what she said?

"Many blacks do look like monkeys."

How the hell am I supposed to react to that? She said, "John, if you can't handle racism, don't move to Italy?" James, is it that bad now? I can't handle racism. It's my number one deal breaker. Will every one of my new friendships break down when we discuss race relations? Is the "N" word becoming part of the Italian vocabulary? I understand the immigration issue. Italians are upset that immigrants come in and take jobs. I get it. But how many are actually hating them for their skin color?

But how uncomfortable are attitudes about race now? I have a Roman instructor who teaches me via Skype. He says it isn't that bad. It's just the ultras who give the city a bad name. What say you?
John makes two important points. One is the distinction between being racist and being anti-immigrant and the other is the role of sport – the suggestion that it’s just a few extremist football fans who are racist.

On the first distinction, for the moment at any rate there is almost no contrast since there is a near perfect coincidence between “immigrant” and “other race” (whatever that might mean) so it’s an easy excuse to say “I’m not racist, I just don’t like immigrants coming in and taking our jobs”. Except that it is a non-excuse – how many Italian citizens would be happy picking fruit or olives for €40 a day? There are immigrants in skilled jobs, a minority and normally well-qualified but certainly there are not enough of them for some complaining.

In any case, the near-perfect coincidence is changing; we are close to having enough sometime immigrants who are Italian citizens and then there is no excuse. The abuse then becomes explicit “there can be no black Italians” (first heard of à propos of Leone Jacovacci, champion middle weight boxer in the ‘30s ) and now against Balotelli. It’s tough for racist football fans when Balotelli wins games for Italy but many of them manage…

But as the number of Italian citizens with funny sounding names or different features or skin colour grows, there will be tensions between “new” and “old” Italians but probably less than in other European countries. There’s a scene in the “Deerhunter”, I think, where a doctor examines a dying soldier and says by way of banal introduction “Ivanovsky? That’s a Russian name isn’t it?” “No”, growls the dying man, it’s an American name”. Though it’ll be a long time before someone can say that Abdullah or Ionescu are Italian names (even if the second most common surname in Milan is Hu – after Rossi – and three out of the top ten are Chinese. The quintessential Milanese name, Brambilla is 30th). Of course surnames betray origins and accents, especially in Italy betray the place of upbringing; both can change with passing generations; skin colour does not. But the big migrations to the northwest in the ‘50s did integrate those from the south and the northeast so that today their children and grandchildren are almost indistinguishable from the “old” Lombards or Piedmontese. The same is likely and I think is already happening with immigrants from further afield.

On the question of whether racist language is limited to the football (or basketball) pitch, the answer, sadly, has to be no as yesterday’s incident showed. There are parts of the north where explicitly racist talk is part of political rhetoric. The loudest and most famous is Giancarlo Gentilini, mayor and deputy mayor of Treviso from 1994 until last week. The fact that he was roundly defeated and the fact that a “new Italian” (of Moroccan origin) was elected as city councillor is obviously positive but as long as senior figures and role models are able to use thinly veiled racist language (Berlusconi’s reference to a “suntanned” Obama or Milan as an “African” city), it will be difficult to keep more violent language out of the stadiums and the bars.

But it is happening albeit slowly. The much reviled politically correct movement is first of all good manners but it also a normative process which does actually change the way people think and act. By not using the N word, John, people are reducing the dehumanising effect of language. The firm position taken by the likes of minister Kyenge and football player Boateng (who stopped a match in January after racist chants) and the increasing support from their white colleagues are slowly changing Italy. The reaction to yesterday’s offensive remark might even bring something postive.

In another incident, a month ago, a LN city councillor for Prato managed to be racist and homophobic on his Facebook page but instead of being praised, he was roundly upbraided and removed the post .
There are parts of Italy where language is extremely offensive and sounds much more like Britain and the US in the early ‘60s but it coexists with an Italy which either welcomes or at least accepts the new found multiculturalism. So, John, you can and should come back to Italy – there will be moments especially in the stadium when you’ll be angry but you will witness a developing society and be able to contribute to that change.

Comments either to me for posting on the blog and/or directly to John has excellent press review reports some of the more unpleasant goings on and proposes countermeasures.
and look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy

Thursday, June 13, 2013

New Italians, New and Old Italian Racism I

Racism in Italy has finally become a subject of debate – slow and limited and usually provoked by foreigners or Italians living abroad. This is one of two blogs which addressing some of the issues and trying to answer some of the questions.

Last month I wrote a piece on racism in Italy for a CNN blog – this is the full version with comment and response.

Italy has its first black cabinet minister, Cécile Kyenge who was insulted by the xenophobic Northern League within hours of her appointment. Last month, Roma soccer fans shouted racist insults at Milan’s Mario Balotelli, black but also one of the national squad’s top strikers. Kyenge has asked Balotelli to be the celebrity endorsement for a bill to give citizenship to the children of regular immigrants born in Italy. At the moment, they have to wait until they’re 18 and then apply for citizenship unlike the US where the 14th amendment gives citizenship to all those born in America.

Italy is having to come to terms with racism.

One of Italy’s old self-images was italiani brava gente – Italians are decent folk. Still, in 1938, Mussolini passed the Racial Laws (Leggi razziali an explicit endorsement of “scientific” racism) and the Italian authorities applied them. These discriminated against Italian Jews but in World War II, whatever crimes the Italian Fascists committed, they were small compared to the Nazis and many Italians worked heroically to save Jews so any Italians who thought about the issue acquitted themselves and the country. After the war, Italians looked at Mississippi and Alabama or Watts later, and then Brixton in London and complimented themselves on not being racist “like the Anglo-Saxons”.

That wasn’t quite true as southern Italians who moved to the north in the Fifties were treated every bit as badly as the Irish or West Indians in London over the same period; they were even referred to as “immigrants” even though they were as “Italian” as the Turinese or Milanese.

But it is true that there were no race riots or lynchings… but there were (almost) no non-whites in Italy. A surname, an accent, a slightly lighter or darker complexion proclaimed a person’s origin but all were Italians. The only non-whites were diplomats, actors or priests in Rome and the occasional businessman in Milan – all privileged people.

Then in the Eighties, Italy changed from being a country of emigration to having immigrants; a trickle at first, mostly from eastern Europe at first. In the Nineties the trickle became a flow, from neighbouring countries like Albania and Romania in Europe, from Morocco in North Africa. The overall numbers were low and the tolerance still fairly high. When a black woman was insulted on a bus in the ‘90s with a “get off the bus and go home!” (it turned out she was Italian), the mayor made a public apology. Carlton Myers, a basketball champion with an Anglo-Caribbean father and Italian mother was the Italian flagbearer at the Sydney Olympics.

There seemed to be very little racial tension, at worst an insulting insensitivity, like the Turin daily La Stampa referring to Japanese cars as “yellow” – they didn’t mean cabs. New terms were invented – extracomunitario, literally non-EU citizen was not used for a Swiss banker, a Norwegian or Texan oilman or a Japanese executive, it was a euphemism for non-white. Vu’ cumpra, the imitation of a street hawker’s “vuoi comprare?” “do you want buy?”, came to mean almost any black person while colf, short for collaboratore familiare or cleaner, usually meant Philippino. These were some of the politer terms used then and discarded by the 2000s.

Over the last decade or so, the number of immigrants rose dramatically, from just over a million in 2000 to just under 5 million of about 8% of the population today. Over half a million are the Italian born children of immigrants who cannot become citizens until they are 18 even though their first language is Italian (or more often Neapolitan or Bergamo or Bologna dialects). This influx was not so bad in an expanding economy (though even then there was the common refrain “wretched foreigners – why can’t they stay at home” followed by, often from the same individual, “why can’t I find someone to work in my factory/field”). The tensions started with two changes.

Since 2008, the economy has been in recession and jobs for all, especially the young, have become rarer and rarer. At the same time, many immigrants have integrated, set up businesses, become citizens and come to expect equal treatment. These two factors are threatening for those Italians who feel insecure either in their jobs or their social position, or, worse, those who like the Northern League politicans who want to exploit that fear.

To these people, a woman like Cécile Kyenge would be acceptable if she was a docile house servant on the lines of the Thirties Hollywood stereotype. The fact that she is a successful eye surgeon and now a self-assured cabinet minister is threatening for them. Even in the US, with decades of efforts to overcome racism, there were many who still found the idea of a black president very disturbing. They could not use overtly racist language so used substitute words like “socialist” while in Italy, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi referred to Obama as “suntanned” and complained that Milan now looks like an “African” city. His language gives a licence to others.

But the changes in the US and the rest of Europe over the last 40 or 50 years mean that the licence is not unconditional. Most of the rest of Europe puts a brake on some of the worst instincts and there is a part of Italy which is indeed brava gente but there is still a long way to go before a black cabinet minister is “normal”.

A colleague from the University of Aberdeen, Andrea Teti picked me up on a few points;

Andrea wrote: "James, my evidence is only anecdotal and personal, but I have to say I disagree about (anti-immigrant) racism emerging only in the last decade or so. As we know, Italy has always been deeply divided, and there has always been plenty of north/south racism (racism, not 'dislike' or good-natured name-calling: stuff like "entry prohibited to dogs and 'terroni'" (derog. for southerners). This racism is not news: southern football teams, for example, would be regularly subjected to deeply racist abuse and their fans assaulted - Neapolitans were regularly greeted to chants like "terroni," "Benvenuti in Italia" or "Tornate in Africa" (to this day, I know well-educated, and otherwise progressive northeners who don't see how insulting the term is and use it as a 'descriptor'). Racism towards immigrants in the North drew on this very well-established register (the 'tune' Balotelli is exposed to has literally not changed since the 1980s, when it was directed at southerners - monkey chants, for example). But since Italy became a country of net immigration (late 1980s/early 1990s), that racism has turned onto new Italians as well: it's no coincidence this is the phase the Lega Nord emerges in. Personally, I consider this particularly shameful for Italy because racism *towards* Italians abroad was/is such a recent historical memory. We complained (rightly) about being treated like dirt abroad, only to then turn around and virtually in the same (historical) breath do the same - and worse – to immigrants, to new citizens. It is shameful and hypocritical, a deep stain on Italy. Ironically, last year's data makes Italy a country of net migration once again, with young Italians leaving in droves again for Europe and the Americas."

Andrea. I think we agree in principle that there has always been a racist undercurrent in Italy – and CNN cut some of my remarks about north on south racism and I have added a little to answer your criticism. The point that more people are leaving Italy than arriving is well taken. But overall, I fear that you (and I) might be being too optimistic.

If you are interested in these issues, look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy.