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 LibertĂ , 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 protegĂ© 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.