Monday, September 19, 2011

Padania – inventing a nation. Frankenstein Jnr in northern Italy.

More than 2,400 years ago, Plato observed that every nation needs a foundation myth and described how it might be done, and a lot more recently Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition analysed some of the lies and half-truths that most of us use to create our national identity. So we’ve had a long time to understand the dark art of nationbuilding.
Even so, watching Umberto Bossi’s crude antics aiming at manufacturing “Padania” is surprising and more reminiscent of Frankenstein (Junior)’s efforts to create life than the 19th century British enhancement of Boudicca or the German glorification of Herman/Arminius.
On Friday, Bossi performed the “traditional” late summer ritual of taking an “ampolla” (a flask to you and me) of water from the source of the Po. According to Bossi, this is a druidic rite (and the “Padanians” are Celts as we all know) honouring the great river god that gives life to “Padania”. The origins of the ancient tradition are lost in the mists of time of the mid-1990s. When he was in better health, he would carry the bottle down the length of the river stopping on the to milk the crowds and with equal ceremony pour it into the lagoon in Venice… uniting “Padania” – geddit? This year he just managed the beginning and the end of the trip.
The whole charade is weird patchwork of very visible spin and PR mixed with the genuinely traditional Italian propensity for a walk and picnic on a pretty hillside in late summer – the scampagnata.
The previous week was taken up with another attempt to graft “Padania” onto another real Italian tradition – the bicycle race. We had the first (and probably last) Giro della Padania with real cyclists albeit most were past their prime. It was won by Ivan Basso, former Giro d’Italia winner from Varese like Bossi. Once again, “Padania” was being symbolically united by the race except that it was greeted partly with boredom and partly with protests.
The “Padanian” identity is constructed on a supposedly Celtic heritage; the area was after all called Cisalpine Gaul by the Romans, Gaul on this side of the Alps for us Romans, and was largely inhabited by Celtic Gauls. But like Transalpine Gaul on the other side, it was then invaded by Germanic tribes – Franks and Lombards to name just two that gave their names to the places they occupied. Since then, there has been a lot of coming and going in the Po valley which is neither ethnically nor linguistically very pure… it’s true that the League’s leader in the European Parliament has the nickname Obelix because he looks like Depardieu fatted up for the part and that another leader the rubicund Roberto Calderoli could pass for a plump and florid Irishman (but also Englishman or German for that matter).
While the French make a world famous cartoon strip of their Celtic-Gaulish heritage or call their cigarettes Celtiques or Gauloises, Bossi has made a political party and his own very successful career.
In a country where local identity is stronger than almost anywhere else in the world and where many of those identities are based on former political unity or present linguistic or gastronomic unity, “Padania” does not feature as one of them. Most define themselves first as “Piedmontese”, “Sicilian” or “Tuscan”, “Sienese”, “Venetian” or “Neapolitan”; no one seriously thinks of themselves as “Padanian”.
The League’s other symbols also show the magpie tendency of filching anything that glitters and some things that don’t. Their green is a shade somewhere between Ireland and Qaddafi’s Libyan flag – maybe geographically appropriate given the position of northern Italy but not what they are trying to suggest. Their symbol, supposedly "the alpine sun"

looks more like a call for legalising weed – not part of their programme either. When the leaders stand together in solemn moments, their right hands cover their hearts, a quintessential American gesture, not a Lombard (or Piedmontese or Venetian) one. In insults too, they have followed the American example with Bossi frequently raising his middle finger

(most recently towards the Italian national anthem) rather than using the much more athletic Italian and French gesture of putting the left hand on the crook of the right elbow and sharply raising the forearm.
As for music, the Northern League has appropriated one Italian symbol though. From its first performance in 1842, the Hebrew slaves’ chorus in Nabucco was taken as a call to freedom – initially from Austrian domination and then more generally for the whole of Italy. For a time in the 1940s, there was the suggestion that it should become the anthem of the new Italian republic. Now the Northern League use it sing of liberation from Italy much to the annoyance of supporters of Italian unity and Verdi fans..
For the last month, Bossi has again been using the language of secession. In the mid and late ‘90s the party programme moved between wanting a completely independent state (their telephonists at the Chamber of Deputies answered the phone with “Lega Nord, Padania Libera”) and the division of Italy into a three republic confederation. The difference is that Bossi and some of his colleagues are now ministers of the Republic of Italy and have sworn to defend its interests.
Over the summer, they combined unity and secession in a single gesture; the four ministries run by leghisti were transferred to Monza just outside Milan. Never mind that they still have not been staffed and opened and never mind that the other regions of the north were left out. It was Bossi’s devolution equivalent of the secessionists’ military exploit some years ago when a few of them “invaded” Venice with a tractor dressed up in sheet metal to look like a tank: an empty sham, thankfully.
The secessionist rhetoric is actually a superficial inconsistency. The real construction of Padania is a non-starter. Instead, Bossi and his supporters are defending themselves against internal attack – a possible takeover by his rival, the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni. The physically and politically ailing Bossi wants to consolidate his position within the party. Outside the party but within the centre-right, he wants to distance himself from Berlusconi and the People of Freedom, ready for elections not later than 2013 but very probably sooner. During the Po water ceremony, he pointedly made no commitment to supporting the government for another 18 months.
So despite all the noise, we’re more likely to see an indepenent Scotland or Catalonia than “Padania” but that won’t stop Bossi’s rant.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Not even a perch at the victors’ table

Every Italian schoolchild knows that the Piedmontese prime minister sent troops to fight with the British and French in Crimea in the hope that at the end of the war, Piedmont would have a place among the powers to negotiate the peace settlement. Not for the last time, the Piedmont’s and then Italy’s crack bersaglieri were playing diplomats more than warriors.
In the event, Piedmont took its place at the Paris peace conference and forged a new and strong link with France. Cavour negotiated a deal which led to French support against Austria and the unification of Italy under the king of Piedmont. Cavour and the bersaglieri served their king and country well.
More than 150 years later, Italy has been once again fighting side by side with the French and British, this time much closer to home, in Libya. And this time, the Italian contribution was crucial; without Italian bases, the NATO effort would have been much more difficult; Italian aircraft played an important role and the navy even more so.
Much more importantly, Italian interests are closely intertwined with Libya for both oil and gas and development contracts. Libya is also a former Italian colony (the invasion began 100 years ago this month) with much of Tripoli and Benghazi looking like La Spezia. Today it is the principal stepping stone for irregular immigration into Italy from sub-Saharan Africa (with migration control used by Col. Qaddafi as a carrot and stick).
And yet, for the moment at least, Italy has reaped fewer benefits from its support of the rebels and the National Transition Council than Piedmont did in 1856.
On Thursday, Sarkozy and Cameron performed a good revival

of the Entente Cordiale and yesterday Recep Erdogan

showed Turkey’s contemporary diplomatic muscle rather than rekindling their former Ottoman glory. Next week is President Obama’s turn to do the victory parade with the Libyan leader at the UN. Along with the heads of state and government, the diplomats and businessmen beaver away with less pomp and photocalls but more substance.
Where is Italy in all this? The embassy has re-opened and the foreign minister, Franco Frattini has assured Italians in his usual stunningly banal manner that all is well. Berlusconi is far too busy trying to persuade Chancellor Merkel that he did not make disparaging and sexist remarks about her and that she should be prepared to use German euros to buy Italian debt. He would like to show the money markets, the ECB and the European Commission that his latest budget really is going to rein in the Italian debt.
He is also trying to keep his ever more wobbly coalition together as voter confidence in him, his party and his ally the Northern League plummets.
Most importantly, he and his lawyers are in emergency damage control mode to try an prevent the flow of revelations that suggest that he has been at the centre of a massive prostitution ring and is being blackmailed by the pimps and quite a few of the girls.
This means that he does not have time to go to Tripoli in order to try and establish a new relationship with Libya – it would certainly never be quite as chummy as the one he had with Qaddafi but there could be solid working relations based on mutual interests. Even if he did have time, he could certainly not find space on any of the flights going into Tripoli at the moment. Even his once good friend Erdogan presumably wants his company like a hole in the head. Ditto Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron none of whom have had a soft spot for Silvio.
Despite all Berlusconi’s boasting about the success of his personal foreign policy, he risks not even being offered a stool at the victory banquet.
PS. An undenied report of a couple of months ago suggests that a consignment of weapons confiscated from Serbian forces by NATO in the ‘90s and given to the Italian army for destruction, were not destroyed and left their deposit in Sardinia in June for an unknown destination. If the weapons went to the NTC, the delivery could have been public as Italy had already recognised the provisional government. If they went to Qaddafi forces, we would have the curious scenario of weapons (some of them heavy) confiscated by NATO being supplied by a NATO member to be used against NATO forces. If true, it could be one reason why Italy is keeping such a low profile and not just because of Berlusconi’s whoremongering.

Monday, September 12, 2011

They don’t get it…

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