Don’t (Just) Blame Berlusconi

(This article was originally published in the World Policy Blog)

By Christopher Bartolotta 

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, but instead of celebrating as a nation, the country is coming apart at the seams. On October 15, what was supposed to be a peaceful street protest in Rome turned into the worst political violence the country has seen in a decade as protestors torched cars, smashed storefronts, and clashed with police.

Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, demonstrators railed against the current global economic crisis that has left Italy’s economy on the brink of disaster. Carrying gasmasks and helmets, a group calling itself the “Black Bloc” incited the violence. That one group was able to turn a peaceful protest into a riot speaks to the underlying anger of Italy’s disillusioned youth. “They [Black Bloc] manipulated very young violent kids without ideology who come from the soccer stadiums,” says Italian journalist Anna Masera. “We are lucky nobody died.”

Paroxysms of violence have revealed a nation in crisis. All too often, government opponents have placed the blame for all of Italy’s problems on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But Italy’s numerous problems cannot be fixed by one person or law. The true cause of Italy’s woes, like the rest of Europe, has been years of flawed economic policy. While getting rid of Berlusconi is a start, Italy will also have to make big cuts to its welfare state—something that will surely spark more demonstrations. The problems for Italy won’t end with Berlusconi.

For being one of the world’s “core” economies, Italy has had embarrassingly poor economic growth under Berlusconi governments. Italy’s average economic growth over the past decade was the third worst in the world. Only Haiti and Zimbabwe performed worse, according to a recent Economist report. The unemployment among Italy’s youth is a staggering 28.9 percent, the second highest in Europe after bankrupt Greece. “[Italy has] a very unstable and unsatisfying frustrating political situation, where politicians never change—they just rotate seats but never leave them,” says Masera.

In a country with a storied history, cuisine, and culture that draws over 40 million tourists every year, Italy seems on the surface to be the last place one should find social unrest. Yet its people, especially its youth, are fed up as the world’s 8th largest economy stagnates. “This generation feels to have been abandoned by the community,” says Fabrizio Ricciardelli, professor of History with Georgetown University at Villa Le Balze in Florence. “There is not in this country the perception from the young generation to possibly have a life: buying an apartment, getting married, having children. What has been missed are the guarantees from the state of primary needs.”

The man in the middle of Italy’s problems is their prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Already the third-longest serving prime minister in Italy’s history, and the longest since Mussolini, Berlusconi has come to represent the stultified government, unable to take action against rising unemployment. With his amorous exploits being detailed for years in the press, he has become a scapegoat for all of Italy’s problems. Despite numerous calls for his resignation, Berlusconi survived a confidence vote in the Italian Parliament in October. While he will continue to govern, it is unclear how effective his government will be after narrowly surviving the vote, 316 votes to 301, or how long his government will last.

Even with his victory, most analysts agree that Berlusconi’s reign will soon come to an end. But this will not solve all of the country’s problems. Italy’s public debt is 120% of GDP, third highest in the developed world, and it has had negative per-capita GDP growth over the past decade. It’s time to start looking past Berlusconi and realizing that Italy’s problems run deeper.

One of the major political fault-lines in Italy divides the country in two. The country has a staggering economic gap between its north and south. Despite its international stature as an economic power and a renowned tourist destination, Italy has not been a united country for all that long. Prior to 1861, there was no “Italy”—just a group of people who considered themselves ethnic Italians. The Italian peninsula had been disunited politically ever since the teenage emperor Romulus Augustus abdicated his throne to Odoacer, in 476 AD. For much of the following 14 centuries, the northern part of the country was a series of small, self-governing city-states and principalities, while the southern half was a kingdom.

Today, the southern part of Italy is a welfare state with an economy based on agriculture. Compared to the heavily industrialized northern regions, it is extremely underdeveloped. By some measures, the south of Italy is the largest underdeveloped area in the industrialized world. Per capita GDP is nearly twice as high in the central and northern regions than in the south.

This economic divide has led to a social divide. Many wealthy northerners have adopted a condescending view of their southern countrymen. This is perhaps expressed best through the political party La Lega Nord (Northern League), whose platform is based on achieving political autonomy for the north from the rest of the peninsula. The party, who have been known to occasionally call for the full annexation of the north into a separate state, is fond of saying that Italian unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi in fact did not unite Italy; he divided Africa.

This month, Standard and Poor’s downgraded 24 Italian banks and financial institutions. Without decisive action taken in the near future, Italy could default. Still, it is extremely unlikely that the EU would let world’s 8th largest economy go bankrupt while allowing Greece and Ireland to stay afloat. But relying on the charity of others is not a solution to the economic and social problems that divide the nation.

All of Europe is going through a readjustment period—not just Italy—and they are learning the importance of living within their means. It’s clear that reforms are necessary, and the Italian government must take steps to not only save themselves from short-term insolvency but to ensure their long-term fiscal health. Italy’s high levels of debt are simply unsustainable. In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, the welfare state must be cut drastically—a decision that many Italians, especially southerners, will not like.

Simply blaming Berlusconi shifts the focus away from the hard choices the country needs to make. Criticizing Berlusconi—a unifying pastime across all of Italy—has hid deeper tensions that could erupt when he leaves power. If Italy doesn’t get its house in order soon, October’s violence could be a harbinger of things to come—regardless of who’s prime minister.

[Photo courtesy of  europeanpeoplesparty]



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