Can Europe Make It?

Italy is haemorrhaging youth and has no idea how to stem the flow, but there's still hope

Isolating itself – like Britain is doing – would be the end. Italy couldn't afford it. That is the one thing everyone agrees on…

Alessio Colonnelli
25 February 2018
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Matteo Renzi, secretary of the Democratic Party, presenting the programme for the upcoming general elections to be held on March 4 on February 14, 2018 in Rome. February 14, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Aren't other countries following the British way out? For a while, the English-language press was awash with speculations about Italy intending to do the same. A neologism gained traction back in 2016 – Quitaly.

An ill-thought-out Euro was blamed. It strangled Italy's exports to the advantage of Germany's, they said. It halved Italians' purchasing power and savings. And so on. Nothing unreasonable was penned, albeit always by those who were never keen on the EU in the first place.

Snappy, superficial journalism? Nothing of the sort. Some foreign hacks just didn't dig deep enough, not in terms of stats and mathematical models, but from a political perspective – into the words, the gestures and the compromises.

You might know finance and economics inside out, but if you don't know Italy first hand, all that technical expertise will hardly serve your analytical purpose. Too many speculate on this country without even understanding its language: a fatal mistake.

Italy's past, present and future aren't so much in the numbers as they are in the national conversation. It's all in the debate. Verbal backstabbing, irresponsible promises, incitements to hatred, too much tweeting and shouting on telly are the ingredients to a side-salad accompanying an unpalatable main course. Not all meals are great in Italy: politics is a single serving of rotten meat. Millions don't give a damn any more. That's also frightening.

A whirlpool of words

Thankfully, we can rely on Marc Lazar's analyses. The Paris Institute of Political Studies professor highlighted the inability of candidates to propose solutions for the future. “But we would need them, because 4 March (date of general election) is fundamental. … In fact, it'll affect the whole of the European Union, and Europe, in turn, is at the centre of this vote.” Spot-on investigations on Italian matters tend to come from France, Spain and Germany, and you marvel at how important cultural or geographic proximity still is in our digital days.

Yet, amid the whirlpool of insults and empty words, the one thing Italians need is missing: a televised face-to-face confrontation among the opposing leaders. In a country of poor readers where most get their news from a plasma, such unwillingness on the part of Matteo Renzi, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio is cowardly.

What have they got to hide? Ordinary people are as sceptical as ever, with reason, and turn out is bound to be low; in every election it has been in fact lower than the previous one, or nearly so. Italy used to be heavily politicised. This spawned far-right and far-left terrorism. But now we've gone the opposite way – millions don't give a damn any more. That's also frightening.

The precariousness of life – unstable jobs and rising costs – means Italians are having unprecedented problems with a downward demographic. Immigrants could save the day, but xenophobia is on the rise. Immigrants could save the day, but xenophobia is on the rise.

A neofascist opened fire on six Africans lately. Not a mad individual – oh, no. Too easy an explanation (and one we've heard too many times). Shooting foreigners guilty of trying to establish themselves in a new land. Only a racist could do that: he was indeed a failed candidate for the Northern League, a party that used to stupidly spout hatred towards southern Italians; not a great tactic if your aspiration, like Salvini's, is to become prime minister.

In fact, they've changed tack: southern Italians have been replaced in the current NL narrative with people coming from further south. A dispiriting vision of the country's future. This is piling on rhetorical idiocy on already chronic problems, instead of acting to solve them.

Europe the loser

Who do you think will win? Hard to say. The loser will be Europe. A country incapable of renewal – incapable of answering its own questions – is a country uninterested in leading. In these Brexit times, where the EU has been shaken to its very foundations, the absence of Italy will resound like an echo in a deserted mountain valley, like those separating the peninsula from the thriving continent where the young are heading to en masse. This is what we should be talking about, and we are not.

In between the “left behinds” in the south – life expectancy in Naples is years lower than in the northern outpost South Tyrol – and our unemployed youth, among whom many leave without coming back, a shrinking middle class is bravely facing up to Italy's ever powerful and shameless plutocracy. A shrinking middle class is bravely facing up to Italy's ever powerful and shameless plutocracy.

No one has ever highlighted this: the prime minister is an aristocrat. How bizarre for a young republic. I guess that after Silvio Berlusconi anything goes. The magnate-turned-statesman's real legacy: widespread indifference to manifest inconsistencies. The new normal.

Nonetheless, there's still hope. You can spot now and again a fresh pro-European narrative in the making. A karstic river: now you see it, now you don't. Isolating itself – like Britain is doing – would be the end. Italy couldn't afford it. That is the one thing everyone agrees on, and as a national pact, it doesn't sound like a bad one at all.

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