Can Europe Make It?

Minister Boschi, South Tyrol is autonomous and rightly so

The Italian minister publicly claimed she would personally get rid of the country’s self-governing regions – an ill-informed, controversy-stirring populist claim.

Alessio Colonnelli
22 November 2014
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Elena Boschi (second from right). Flickr/Palazzo Chigi. Some rights reserved.

Maria Elena Boschi has recently caused a stir: the Italian minister for constitutional reforms publicly claimed that Italy should get rid of its autonomous regions (4) and provinces (2) with a special statute. South Tyrol is one of them. The others are Trentino, Aosta Valley, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia.

As we all know Italy is facing troubling times. Besides, such regions are seen by the rest of the country as enjoying unjustified privileges, was the subtext. Money gets syphoned off by corrupted functionaries, so they say. Over the years, successive governors of the Veneto – a region with ordinary status – complained vehemently about the supposed unfairness, i.e. the arbitrary splitting between normal and special regions. Public debate there has been reignited by the Northern League’s secession campaigning. A disparaging scenario, highlighting the complete lack of cohesiveness Italy is yet again facing.

Boschi’s was a telling episode born out of a certain environment and culture. Let’s take a look into this. Most weeks Italy gets devastated by storms and floods. The resulting deaths, injuries and damage make for an extremely distressing sight. The landslides are also the metaphor of a country that is crumbling economically, socially – there’s hardly any intergenerational empathy left – and, most importantly, politically.

A significant part of Italian citizens feel abandoned; they don’t believe in any institutions any more. Any whatsoever. Consider this. The inhabitants of Tor Sapienza – a chronically neglected neighbourhood in Rome – told some Five Star Movement activists to get out: politicians are not welcome. Despite the new movement having worked so hard to present itself in a different light: they are not politicians, they are neither left nor right, they say, they represent a new political order, closer to ordinary people, making old-school politicians accountable. Many people don’t believe that any longer (back in 2012 many seemed to, instead).

One thing is certain, in Italy there have been decades of wild, unregulated building. Nature and the outdoors have been literally trampled on in many places, from Liguria to Sardinia, from Milan and the Po Valley to many areas in the south. “In Genoa we should just call in the bulldozers and tear down entire neighbourhoods,” claims Fabio Luino, a geologist from the CNR Institute for hydrogeological protection. And so on.

Since the sixties, over 3,000 Italians have died as a result of floods, landslides and mismanaged ambitious hydrological projects such as those in Stava and Vajont in the northeast, a section of the country that is often showcased as being at the forefront of land management – even there atrocities have occurred. Over such a period of time, half a million individuals have been displaced. And this is in a country that’s supposed to be amongst the most developed in the world, a member of the G7, a co-founder of the EU, a key Eurozone market. It all sounds grotesquely incongruous. It also sounds a bit like post-1949 China: mad developments, no regulatory plans, try to concrete over as much as you can. Build, build, build. Make money. (Although Mao’s and Deng’s country was supposed to be entirely and purely communist and equal – it clearly wasn’t and Italy, in all fairness, never pretended to be).

Now Italy needs to develop a long-term programme to rebuild half of itself. No joking. Prime minister Matteo Renzi appears to be floundering. He started off by accusing the regions of never having implemented proper land development planning. This is business as usual. When things don’t work, the state blames the regions and vice versa.

A chronic malaise. Each to their own and each looking after their own. In a country that’s been long divided, cooperation is now needed among its various entities. Badly. Proper federalism should be the corner stone propping Italy up. Germany, with its similar past of territorial fragmentation, is today a federalist nation. A country of thousands of dialects, like Italy, it’s managed to reabsorb Eastern Germany and mop up the Elbe last year in no time. Surely that’s something to do with proper administrative and political organising. No condoning geared towards electoral gain, but more vision for what the common good means and more awareness as to how to debate decently and work shoulder to shoulder to find feasible, reasonable compromise. Surely that’s nothing to do with embezzlement of public money, misuse of public office and prima donna politicos.

Italy never managed to establish itself as a federal country the way Germany did. The northern neighbour has a lot to show for its Länder quasi independence. Italy’s autonomous regions are nothing but a botched federalist agenda, one that never fully developed. Central governments were historically cautious handing out power. Perhaps due to the fear of unwittingly promoting further corruption and supporting organised crime. For too long Rome thought it could single-handedly keep everything and everybody in check. Eventually it was organised crime who made it to Rome, as the much acclaimed Sicilian novelist and playwright Leonardo Sciascia recounted in The Day of the Owl (1961).

Senator Francesco Palermo has tried to minimize the impact of minister Boschi’s words. He said these were uttered at a Partito Democratico (PD) gathering and that the PD-led government has no official plans of attacking special statutes. Palermo also said that there’s been much ado about nothing. Well, when a minister speaks publicly and the media are invited to listen and report, then it just becomes like any other stage. Words can just as easily become inflammatory. It’s naive at best and misleading at worst to claim the opposite.

Whilst Palermo’s comments on the one hand have a calming effect with the view, maybe, of building a constructive, thoughtful debate about Italy’s federalism, on the other his attempt to hush polemics by saying that Boschi’s affirmations are not newsworthy sounds somehow suspicious. Let’s not forget, however, that Palermo holds a PhD in comparative constitutional law, is an expert in federalism and minorities’ rights and has been a university professor in the US, Germany, Switzerland as well as Italy. A force to be reckoned with, by any means: Palermo is quite possibly the most clued-up one on the topic in his country. So why minimise Boschi’s unwise and untimely affirmations then?

South Tyrol’s self-government – for after a longish premise we are here to focus on this particular case – is fully legitimate. Its legitimacy – aside from all political and juridical pacts, their detailing here would require room we don’t have – is essentially a moral one. One that goes beyond the 1915 Treaty of London, a secret pact between the Triple Entente and Italy. Its purpose was to get Italy to oppose its former German-speaking allies. South Tyrol was the reward for Italy’s change of sides. Sheer opportunism. Sidney Sonnino’s Italy was hungry for new land. In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin referred to Italy’s imperialistic ambitions as a “colonialism of misers”.

History is full of things like that. To rectify its disastrous outcome – snatching a chunk of a proper German-speaking territory from its Austrian motherland, i.e. from the core of a defeated empire, not one of its remote provinces that spoke Ukrainian, Rumanian or Italian. An exception to the rule that has caused so much controversy. A due reminder.

A self-governing status is thus only fair. Boschi should have quickly acknowledged that her remarks didn’t include South Tyrol. Not so difficult to remember, after all. How many other parts of Italy are further away from the sea and speak a foreign language, the language of Germany and Austria? Certainly more conspicuous than the proverbial fly in the ointment. The fact she didn’t, goes to show how far this province of just over half-a-million people is from Rome’s thoughts. That is until it becomes too late to apologise (Boschi later on succinctly retracted what she’d boldly claimed as pressure had obviously mounted from within PD). “Get rid of them” is a sweeping populist remark – these special regions are all different from one another; some of their statutes are more justified than others. A bit of tinkering is required, but generalisations are unhelpful.

Landslides – which do occur in the very mountainous South Tyrol, but are never devastating because they are almost invariably professionally and timely contained – symbolise both the astonishing lack of ability to focus on what’s what and the widespread use of a vicious blaming culture that’s so typical of the Italian establishment. From there it ensues a moral high-ground from where you can conveniently escape the literal deluge all round. A high-ground that is in theory as much moral as it is in practice smug. Rome’s government can’t micromanage, can’t even contemplate beginning to do so. It can’t afford to. The appropriate administrative tools have not been sharpened regularly. As it stands, today, they are blunt; totally ineffective. And it just shows.

Regions have a role and can’t be wiped out. Regions made up Italy long before Rome did (the country had two other capitals before the Eternal city). Rome is there as a halfway relay in between north and south; a bridge of sorts. A romanticised and emotionally charged icon. But the country needs to be managed locally by raising tax locally to be used there and then. In Italy, tax payers’ money is moved around the country like crazy with people unable to see – with reason – why they should help others’ mismanaged regions. Italy as a whole is a vision shared only by a few; most think it’s a faulty system.

No wonder there’s still on-going, creeping stigma and racism within the country itself, among Italians themselves. A horrible and highly derogatory word like terrone is now heard everywhere, used nonchalantly among friends, on social media, in clubs and associations, in the press, on the radio and in films (it’s an offensive term against southern Italians). It’s fun using it, apparently. It’s like outdoing a taboo. It’s like being modern. Haha. Dictionaries say the term is occasionally used with a hint of humour… Well, it’s mostly not the case. And where’s the humour anyway in implying that somebody is lazy and retrograde because they are from the south? Crass. Attitudes like that contribute to weakening the base of Italy’s civil society, playing into the hands of intolerant, factional, clannish, bigoted politicians.

An insult that’s in reality an obvious and a sad sign of no cohesion (football grounds’ racist and sectarian chanting has liberated its widespread use, propagated by the ubiquitous, twenty-four-seven televised matches). Or worse, it perhaps represents the unwillingness to search yet again for cohesion, after so much time spent without finding any (see for instance the case of the doomed Cassa del mezzogiorno, the Aid for Southern Italy).

Italians have given up on it – cohesion? Who cares now. Resources are badly redistributed because the mechanism that should be in charge of promoting cohesion and sharing – the glue of a country – doesn’t function. Proper federalism is required. The alternative is a useless pointing the finger at others. Or cancerous envy.

Therefore, sweeping statements like blaming the floods on regions, or the regions are Italy’s evil and should be dismantled, is tantamount to cheap demonizing that doesn’t help the thoughtful and serious debate which Italians badly need. Now, more than ever.

The debate in question ought to be on how to rebuild the country: materially and politically. Which of the two aspects comes first is a question of the chicken and egg. They should go hand in hand, proceed shoulder to shoulder, like two oxen labouring hard in a field, going backwards and forwards. The economy is the plough, it follows suit.

A former chunk of Austria that has lent itself to a Mediterranean folk could be the lighthouse in a foggy bay. However, on the proviso that its legitimate autonomy is not questioned as being amoral, but observed very closely instead to see what’s in it that Italy could benefit from. Maybe it’s all in a number. Ninety. The ninety per cent of locally raised tax revenue that as a region you should keep for yourself. Rome will manage just fine with the remaining ten. It’ll have to.

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