Views from Italy of another Europe

From the conference, “Out of the crisis with another Europe”, held on July 9,  2012 by the Green European Federation with the support of Sbilanciamoci! , a summary of Italian perspectives on the EU debt crisis and proposals suggested by sections of Italian civil society to overcome the crisis.

Sergio Andreis
18 September 2012

When Berlusconi resigned, Mario Monti's technocratic government was formed with the EU exerting pressure to adopt certain policies. The explicit intention was for Italy to regain its lost international credibility and to play once again a leading role among the founding members of European project. Hopes were high among environmentalists as well: Monti had signed two reports addressed to the European Commission in which the green economy and tackling climate change played a central role. These hopes were gone as soon as Monti's government cut welfare, social services and pensions, increased taxes for those Italians already paying them, de facto ignoring Italy's huge tax evasion, black market economy and the increasing gap between the richest and the poorest citizens, with 10% of the rich owning 46% of Italy's total assets (according to the Italian Central Bank). Environmental priorities and sustainable growth were not even mentioned. Monti showed little creativity at the EU level as well, his government having pursued the decisions taken at last European Council (June 28 – 29).

Five parties are currently represented in the Italian Parliament, of which three have been supporting the Monti government: Berlusconi's Popolo delle libertà – Freedoms' People (member of the European People’s Party European group); Unione di Centro, Center Union (also member of the EPP) and Partito Democratico, Democratic Party (member of the Socialist & Democrat European group,). 

In the opposition the Lega Nord, the populist Northern League, against the EU and Italia dei Valori, The Italy of Values, (pro-European). With the next elections, scheduled for the 2013 spring, the leftist, pro-European party Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (Left, Ecology and Freedom) is expected to be able to elect MPs (running in an alliance with the Democratic Party), as well as the Movimento 5 Stelle (The 5-Star Movement), comparable to the Swedish and German Pirate Parties, which has attracted growing electoral support against traditional parties, with sometimes pro and sometimes anti-EU statements.

Against this polarised national background, the conference on July 9, ‘Out of the crisis with another Europe” held in the European Parliament, attempted to bring Italian and European answers to the triple economic, social and environmental crisis, by discussing the labour policies and social justice aspects of the current solutions advanced by European leaders and the profound democratic challenges they raise. Five sets of proposals emerged from the Brussels and Rome events: the last being dedicated to the democratic challenge:

“Democracy has to be expanded at all levels in Europe; the EU has to be reformed and the concentration of power in the hands of more powerful states that has taken place with the crisis has to be reversed. The aim is to achieve greater citizens’ participation, a major role for the European Parliament (EP), and much more meaningful democratic control over key decisions. The next EP elections in 2014 should represent an opportunity for making choices amongst alternative proposals for Europe within and across EU member states. Facing a risk of collapse, Europe’s policies need to change course, and an alliance between civil society, trade unions, social movements and progressive political forces - notably in the EP - is required to lead Europe out of the crisis created by neo-liberalism and finance and towards a fully- fledged democracy. Greater European integration is needed, with a parallel European constitutional reform, through a European Convention / Constituent Assembly, transnational lists for the EP elections and direct democracy tools allowing EU citizens to promote new European policies.”

Combatting negative perceptions of Europe

In Italy too, traditionally one of the more pro-EU member states, the perception of the EU has become increasingly negative and EU institutions are largely blamed for the crisis, specifically for their inability to avoid importing a crisis which has had its roots outside the EU. This has led to a new pro vs. anti-EU political divide, the latter mounting unprecedented requests to leave the euro.

With 80% of a member state’s legislation originating at the European level, it is impossible to argue that Europe is not at fault. Alternatives, such as the 2006 Stern Review and the 2009 Wuppertal Institute Study, A Green New Deal for Europe. Towards a green modernization in the face of crisis have been put forward: and over time, albeit with little imagination and decade-long delays, we have also heard the EU so-called leaders talking about the Tobin tax, a European rating agency and the greening of the economy. But this talk has had no consequent political actions. The absence of implementation is yet more proof, not of the impossibility of another Europe, but of how unfit the heads of the current EU Commission and Council are to address the two primary challenges of the twenty-first century: to reconcile development with the physical limitations of our planet - including climate change and depletion of resources - and to ensure social justice within our societies and between them. Failing which, Europe risks not only becoming irrelevant as a global player, but being quite unable to guarantee quality of life and social justice to its citizens.

Europe is not just the euro. After centuries of destruction on this continent, Europe also means decades without war, as well as the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol with the Prodi Commission developing awareness of the risks posed by climate change. Not all European Commissions are the same and, in order to avoid falling into the European anti-politics trap, differentiated evaluations should be made: we too are Europe and it would be misleading to think we are not part of the problem and, therefore, must also be part of the solution. Another Europe is a matter of political will. It requires decisions different from those taken (or avoided) in recent years. And when it comes to failure – two major ones are the Euromediterranean partnership and the Lisbon Strategy - the analysis of what went wrong is needed, to ensure that the same mistakes are avoided in the future. To this day, EU leaders consistently fail to show their accountability towards European citizens whom they are supposed to serve. This has contributed to a growing credibility gap.

We are now facing a dramatic economic crisis, and similar institutional failures are again before us. Are there, for example, any alternative sets of ecological solutions which the Italian narrative may bring to the  table at an EU level? These include work on a green economy as laid out in the Symbola Foundation’s Green Italy 2011 Report, which not only researches into renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and low-impact transport, but tracks thousands of small and medium-size enterprises which have been seizing green economy opportunities: 25%                  of all Italian manufacturing and service companies, over 370,000 of them, invested last year in green products and technologies, one third tapping into the export market. With the support of the Environment Ministry, 39 major green economy coalitions are preparing the Gli Stati generali dell’economia verde – National Green Economy Summit – planned for November 7 and 8 in Rimini. 

In the immaterial and culture economy, in 2011 the added value created by these sectors has amounted to 5.4% of the total of the Italian economy, with a steadily increasing job creation in spite of the crisis. Taking into account the knock-on effects of networking with the other cultural productive systems – from heritage, to tourism to local production and trade - we reach an estimate of 15% of the whole national economy and 18.1% of all jobs. One outstanding example: Slow Food, which is by now a world brand.

In energy efficiency: one extraordinary energy efficiency EU initiative which may result in over 30% less energy consumption and the creation of new jobs. 1.6 million jobs for Italy alone – is proposed by the strategic energy efficiency initiative launched by Confindustria, the Italian industrialists umbrella organisation, together with the three largest national trade unions. The Manifesto states:

“Never before has the case for greater energy savings been so strong. Greater energy efficiency is the fastest, cheapest, safest, easiest and cleanest way to deliver climate and energy security. It is an area where businesses active in Europe excel and where the right mix of policy and business leadership can improve and protect Europe’s competitiveness.”

Facing up to the challenge of how to finance the conversion of our economic systems towards green economic growth, there are two often underestimated enormous potential sources of funds: the badly needed cuts to military spending and money and assets to be seized from the organised crime economy.

Hence on military expenditure - in its 2012 Yearbook, SIPRI reminds us that the world total for 2011 is estimated to have been $1,738 billion, representing 2.5 per cent of global gross domestic product or $249 for each person. EU countries are among the leading military spenders and currently there is no European initiative to free at least some of this money for sustainable growth. 

And finally, the economy of organized crime. Far from being a southern Italian-only cancer, the FBI’s web-site  gives some idea of what we are talking about: the economic impact alone is staggering, estimating that global organised crime reaps illegal profits of around $1 trillion per year. Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah has well documented in his article, ‘Where the mob keeps its money’, published by the New York Times in August 2012, how the global financial crisis has been a blessing for organised crime and how deeply also EU member states are implicated. And while the mafia has been one of Italy’s most successful exports, we are also proud to have created some of the best alternatives to organised crime, like Libera - Associations, names and numbers against mafias, working for awareness-raising and creating new jobs through the management of confiscated properties, for social goals.

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