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interview: Berlusconi’s Italy

March 20, 2010

Australia’s ABC Saturday Extra

listen now or read the trascript below

Guests

Professor Anna Cento Bull
Professor of Italian History and Politics Department of European Studies University of Bath

Guy Dinmore
Rome Correspondent Financial Times

James Panichi
Producer Radio National Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Geraldine Doogue: Now to a country that’s delighted us in so many ways: Italy. It’s given us a disproportionate number of artistic and cultural gifts. Just a couple of weeks ago I referred to the country’s gob-smacking art on display in that Kevin McCleod television series on the European Grand Tour, and indeed, just last week came some tourism reports saying that 60% of Australians would pick Italy as the place they’d most like to visit.

But on the ground, something seems amiss. As well as rapturous travel accounts of people discovering suburban church frescoes, there are searing verdicts like these, which I’ll read to you now, both from people of Italian background. Here’s writer, Piero Ostalino, from his recent book The Scoundrel State. ‘A country paralysed by a huge number of laws and regulations, suffocated by an invasive and slow-witted bureaucratic culture; a country in a relentless cultural, economic, political decline. This is Italy today.’

And from Silvia Greco, a Sydney-based freelance journalist, after visiting her homeland, writing in The Financial Review: ‘Undoubtedly Berlusconi used his television channels to bewilder the country, crushing opposition voices and creating a grotesquely vulgar society, full of naked girls, and arrogant politicians.’

So is Italy drifting, and if so, when did this drift begin? Well joining me to discuss Berlusconi’s Italy is Guy Dinmore, he’s the Rome correspondent for The Financial Times and Professor Anna Cento Bull. She’s professor of Italian history and politics at Bath University’s Department of European Studies, highly respected in Britain for her analysis of Italian politics. And in our Southbank studio, our very own Radio National producer James Panichi, who’s Australian correspondent for a number of Italian newspapers and magazines. Welcome to you all.

Anna, would you agree in any way with, say, Silvia Greco and Piero Ostalino that Italy is in relentless cultural, political and economic decline?

Anna Cento Bull: I would certainly agree that Italy is in some kind of economic decline first of all, and this is especially in contrast to how the country was seen in the 1980s, especially when its economic system was hailed as one of the responses to the declining manufacturing in Western society. Whereas Italy seemed with its family firms, with its industrial districts, with its innovative manufacturing sectors, seemed to be doing extremely well and thriving; it was taken as a model of development. And then in the 1990s this economic model found itself in difficulty, mainly because of international competition, because of the globalisation, and despite the fact actually it’s still doing relatively well, now it lacks drive, and is more in need of government intervention, of long-term policies which the political system doesn’t seem to be able to provide, and this is the kind of economic model that also produced a party like the Northern League in the early 1990s.

Geraldine Doogue: Could I just ask Guy Dinmore, because I just want to get responses from all three of you before we drill down a bit further. How do you see it, Guy?

Guy Dinmore: Well certainly there’s a lot of agonising going on in Italy ever since I’ve been here for the last three years, exactly on this question: Is Italy in decline? And if you talk to a lot of young people who are desperate to find jobs, who can’t afford to leave their homes because life is so expensive, wages are so low, lots of young people are leaving the country to find work, especially to Spain, until the Spanish bubble burst. Yes, there’s definitely a feeling of crisis here that’s exacerbated by the sense that this is a political system that is mired in corruption, one scandal after the other. And that Italy has in fact lost its way recently.

Geraldine Doogue: And James Panichi, looking on as you do, sitting in both cultures, Australia and Italy?

James Panichi: I think there’s something strange happening in Italy at the moment, and that is a perception, particularly young people, and I get to speak to a lot of young Italians. They all seem to think that things are terrible in Italy at the moment, that the economy offers them few prospects, that the baby-boomers are still running the country and that there’s no place for them. And that may well be the case. I think though that things have changed in recent years in Italy. There is perhaps a greater expectation on the part of young Italians in particular, that there is an expectation that they should be able to succeed, whereas perhaps their parents were not that ambitious. So things are changing; Italian society hasn’t changed fast enough, but I think it also comes down to perceptions. I think Italians feel that they are a lot worse off than they actually are.

Geraldine Doogue: You write. Anna Cento Bull, about a culture of fear in Italy during the last few years that actually won the election for Berlusconi in 2008, because in a way that election interpreted all the fears that Italians hold. What are they?

Anna Cento Bull: It is especially a fear for personal security and linked to the perception of growing crime. This is a perception, it’s not necessarily upheld by statistics by the fact.

Geraldine Doogue: Well in fact the statistics have stayed relatively stable, haven’t they for about the last ten years?

Anna Cento Bull: Yes, exactly. But we know perceptions can be extremely important and they don’t necessarily have to coincide with fact. And this perception of rising crime is leading to fear of immigration, of being swamped by mass immigration, and immigrants are often equated with crime and being criminal. And this is exacerbated of course by certain populist political parties which fuel this kind of perceptions, and also by the media. In addition there are fears of lengthy economic decline, and this has become the biggest fear following of course the financial crisis, and yes, I think the right in general, the right parties of Berlusconi and also the Northern League have been much better able to intercept these fears and to promote themselves as having the solutions, which are seen as being tough on crime, tough on law and order, tough on immigration, and the electorate appears to have responded positively to this kind of political offer.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes. James Panichi, I visited some friends last year in Italy and I was struck by, by comparison with Australia, a much more monocultural country, notwithstanding the immigrants who are there, and of course there’s just no real experience of mass migration in Italy, is there? Does that strike you too in this question of fear?

James Panichi: Well I think that’s the most shameful aspect of Italian society today. A country which has had such a huge experience with emigration, as in people leaving the country, has no interest in pursuing ideas of immigration and multiculturalism, and when I say that, Italy has no immigration policy. There are no numbers, there is no public servant who is responsible for immigration in Italy. What happens is, immigrants arrive in the country and after a while they end up, after working illegally for five or six years and being exploited for five or six years, find a way to gain permanent residency. But there is no immigration program as you and I, as Australians, would understand it. And that’s astounding because there are places in the north-east particularly of Italy where there are small industries but they’re very hungry for labour. And they’re desperate for immigration, but properly structured immigration; they want people in the country. But then you have this bizarre political debate in which the right of politics in Italy is dead against immigration on all fronts, and then the left of politics is in favour of immigration, no matter what, in spite of the fact that people are being exploited as illegal immigrants. So the debate has been politicised. Neither side of the debate actually understand what they’re talking about. If you mention to an Italian, you know, the problem of immigration, they answer you in a way that shows that they don’t understand the difference between legal and illegal immigration. It’s a total debacle the way immigration has been run in Italy, and part of the reason why the Northern League and others xenophobic movements in Italy have been relatively successful is because they’re taking advantage of this policy void.

Geraldine Doogue: Well in fact one of the—I gather that Berlusconi has actually said out loud, after a particularly nasty death from which a Romanian gypsy was found guilty of robbing a woman and trying to rape her, and so it was a dreadful business, and it stirred up an enormous amount of discussion. But Berlusconi said that Italy ought never be allowed to become a multi-ethnic society. Now I’m wondering, Guy Dinmore, whether there is something about the strong culture of Italy which is at particular risk if you try to stretch it too far to really make it much more like a globalised society that we’re accustomed to elsewhere around the world. I mean what’s your impression, having lived there now for three years?

Guy Dinmore: Well to be fair to the Italians, I should point out that the waves of illegal and legal immigration in the last few years have been enormous and uncontrolled. I went to a town in Tuscany a few weeks ago where there are about 50,000 Chinese living there, most of them illegal. It’s the biggest concentration of Chinese industry in Europe. Most of these factories are illegal. These Chinese used to arrive after harrowing journeys illegally across mountains, on trains, in shipping containers etc. Now they simply catch a plane on a tourist visa to Frankfurt airport and come by bus. With the opening of Europe’s borders, with the Schengen Agreement, thousands, tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians have entered Italy looking for work. So I think that to some extent, Italy has been a victim of sort of open-door, global policy and this globalisation that has taken society by storm and really shaken it. And Europe as a whole does not have an answer for this, and I think actually Italians are extraordinarily tolerant towards the wave of immigrants, and it’s correct to say that society here which is aging and has a very low birthrate, does need foreign labour. But this completely out-of-control immigration policy is something that is having a huge stress here.

The other thing, this myth about Italian culture and the sort of united country, is just that, it is something of a myth. Italy has only been a country for 150 years. The people in the south if they speak their dialect cannot understand the people of the north. It’s a very, very fragmented country. It doesn’t easily withstand these social strains.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, that is a very…

Anna Cento Bull: Could I say something else about immigration and politics.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes, do go ahead.

Anna Cento Bull: Apart from the vast presence of irregular immigrants, I mean the vast majority of immigrants are regular and a growing number of them are employed regularly in small to medium sized firms especially the north-east, but that is precisely the area which supports most strongly the Northern League, and the Northern League is in recent years and especially in the political elections of 2008 has been maintaining very strongly that Italy does not need immigration. Their line is very clear. So the point I’m trying to make here is not that Italian society is not tolerant, to a large extent it is very tolerant, but that Italian society is being told by politicians, by the political parties, untruths. That is to say, instead of being told immigrants are here to stay, Italy’s faced with permanent immigration, and we need to find a successful model of integration, Italians are being told what presumably they also want to hear, which is that immigration is not needed and that it’s going to turn out to be a temporary phenomenon.

Geraldine Doogue: We’re discussing Berlusconi’s Italy, with my guests Guy Dinmore from The Financial Times, Anna Cento Bull, professor of Italian history and politics at the University of Bath and Radio National producer, James Panichi.

Well let’s just sort of bring this gradually to an end by talking about politics. It seems again looking on, that the political class isn’t renewing itself with good talent, so that Silvia Greco whom I quoted earlier, the Australian-based journalist, said it’s as if the entire middle class has genuinely turned off politics. Guy Dinmore, your thoughts.

Guy Dinmore: Well I think it’s true that the system has become rather ossified. The new Centre Left party is still basically dominated by the same politicians who came from the various roots in the 1980s and 1990s, diverse strands of Communist party, the former Catholic parties; Berlusconi himself is 73 years old, and is the epitome of the sort of ageing, authoritarian figure. And I think that is indeed a problem that there is no sense of sort of renewal within these parties. But I think actually on the centre right, Berlusconi’s party has probably been more successful than any of the younger generation of more technocratic sort of ambitious, entrepreneurial types of politicians who probably will become the next generation.

Geraldine Doogue: James Panichi?

James Panichi: Well look one good example of that is the leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic party, someone called Pier Luigi Bersani, and he’s the Communist apparatchik from Central Casting. I mean it’s hard to describe how boring and how old-fashioned he is, he looks, he sounds. And he’s up against—for local listeners—mix Phillip Ruddock with Penny Wong and Leonard Brezhnev, and that’s Pier Luigi Bersani. So that is a problem for the Left of Italian politics because they’re up against someone like Silvio Berlusconi who is a master communicator, and whether or not he’s actually done it, does certainly espouse the whole idea of cultural and political renewal. The fact that he himself represents old politics is another story.

I think what’s happened to Italy is interesting. After the corruption scandals of the early 1990s, all of the political system as it then was, essentially collapsed, and for Australian listeners that’s like the Liberal party and the Labor party and National party all collapsing overnight, and anyone who was involved with those parties, even at a very sort of minor level, became in a way, tainted by what had gone on. And so it’s hard to reinvent a political class and a political, what in Italy they call a leadership class, overnight. It’s something that takes time and I think that slowly that’s happening in Italy, but unfortunately, Italian politics are still dominated by the old class, the old people.

Geraldine Doogue: And Anna Cento Bull, you do, you’re very interested I suppose in the nature of social change and how it is received in Italian society. Would you say that Italy’s basic social structures, its families, its small firms that you referred to earlier, are they trying to move in lock-step with this gradual change of new political leadership that James has described or not? Are they resisting it?

Anna Cento Bull: I think increasingly they view politics with cynicism. So we go back full circle: after the high hopes of the early 1990’s, the period when the the First Republic collapsed and there was an atmosphere of maybe total renewal I would say, we’ve gone back to a situation where the prevailing attitude is cynicism. But I would like to make perhaps a different point, which is I think, the rules have to change if we want the political class to change, and I’ll try and explain myself. If at the moment, in Italy as in the past, the politicians appear to be mainly powerbrokers, networkers, people who need to establish a system of patronage.

So those are the politicians the political parties need, and not politicians who are decision-makers, who can really devise new types of policies and implement them effectively. And the reason for this is partly that there is a lack of accountability, so that politicians continue to spend public resources without being made accountable if they waste those resources.

Geraldine Doogue: Let me get…

Anna Cento Bull: If the rules change then another political class will have to come forward.

Geraldine Doogue: Guy Dinmore, your thoughts?

Guy Dinmore: Well there are regional elections in ten days’ time and it will be interesting to see whether Berlusconi’s firm control on power will be eroded. I suspect it will be, but I also fear that actually the main beneficiaries of this election will be the xenophobic right-wing Northern League. I think once again the Centre Left opposition will be shown wanting in new ideas. So I don’t see any serious change on the political scene emerging soon.

Geraldine Doogue: Look I wonder if there are some really serious concerns here about very unpleasant politics emerging. Like for the first time since the Second World War, Rome is now run by a right-wing Mayor, Gianni Alemanno, who’s not only right-wing, but is a former neo-fascist street protester, and his supporters sometimes flash fascist salutes at his victory. I mean this may be overstated, but James Panichi is there any risk of some sort of fascist rebirth?

James Panichi: No, absolutely not. I mean this is I think in a way when we see Italy from the outside we have to realise that there is a lot of political posturing going on, and it’s easy to refer to Berlusconi and Berlusconi’s Centre Right party as being a party of fascists, but you know, they’re a million miles away. And I mean the good thing about what’s going on at the moment actually is that it’s all happening in the open. I mean all of these…everything that’s happening even in the last week about all the talk about political corruption and things like that, are in fact the kinds of things that were going on behind the scenes in the so-called First Republic, from World War II on, all of this would happen behind closed doors. At least what’s going on at the moment is that we’re seeing all of the ugliness of Italian politics that if nothing else, it’s out in the open, and I think that’s actually quite healthy.

But in terms of demonising the right, I mean Berlusconi is not the kind of leader that we might choose here in Australia, but I think that in order to make sense of Italian politics, you also have to make sense of other factors, such as the politicisation of the magistrature, which is a serious problem in Italy but no foreign correspondent, or very few foreign correspondents actually take the time to explain that. And I think that’s a key element.

Geraldine Doogue: Look, thank you all very much indeed for a very interesting discussion. I appreciate your time.

All: Thank you very much.

Geraldine Doogue: Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent for The Financial Times. Anna Cento Bull, professor of Italian history and politics at the University of Bath and James Panichi, a producer with Radio National. Silvia Greco’s article by the way, that I referred to throughout that conversation, and the cartoon associated with it which was published in The Australian Financial Review caused incredible outrage in the Italian community here in Australia, and we’re told some local Italian newspapers are still campaigning on this very issue.

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