Friday, December 30, 2011

Liberalisation, Free Trade, Kennels and Taxis

After more than a century of quarantining pets, you may now take your cat or dog into Britain by just showing a vaccination certificate. Most reports of this earthshaking piece of news concentrate on the pets; instead, they should point at the free trade element which is far more significant. When we think of controlling lobbies in the UK, most of us would look at the City, the defence industry, the unions (once upon a time). Wrong. It was the Kent kennel owners that managed to prevent the free movement of moggies and mutts for decades with far more staying power. I have no idea how they managed to literally act as gatekeeper and tollbooth to the UK but they did. Now that they have lost the monopoly, it’s a great day for the free market.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that if the UK government can beat Kent kennels, then there is now a chance that the Italian government can take on the Rome taxis and pharmacists across Italy and maybe win. Mrs. Thatcher took on the National Union of Miners and won; Mario Monti took on Microsoft and forced them to relax their software monopoly.

Now he has the really tough nuts to crack; he has promised to introduce a growth and liberalisation package for the Italian economy. In a 3 hour end-of-year press conference, Monti laid out his plans. There will be no special budgets (but he did point out that Berlusconi said the same a year ago and there were five). Over the next few months, he is going to start the much-vaunted liberalisation of the economy – not just taxis and pharmacists but also public services. That way, vested interests like taxidrivers, petrol stations and pharmacists will lose their monopolies and increase competition (paradoxically annoying the right and pleasing the left) and public services will be privatised (annoying the left and giving opportunities to the right). The theory is that Monti will be able to maintain support from both PdL and PD. He has also promised to make it easier to set up a business in Italy.

Overall, Italy does not score well on any of the economic freedom indices. The Heritage Foundation ratings have shown Italy falling over the last few years and is now on the edge of “moderately free” and “mostly unfree”, ranking 87 out 179, a disastrous showing after Berlusconi’s much trumpeted “freedom” for business. Monti would like to genuinely free up the economy.

On the other side, Monti has backtracked on the possibility of changing the 1970 Workers’ Statute in order to make firing easier. There was a threatened confrontation with the unions and even without changing article 18 of the statute (which guarantees that workers unfairly dismissed should be re-hired), there will be tension.

There are not only economic issues. He has promised to address civil law reform, an issue which is actually economic as much as social or justice. Civil cases drag on for years and often a successful plaintiff has wound up the business long before the winning verdict.

Two other issues are high on the agenda but which the government will avoid carefully – electoral reform and citizenship reform. Assuming the Constitutional Court gives the go-ahead within the next month or two, there will be a referendum next year to repeal the present fixed party list system. This means that Parliament will have to concentrate its collective mind if they want to have any say in the matter rather than leaving it to the vote. No one admits to supporting the present porcellum (pig’s dinner or worse) as the law is nicknamed but they do not know what to replace it with.

On the citizenship issue, there is a growing body of opinion in and out of Parliament which reckons that not giving Italian citizenship to children born and brought up here is not only unjust but counterproductive as it alienates useful member of society.

In the meantime, unsurprisingly, economic issues dominate.

The pre-Christmas budget will start to bite with the new property tax to be accompanied by a revision of the land registry which not only underestimates the value of most property but apparently is missing up to 600,000 properties… Also on the tax evasion side, cash payments above €1,000 are no longer legal for private transactions and €500 when dealing with the public administration. This in theory will make more business traceable. Retirement ages have been raised but there are still differentials between men and women and between salaried self-employed workers. The regional tax has been increased and already a fuel excise hike has been applied.

Combine the extra taxes with the recession and it is not surprising that almost a quarter of Italian families are risking poverty according to a recent ISTAT survey. Over the last year, the Milan stock exchange lost a quarter of its value (25.28%) and that followed a 12% drop in 2010.

The private and individual difficulties and suffering combine with the bleak public outlook with the continuing risk of Italy not being able to service its debt leading to a meltdown of the euro. So far Monti has very definitely changed the style of Italian government and introduced a level of international confidence that was not there before but the real test will be over the next 6 to 12 months. There is substance in the country’s economy but it will take very careful guidance and some luck too.

Kent kennel keepers? Rome taxis? Maybe he (and we) really can do it! Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

“New Italians”, Old Racism and New Violence

Back in July, the Northern League European MP, Mario Borghezio made a clumsy attempt to explain and justify the Norwegian murderer, Anders Breivik’s motives for his killing spree. “Some of his ideas are good, excellent”. He was forced to apologise but ended up claiming that the Norwegian chargé d’affaires had “thanked him” for the apology.

Racism in Italy is nothing like as virulent as it has been in the past in Britain, France and Germany, but it is there and not far below the surface.

Over the last week, it erupted into open violence in two episodes and was prevented in a third. Last Saturday, a group of angry Turinese turned a protest march into a lynch mob when they attacked a Roma camp at Continassa, because a 16 year old girl said she had been raped by two gypsies. As it turned out, the girl had lied but even if it had been true, it would not have justified the Piedmontese pogrom. The attackers arrived with flares and clubs and set fire to the camp.

Then on Monday, a 50 year old Tuscan right wing radical, Gianluca Casseri, killed two Senegalese street vendors in piazza Dalmazia in Florence. He went on to the market piazza S. Lorenzo and shot three others, seriously wounding them; surrounded by the police, he then shot himself. He had a long history of militancy and had written articles for the extreme right wing cultural centre, Casa Pound (which exists in many cities in Italy and tries to present itself as a “moderate”, “concerned” and “non-violent” right, inspired by Ezra Pound).

As a result of the attack, police in Rome arrested Maurizio Boccacci, leader of an extreme right wing group in Rome, Militia, charging him and others of planning attacks on the president of the Jewish community in Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, and some Romanians. Ironically, they were also accused of planning attacks on the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno and speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, both former right wing militants. Both, though, have made their commitment against racism very clear.

All these episodes are a long way from mass violence against new immigrants or the old “other” (there have been Jews in Rome for longer than there have been Christians) but they show how easy it is to rekindle old hatreds or create new ones. Italy introduced discriminatory laws against Jews in 1938 and had had similar racist legislation before then in the colonies. There was never any violence to match the Nazis or even the colour bar in the US and European colonies (and some home countries too)… but then until the 1990s, there were in practice no people of colour…

The risks for the future are not just from the extremists, including some supporters of the Northern League, part of the government until last month. The real risk is from moderates (real and fake) who make low key racism respectable or increase tension, sometimes without realising. There is Berlusconi who said in 2009 that Milan “looks like an African city because of the number of foreigners”. That was an overtly racist remark but there is a much more subtle and dangerous form of language.

This week there were presentations of research on migration to coincide with International Migrants’ Day today. In one of them, the Transatlantic Trends on Immigration 2011 report was presented. TTI is sponsored by the the German Marshall Fund and the report was presented by the international relations thinktank, the Istituto Affari Internazionali at the Chamber of Deputies. It was all highly respectable, light years away from any racist radical. And yet the presenter, Pierangelo Isernia from the University of Siena, started by talking about “the problem” (others used more neutral terms like “question” or “phenomenon”) of immigration. Orally and in the report, the phrase “illegal immigrant” was used despite recommendations from the ILO internationally and Italian journalists to use “irregular”. Worse, in most of the discussion that followed, there was a constant confusion between “immigrants”, “asylum seekers”, “refugees”, a distinction which is crucial in informing the public perception of migration.

Magistrate and former junior minister of the Interior with responsibility for immigration, Alfredo Mantovano, bundled together the European Commission, the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights, France and Greece as “Europe” which according to him was not helping Italy deal with immigrants. As a man of law and political practitioner, he knows the differences much better than most, and admitted as much afterwards. If someone like that and people much more open to migration do not make these distinctions, then we cannot expect the broader public to do so. It is not pedantry or political correctness – words create assumptions and reinforce perceptions so we must all be careful how we use them.

For today’s celebration of Migrants’ Day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s message was very clear.
“Migration affects all countries – and so do myths and misperceptions about its impact. There are many false assumptions surrounding migration. One such myth is that migrants are a burden. In reality, migrants make vast contributions to host countries. As workers, they bring skills. As entrepreneurs, they create jobs. As investors, they bring capital. In advanced and emerging economies, they play an indispensible role in agriculture,tourism and domestic work. Migrants often care for the youngest and oldest members of society. People view irregular migration as a crime. Many think migrants who lack proper documents are a danger to society and should be detained, or that all women who migrate to take up low-skilled jobs have been trafficked”.

Yesterday, there were demonstrations in Florence and across the country to show solidarity for the two murdered Senegalese. Thousands marched to show their condemnation of all racist violence. It was an important sign, but as important as the numbers (of Italians and immigrants), and more important than the usual speakers from the centre-left, was the presence of a minister from the previous government, Gianfranco Rotondi, and the Northern League mayor of Verona, Flavio Tosi. Neither is representative of his party, but their example is a start to curb the old racism and prevent a new one growing.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Monti the Knife

That great cartoonist, Vicky (Victor Weisz) got it right more than 50 years ago when he drew the aristocratic Harold Macmillan as the cutthroat Macheath

, Mack the Knife. Mario Monti is as polite and well-mannered as Macmillan and is trying to deal with Italy’s debt in a similarly surgical way.

Yesterday he presented his new budget to the press; today he has taken it to Parliament and tomorrow he’ll start the television round.

The immediate result has been positive with markets going up and the spread between Italian and German bonds going down. If it’s more than a one-day-wonder, there will be hope that next week’s European summit will be able to look at Italy with less trepidation and start working on the European aspects of the crisis.

Monti promised “rigour, fairness and growth”; this budget has the first element but is very weak on the other two. The whole is worth €30 bn, almost three times the figure of €11bn first mooted when he took office a fortnight ago. New taxes make up €17-18 bn and cuts €12-13 bn. A third will go to growth and €20 bn to debt reduction.

Predictably, he has re-introduced the property tax on first houses and will increase their nominal value; luxury items will be hit (bigger boats and cars, planes and helicopters) but Berlusconi proudly claimed a victory as there is to be no wealth tax nor indeed an increase in income tax. There will be a further levy on funds which had been illegally exported and then returned under an amnesty last year. Index-linked pension raises will be stopped or reduced over €1,000 per month and retirement age will be increased to 62 for women and 65 for men. The only reduction in the cost of politicians will be a 10 person limit for provincial assemblies (for the last 30 years all governments have promised they would abolish the provinces altogether, instead another dozen have been created). There are limited tax incentives for businesses.

Monti is wholly dependent on Parliament to pass these measures and both sides have laid down clear vetoes. He obviously thought that the centre-right was more likely to actually use the veto, hence no wealth tax while the unions rather than the centre-left parties will complain about pension reform.

There is nothing dramatic or symbolic in the budget; its most striking features are what is missing. The wealth tax for a start and serious measures to deal with tax evasion (there is an upper limit of €1,000 for cash transactions, supposed to allow great transparency but unlikely to uncover those who do all their business in cash). There was no mention of cutting an order for 131 F35 planes for €15 bn, ordered in 2009. There had already been protests before Monti became prime minister. The thorny issue of la casta, the political class perceived as leaches on the country’s lifeblood, is not addressed. No cuts in parliamentarians’ pensions and privileges, their cars, their phones even their tickets to football matches. No suggestion that Church property used for commercial purposes should pay the property tax (leading to suggestions that the Catholics in the cabinet are a fifth column for the Vatican). Today’s NYT article showed Monti on a television screen dominated by a crucifix on the wall behind, a perhaps not so subtle way of pointing out where power lies. It is true that there is a high proportion of Catholics in the cabinet but often it is the practicing Catholics like De Gasperi or Scalfaro who make the strongest stands against an overbearing Vatican. No one could accuse either of them of not being real Catholics…

Despite the good results on markets, on the home front, there is less jubilation.

The contrast between here and abroad was also evident in how the Labour Minister, Elsa Fornero’s tears at the press conference were covered (she was unable to pronounce the word “sacrifice”. Most Italian commentators thought this showed “a technocrat’s humanity”. But it was devastating for the image of Italy in general and Italian women in particular. A German (female) colleague pointed out the German women have been working to the same age as men for years and both work longer than Italians will when these measures take effect. So what is there to cry about? And Irish journalists asked me, somewhat bemused, “there’s a freeze on index-linked pension increases; where's the drama?” They have been through much worse. A Spanish friend was much more direct “No, Spanish ministers don't weep during press conferences, but they make the electorate weep on a permanent basis”.

There was an interesting contrast between the moment of drama in the Italian press conference and the very low key address to the nation at the same time, by the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, also trying to cut spending and increase jobs and who also took over with the job of cleaning up a serious mess. His most telling remark was that next week’s European summit “must not only make tough decisions but implement them”. Touché. He also cut phones and cars for former taoiseachs (PMs). Double touché.

There is another disappointment in Monti’s style rather than substance. Tomorrow, he will go to “Porta a Porta”. This is RAI 1’s flagship talk show run by Bruno Vespa, Italy’s televisual answer to Uriah Heep. He is the man who fawned over Berlusconi and encouraged him to use the progamme as an uncontested soapbox for his views in return for Berlusconi promoting Vespa’s books. Either Monti expects a similarly comfy ride or he calculates that he can rely on the centre and centre-left but has to cover his centre-right flank and is better served there than in some other show. Neither motive is very endearing.

Monti might be imitating Macmillan with the knife but he could better act on that other line of Macheath’s “what is the crime of robbing a bank compared to the crime of founding one?”

Saturday, December 03, 2011

“New Italians”. The Good News and the Bad.

A month ago, I wrote about a project the American University of Rome was working on with the Rome City Council; the first phase came to end this week with a closing ceremony. More importantly, the whole issue of immigrants in Italy and their children has become an important part of the political agenda.

Last week an immigrant boat was wrecked on the coast of Apulia; three died. Most of the immigrants came from the Middle East and further east. They were Kurds, Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis and Bengladeshis all seeking streets paved with gold in the European Union. Then a Morroccan woman, resident in northern Italy, was killed by her violent husband when she wanted to leave him and convert. These are two episodes which underline the ongoing difficulties both of immigration and of integration for those who have made the jump.

The good news, though, is that something is moving for the great majority of immigrants and their children. Beyond the predictable difficulties that immigrants face, they have a peculiarly Italian condition. Children born and brought up in Italy of non-Italian parents, are not Italian citizens. They can only become Italian when they reach 18 and then jump through a difficult set of bureaucratic hoops. President Napolitano made his opinion abundantly clear last week when he said that denying citizenship to children born in Italy was “a real folly, an absurdity”.

His remarks were picked up by Andrea Riccardi, the minister for “International Cooperation and Integration”, a new minister and a new ministry which is already a positive sign. He said the President was right and that the present citizenship law based on blood ties (ius sanguinis) should be modified in favour of rights based on territory (ius solis). At the moment an Argentinian or Australian with Italian grandparents can claim citizenship whereas the child of foreigners born here, cannot.

There is solace too from that very opinionated voice, The Economist. It has just run a cover story

, editorial and a briefing article extolling the financial and economic advantages of migration for both host and original communities. They know it and we know it, but it is a point that has to be made again and again to dispel the “emergency” and “invasion” view of immigration.

The invasion image is, of course, part of the bad news. There are neo-Fascist groups in the area around my University on the Janiculum and this poster

was put in front of a nearby lycée (it has since been torn down). The message is clear and explicit and many believe it which is why The Economist articles are so important. When Napolitano said that children born in Italy should be Italian, former ministers Calderoli and Maroni of the Northern League said they were ready to fight at the barricades and La Russa (outgoing Minister of Defence, now in the PdL but once of the neo-Fascist MSI and hardly changed since then) threatened to bring the government down if the new Monti government dared move on the issue. They have tried to muddy the waters by implying that a new law would give citizenship to the child of any irregular immigrant – it wouldn’t.

This is where our ceremony fitted in. It was some sort of antidote to the poison not just spread by neo-Fascists in our part of town but by much more moderate folk in the whole country. We had confirmation of President Napolitano’s commitment to the issue when his Diplomatic Counsellor, Amb. Stefano Stefani replied to our invitation saying: “The Head of State wishes to inform you of his sincere appreciation… of the attention opportunely given to the issue of the new Italians which is so important for the future of Italy and Europe”. Much appreciated by us in turn, to have encouragement from the President.

We gave out the certificates to those who had taken part in last month’s seminars and received some feedback from the participants. One, an AUR student, a Tuareg, Iddar Adingad, pointed out how the seminars had broken down barriers between the immigrant groups and given them a clear idea of who the “other” was. There was a Singalese who explained how the seminars had mitigated his anti-Americanism and shown him that American ways allow migrants to flourish in the States (it it were always that easy… but direct human contact often works). He also told us of an episode where he felt empowered enough to intervene on behalf of some immigrants on a bus (again, if it were always that easy…); but both are a start


Then the serious ethnic fraternising began in the University garden with tables laid out with food from the four continents. It was a feel-good moment, and meant to be so and provides a foundation on which to build. There will be other initiatives like this one, ones which include some of the biggest groups of immigrants (there were few north Africans and no Chinese) and at least a few “old” or “ethnic” Italians.

Parallel to lobbying for a change in the citizenship law, there are other “softer” activities which are still very relevant. The Rome Public Libraries have offered prizes for video, photo and literary accounts of the lives of “new” Italians in their Concorso Biblioteche di Roma “Figli di tante patrie”.

And on Monday, the RAI’s Radio 3 will have a whole day of programmes presented by “new Italians” or foreigners resident in Italy to underline their presence and contribution.

We’re moving in the right direction.

A note on words used: even more than most political subjects, the words used to describe and analyse betray a position held. The most obvious conflict of words is over “irregular” and “illegal” immigrants. The ILO tries to persuade journalists and politicians to call them “irregular” but has scant success even with non-xenophobes. Today in Italy, since 2009, it is actually a crime to be an irregular immigrant, so “illegal” is sadly correct though if the courts really had to try and convict them all, there would be chaos.

But the term which I am interested in is what to call the people this blog describes. Often they call themselves “second generation immigrants” while others argue that they have not emigrated from anywhere – they are natives of Italy even if many are not Italian citizens. Hence my use of “new Italians”, itself a loaded word because it presumes there is an “Italo-Italian”; but for the moment it’s the best I can do.

This blog is part of the ongoing project at The American University of Rome in which we are working with immigrant communities on integration and leadership issues for both “old” and “new” Italians. This and future blogs will be headed by the title “New Italians” and Lele Luzzatti’s multicultural she-wolf.