FINANCIAL TIMES 13.11.2011
Italians want a comeback, not decline
by Beppe Severgnini
La commedia è finita, the farce is over. When the curtain came down on Silvio Berlusconi’s era as prime minister, I seemed to hear the collective sigh of relief of hundreds of millions of Europeans.
We Italians may be emotional, but we are not stupid. In an emergency, we didn’t laugh it out with Silvio; we rushed to the emergency room of doctor Mario Monti. We are also realistic. We know that this is not enough. A new government does not guarantee that a bail-out, if needed, will be forthcoming, let alone that it would succeed. Italy’s refinancing needs are huge: according to Bloomberg, about €200bn of bonds maturing next year and more than €100bn of bills, a sum that would virtually exhaust the eurozone’s rescue fund.
The crowds may burst into choruses of “Hallelujah!” outside the Quirinale Palace in Rome, but they know it was not Italian voters and public opinion that dismissed Mr Berlusconi. The financial markets, European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund did. Only two Italians helped: Mario Draghi, the new ECB president, and Giorgio Napolitano, president of the republic, who, aged 86, nimbly engineered the transition.
We Italians may be careless at times, but we are sensible when we want to be. We know that from now on help will not come from above or from outside. It’s time to put our own house in order: no more delays. Of course, having an elected leader to replace Mr Berlusconi would be better. But the likely new prime minister, Mr Monti, is now a senator, and is expected to head a national unity government backed by an impressive majority. Equally important: judicial tangles, conflicts of interest and late-night parties will not distract him.
Mr Monti is not after cheap popularity, and knows what needs to be done. He may not look and sound your stereotypical Italian. Certainly he is not loud, cheeky and flirtatious – an image that Mr Berlusconi was happy to indulge and encourage. Instead, Mr Monti is experienced, well-travelled, laid-back and has a sense of humour. He is like many hardworking and successful Italians all over the world – in companies and hospitals, labs and universities – who are competent, intuitive and reliable. They had a hard time during Berlusconi’s long reign. Nobody likes to be one’s colleagues’ laughing-stock, when one has done nothing to deserve it.
Mr Berlusconi’s ignominious departure does not obscure the fact that he has left a deep mark on Italy. He’s been around longer than the two George Bushes together, as long as Margaret Thatcher and John Major combined. He proved a great salesman and a poor statesman. The country stopped growing: politically, economically, as a civic society. Berlusconi told us only and always what we wanted to hear, and that is a bad way to raise children and nations. Misbehaving badly, he made it clear we could misbehave a little (fiscally and otherwise). That is a heavy legacy.
But Italy is a comeback country – as it has proved repeatedly, over its history. With a decent, broad-based government in place we know that we must roll up our sleeves – and give up something, each of us, starting from the top. We know we must expect to pay a wealth tax, to retire later, to open up the labour market, to accept more competition and to cut red tape (even if Italy’s red tape industry employs many people). A package of reforms designed to boost growth and cut debt was passed by both houses of parliament in 24 hours, between Friday and Saturday.
But Italy’s loss of credibility in the past few years has been dramatic. Markets and foreign governments don’t trust us any longer. It is time to prove them wrong.
We had a great chance in the early nineties, and we blew it. Mani pulite (clean hands) corruption scandals, which swept away most political parties, resulted not in catharsis, but in Berlusconi’s crowd and his so-called Second Republic. Now we have a third, and final, chance. If we blow it, there is only decline. Gentle, probably. And picturesque, of course.
But we don’t want decline. We don’t want Italy to be decadent and languid as a Luchino Visconti film; we want it to be as exciting as a set of Federico Fellini. We don’t need a nationwide replay of Death in Venice. We need Roma, città aperta, an open capital of a forward-looking country.