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Crossing the Rubicon: Italy Falls Apart

Author bio: 
Richard Cottrell

When Julius Caesar led his invasion force over a small brook in north eastern Italy in 140 BC, he set an historical precedent which rings a clarion echo to this day. Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. He was on his way to Rome to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator. In the long story of Italy another Rubicon has just been crossed.

This year sees the 150th anniversary of Italy as a single political entity under its own flag. All the sadder then that at this auspicious moment, Italy is finally splitting asunder, the rich Lombardian mercantile North breaking away from the poor, struggling South, like a calving spring ice flow. No one north of the border, so to speak, took an iota of notice when the venerable tortoise-like president, Georgio Napolitano, opened the New Year by urging politicians to pay due respect to the Italian flag. Some hopes.

Italy never did get its act together as an independent state. Despite Garibaldi’s noble efforts, it remained a collection of peninsular city states, organized on the same jigsaw pattern from the middle ages. Regional pulls and rivalries always ruled over vague unitary magnetism. Take language as an instance. Visitors from abroad imagine they are hearing glorious, melodic Italian spoken everywhere around them (especially in restaurants and hotels). Far from it. For most Italians, their first loyalty is the local vernacular, sometimes derided as ‘dialect’. Yet when it comes to the tongues of Venice, Sardinia, and Sicily for example, these are distinct languages with their own pedigree, bearing fluid connections to Florentine, which is the Italian equivalent of the Queen’s English.

Florentine became the root of modern Italian because the first independent government bivouacked temporarily in Firenze, better known as Florence, if you prefer. Yet 150 years after the Risorgimento, the village folk around us – we live about 35 kilometers from bustling, internationalized Venice – not only speak their own specifically local version of recognized Venetian, but are quite often puzzled by variants of the same tongue spoken by people living a ten-minute car ride away. We have close friends whose parents, farmers with deep roots in the soil of these parts, follow television broadcasts with difficulty.

I have spent a few moments on these seemingly small local difficulties because they are an important element of the creeping break-up of a large and important European state, a NATO power and key US ally. Wherever one travels in the North, one hears nothing but contempt for the work-shy layabouts of the Mezzogiorno, which is the colloquial for all the territories and islands – Sardinia and Sicily – south of Rome. Even the food is derided, though the great staples of the Italian table, pizza and pasta, are the exports of southern culture, along with the famed sweet red onions of Tropea, olives and of course, Sicilian sun-fruit orange groves.

The Mafia, another rich southern crop, notably flourishes in the north, especially Milan.

This is the Italian take on Tea Party talk. ‘We are taxed enough already, keeping those people in idleness’ is a common enough example. Some fifteen years ago the grumbling turned serious. A seditious organization dedicated to the establishment of a breakaway state – Padani – made its initial mark on Italian life and politics. Umberto Bossi, a renegade former communist with dodgy legal form, led a small band of followers around Venice waving the green flag of the intended northern state. The media and the elites fell about laughing.

Not any more.

Bossi’s movement – the Lega Nord, or Northern League – theoretically abandoned its campaign for political independence years ago, in favour of the less ambitious aim of ‘fiscal independence’ from the centralized Roman state. Signor Bossi is apparently both politically and physically indestructible. There were rejoicings in many quarters when he suffered a catastrophic cerebral stroke and lost the power of speech. Yet he recovered in no time at all, after a short recuperation in the European Parliament, ready to celebrate in a favourite local bar with a stiff shot of grappa and his throat-searing Italian trademark cigar.

Viewed from abroad, Italy’s philandering premier, and his incendiary brushes with the courts over his seamy business methods, seem to embody the anarchic joyousness of Italy which visitors find so enticing. Silvio Berlusconi, not Bossi, dominates the headlines, or so it seems.

To be sure Berlusconi is the most commanding figure to appear in the Italian landscape since Mussolini, to whom he unashamedly nods as his role model. Yet away from the skirt-chasing and the grubby allegations of under-age consorting, the accusations of serial white collar crime, the infamous gaffes and one-liner clowning on his own TV programmes, I can see both a consummate performer and master accomodationist at work. Like his idol, Il Duce, he is foremost a piazza politician, a bewitching balcony orator who regards his audience, and Italy, as essentially feminine. Thus he woos his audience like the cheesy crooner he once was on a cruise ship, with loving smiles and knowing winks. The act goes down a treat.

The private Berlusconi is the nuanced calculator with the miraculous ability to bounce off any crisis without a scratch, as though he were made of Teflon. In the home of the Red Brigades of the 70’s and 80’s, he inveigled the Italian Left to commit political hari-kari, which makes him Prince Charming of the United States and NATO. It is perhaps not surprising with this record that the question most often posed by Italian commentators is whether Berlusconi invented Italy as it is now, or the other way around. Actually both are plausible.

He put an end to the constant procession of Italian revolving-door politics by luring into his rather small personal faction – Forza Italia on its christening day – both the reformed fascists looking for respectability and Bossi’s northern separatists, who needed something substantial to deliver aside from woolly talk about independence. He changes party names like his suits and girl friends and is talking now – he will be 76 next year – about yet another hatchling from his personal chrysalis.

This at a time when the issue of fiscal independence arises: the right of the separate cantons which make up Italy to a draconian adjustment of available resources. On the face of the published forecast, Bossi has walked away with a champion prize. Milan, the yuppie capital of Italy, where even the smog reeks of smack, gets an upgrade of 34%. Snooty Padua, the fourth or fifth richest city in Italy, gets a raise of 76%. Perpetually impoverished Naples, which is still in the thick of a huge battle (‘muck is money’) over bootleg rubbish disposal tips controlled by the local Mob, drops a cosmic 60%.

L’Aquila, the Arezzo mountain city devastated by an earthquake three years ago, not only drops 66% in revenues but its shattered citizens, who currently receive €550 per resident from the central government, will in future contribute each and every one €188 to the central state treasury. Never mind the place still looks like Pompei, in a heap of ruins. The only escapee in the south is Sardinia, which by pure co-incidence is home to Berlusconi’s Club Med paradise retreat, jacked up by a whacking 180%.

Berlusconi has demonstrated on many occasions that he can perform maneuvers which leave his opponents giddy. When he made an appealing ex-topless dancer a key minister responsible for equal opportunities, eyes rolled, but she has made herself, on grounds of competence, one of the most popular political actors in the country. He is nevertheless currently in difficulties again, thanks to his on-going attempts to plead immunity in cases brought over his business dealings. Furthermore the heat of the call girl charges has just resumed, with the famous case of Rubygate, a 17 year old pop sox performer he rescued from the arms of the police with the big fib she was the niece of the president of Egypt.The press is filled with rich descriptions of gaudy romps, one of which apparently featured 28 wannabees wearing nothing but ‘tight knickers.’ In one of those glorious interventions of the fates, carabinieri hunting a tomb robber near Rome traced their man to none other than Caligula’s long lost resting place, just as the stories hit the headlines.

 On the straight political front Berlusconi recently survived yet another confidence vote thanks to last minute juggling. But the fact remains that thanks to internal friction, his majority has shrunk to knife-edge. With all his current distractions, this hardly seems the moment to cross the Rubicon of splitting the country, which all said and done is what fiscal independence is all about. Yet, on grounds of cold political calculation, it could well be a smart move in the survival stakes.

His relations with Bossi, Gauleiter of the North, are notoriously frosty. Berlusconi is from Milan, yet he needs the League’s votes more than he needs the soft fascists in the south, whom he reckons can fight it out with what is left of the socialists. The left is extinct in the north anyway. Bossi for his part plays on the far from dormant fondness for Il Duce within his dominions. After German paratrooopers rescued Mussolini from enforced detention on a southern mountain top near the end of the war, Il Duce was given his own much shrunken pocket state, centered on exactly those territories where the Lega is strongest today.

So friction is guaranteed by two over-achievers laying a similar claim to political legitimacy. What is clearly paramount here is that fascism’s allure remains a powerful force while the formal fascists, represented by Gianfranco Fini, a disaffected ally of Berlusconi’s, are marooned on the sidelines.

Italy faces elections in two years. Berlusconi is raising the odds on another victory and then revising the constitution to create a confederal state, with himself as the Nuovo Duce – the president – installed at the summit, blessed with a host of convenient indulgences to see him safely to St Peter’s Gate.

Fiscal independence will only work to Berlusconi’s advantage if he can convincingly claim author’s rights. Obviously, this is the same calculation for Umberto Bossi. But both could settle for a weak confederal union, while Bossi and his merry men work quietly away dislodging the remaining coping stones.

It is always a mistake to assume that certain states are permanent natural entities. The United Kingdom is heading towards either a federal arrangement or Scottish independence. Long-buried English populist-nationalism is fast stirring to life. Nationalism is far from extinct in Catalonia and the Basque countries. Belgium is undergoing a slow-motion divorce between French and Flemish cultural camps. In each case the tears appear along cultural and linguistic lines of great antiquity. Italy follows the same path, the consequence of failing to congeal as a settled nation.

Berlusconi is ready for an early election, for which the proposals for fiscal independence are shaping up as the parade ground. Fini, who has proved consistently wrong-footed and clumsy in trying to unseat the Dear Leader, may nonetheless make the calculation that appealing to his power base in the south offers the best chance for the neo-fascists on his side of the fence to stake out their own territory.

In order to do that either he or another possibly more convincing candidate needs to play the fiscal independence card back on the north, by pledging to restore the balance of funding. That’s all very well so long as there is an Italian state to talk about. It is after all a general political rule that devolution of the kind now under way in Italy invariably leads to divorce proceedings.

If American readers are reminded of the lead up to partition and secession of the southern states in 1860, they are not far wrong. The only difference is that in Italy, it is the north that is doing the seceding.

Richard Cottrell is a former European Parliament MP. He is the author of Gladio: NATO’s Dagger At The Heart of Europe, a forthcoming Progressive Press attraction.