Has the Democratic Party saved Berlusconi? – July 21

The main political headline in today’s Italian newspapers concerns the Italian Senate’s controversial vote over whether or not to allow the use of wire tap of Silvio Berlusconi’s conversations as evidence in an ongoing investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office of Milan into accusations that he tampered with witnesses during a previous trial, some of whom were underage women that he had had inappropriate relations with. In Italy, Italian Senators have immunity from criminal prosecution, unless that immunity is lifted in a vote by the Italian Senate. Despite the majority of political groups declaring themselves in favour of the admission of the wire taps, the final vote (cast by secret ballot) rejected the prosecutor’s request by  ten votes. This has led to a series of accusations between the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party or PD) and Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement or M5S). M5S Senator Nicola Morra, accused the PD in an interview of having “saved” Berlusconi in exchange for his support of the constitutional referendum, which will be held this fall.

Former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who still has an influential voice in Italian politics, expressed his hope that a pact would be made between the PD and the opposition to face current threats from terrorism and economic instability in an interview in Il Foglio, which was reprinted by many other newspapers. He also called for changes to the electoral law (which governs the election of parliament members) currently under debate in the Italian parliament. Italy is currently debating the passage of laws that would fundamentally change the structure of its parliament and the way that parliament members are elected. The instability of Italian governing coalitions is well noted: because of Italy’s multiparty system, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a single party to win a majority of votes without having to stitch together shifting coalitions of multiple parties in what they refer to as a ‘governing coalition’. Only once or twice in Italian history has a governing coalition managed to complete a single term in office. Italian politics over the last year has been debating solutions to make the government that results from elections more stable and more effective at governing.

Matteo Renzi’s centrist allies, the NCD continue to face an ongoing crisis. After the NCD parliamentarian’s threats to withdraw their support from the government (see Politics briefing of July 11th) and the recent steps that Enrico Zanetti (Vice Finance Minister and leader of “Scelta Civica”, the other main ally of the Democratic Party) has taken to distance himself from Renzi, the head of NCD’s group in the Senate, Renato Schifani, resigned in an attempt to distance himself from the centre-left coalition. This casts further doubt on the solidity of Renzi’s coalition, whose majority in the Senate relies on the votes of the centrist senators, including the NCD and Scelta Civica.

The confusion in the Senate is one of the main reasons for a halt in discussion on Italy’s first draft law on torture. This law would mainly apply to police agents, who have often been accused of abuse of power. In three recent cases Stefano Cucchi, Giuseppe Uva and Federico Aldrovandi all died after having been beaten by the police. The European Court of Human Rights recently cited the absence of a law in Italy on torture as the reason it was not possible to convict the perpetrators. In the Senate, the centre-right parties Lega Nord, Forza Italia and the NCD came out against the bill and succeeded in blocking debate.

Avoiding the Next Banking Crisis: An Agreement Almost “In Hand” – July 12

The main headline of today’s Italian newspapers concerns the Italian government’s discussions with EU finance ministers on measures the Italian government would like to take to prevent a banking crisis. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stated in an interview with Corriere della Sera that an agreement is almost “in hand”. Meetings have been taking place between Finance Ministers of European countries that have adopted the euro currency to discuss the health of European banks and to coordinate on measures that may be necessary to head off another financial crisis, like the one that embroiled Greece last year. There have been worrying signs that European banks are heading towards a crisis of liquidity that could have a far reaching impact on the financial system, and, in particular, on European citizens’ savings and investments in the banks.

The Italian government wants the EU to make an exception in EU regulations that prohibit state aid to banks.  Italy wants to act swiftly to protect the loans and savings of private citizens in Italian banks. To calm public concerns, and optimistic that an agreement will be reached, the Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan stated reassuringly: “Italian citizens’ savings will be protected by the government.” The Renzi administration argues that these measures are precautionary and Italian banks are not yet facing an acute crisis, the real risk resides in other European countries. Indeed, there is growing concern across Europe about the health of European banks, the likelihood of another financial crisis, and, especially among EU officials, the domino effect that ‘stretching’ EU rules on government bank bailouts might have.

In the same interview, Matteo Renzi reversed what had seemed a new openness to break up the vote on the Italian constitutional reform into several parts. He unambiguously declared in an interview to Corriere della Sera that breaking the reform vote is completely out of the question, adding that  he is not afraid of losing the vote and being forced to resign. He seemed confident that those currently opposed to the reform will change their minds and support the bill.

A small delegation of Five Star Movement (M5S) parliamentarians just returned from a controversial trip to Israel, during which they were barred by the Israeli government from traveling to the Palestinian territories. Some members of the delegation reacted angrily stating that “this is not a good sign for peace”. M5S representative Manlio Di Stefano, in an interview with La Stampa, clarified the party’s office stance in support of appeasement between Israel and Palestine and  called on Israel to take the lead in driving peace, a veiled criticism of the Israeli government for blocking progress.

The Italian parliament has just begun to debate a law aimed at tackling growing poverty. The leftist opposition party Sinistra Italiana (SI) proposed  a series of measures to finance a minimum monthly salary of 600 Euros. Italy is one of the few remaining countries in Europe whose government does not have this kind of guarantee in place. The money would be generated from Italy’s inheritance tax.

In other news, the Italian ‘Finance Police’ (the equivalent of the U.S.’s IRS) has raided several of the Rome City Council’s offices, as well as other administrative offices throughout the city, in search of documents related to ongoing investigations into possible corruption in  the construction of Rome’s third subway line.

The Italian Constitutional Reform: Is Prime Minister Matteo Renzi Open to Discussion? – July 11

This week the main themes of the Italian political debate converge on the upcoming constitutional reform being debated in the Italian parliament. The Renzi administration has been obliged to change its strategy in response to pressures from his party’s internal opposition and his governing coalition allies.

The latest polls show that public support for the constitutional reform is declining, falling to 37% after a high of 50% in February.  The percentage of the opposed and undecided have increased to 30% and 33% respectively. According to the noted Italian political scientist Ilvo Diamanti one of the main factors driving these trends is the “personalization” of the referendum after Prime Minister Renzi declared that he would resign if the “NO” camp prevailed. This, Diamanti explained, has strongly polarized public opinion and consolidated opposition forces hoping to push Matteo Renzi’s government to collapse.

Renzi faces other pressures as well:  eight members of the Nuovo Centro Destra (the New Center Right, or NCD) party, which is part of the governing coalition, have threatened to withdraw their support. Many commentators believe, however, that NCD is trying to put pressure on Renzi to make concessions on part of the electoral reform bill that disadvantages small parties. Complicating matters, NCD leader (and Minister for Home Affairs in Renzi’s government) Angelino Alfano has been touched by scandal over the last week: in ongoing investigations of corruption by the public prosecutor of Rome, several individuals were implicated in influence trafficking and money laundering, one of whom, Raffaele Pizza, is accused of helping Alfano’s brother obtain a well-paying job in a public agency. The opposition has called on Alfano to resign.

In light of these developments, the government has slightly changed its strategy on pushing the electoral law and constitutional reform through parliament: Renzi announced his openness to possible modifications of the new electoral law and there have been leaks from Democratic party sources that Renzi would not oppose a decision to break up the vote on the reform into several parts, which would facilitate debate over the law, something he has resisted in the past.

The Five Star Movement is also struggling in the wake of its recent victories in the local mayoral elections in Rome and Turin.  The composition of Rome’s newly elected mayor Virginia Raggi’s cabinet is still under debate as several nominees have been controversial. Chiara Appendino, the newly elected mayor of Turin, is also under fire from conservatives for changing the name of the ‘Family Issues’ office in her government too ‘Families’Issues’ in a nod to marriage equality.

Also, over the weekend, Renzi announced the government’s willingness to support NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and confirmed a rapid timetable for a vote on the civil marriage law in the parliament.

[Congratulations to new LPD Assistant Michail Schwartz on his first Italian Politics Briefing!]

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This fall, NYU Florence professors Roberto D’Alimonte and Alessandro Chiaramonte, will explain the constitutional reform currently under discussion in the Italian parliament in their talk Italian Politics Adesso! on September 26 from 6-8pm. Join us to learn more! Rsvp required at lapietra.dialogues@nyu.edu

 

More Mosques in Italy – March 10

In 2015, the President of Lombardy, Roberto Maroni, passed a law that restricted the construction of any new religious buildings; contingent upon whether or not they were cohesive with the already established local infrastructure. This was particularly problematic for the Muslim community. Considering there are currently only four legally recognized mosques in Italy for 1.5 million Muslims, the push to build mosques is continually increasing. This law, titled the Regional Law of Lombardy 2/2015, very quickly became known as the “anti-mosque law” of Lombardy, as it seemed to be specifically directed towards the Muslim faith.

On February 24, 2016 the Constitutional Court of Italy declared the Regional Law of Lombardy, 2/2015, unconstitutional. New head of the Constitutional Court, Paolo Grossi, led the repeal: “Our concern is to be the guardian of fundamental rights: the core of the judgment rests on avoiding discrimination, which the Court believed was present in the law.”  This decision was met with strong opposition from members of the Northern League (one of Italy’s more conservative political parties), with its leader, Matteo Salvini, posting his reactions on Twitter and Facebook. He claimed that the nullification of this law was “an accomplice to illegal immigration,” and that the Italian Constitutional Court was acting as an “Islamic court.”

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This act comes at a complicated time within Italy and the rest of Europe. Islamophobia has drastically increased due to the current refugee crisis, making some Italians wary of anything that resonates with the Middle East or the Islamic religion. It will be interesting to see how the community of Lombardy reacts as the construction of new mosques begins, and how it affects the landing place of refugees who are continuously flooding to Italy.

Same-Sex Marriage in Italy: An Overview – March 7

Same-sex marriage equality has been gaining massive amounts of public attention throughout Western Europe and North America.  Recent legislation has legalized same-sex marriage in countries such as Ireland and the United States, although it did not go unchallenged. Now, here in Italy, same-sex marriage has  become a hot-button topic within mainstream media. Although both sides have supporters, a map published by the ILGA-Europe (European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association) in 2015 shows that Italy, overall, supports gay rights less than any other country in Western Europe.

According to an article written last year by Marco Bresolin, “only one in two (51%)” Italians are in favor of same-sex marriage, as “Italians prefer to follow the Austro-German model, which prohibits marriages but allows civil unions.”  Furthermore, one of the main sticking points regarding equality for same sex couples seems to be adoption rights.

This reaction seems to be a direct reflection of the majority opinion in the Italian Senate. On February 17, 2016 the Senate halted a same-sex marriage equality bill before it could be sent to the Assembly for a vote, claiming that it needed a revision.  The portion of the bill in contention involves the “step child adoption” law that was passed in 1983. This law ensured straight married couples the right to adopt their spouse’s children, therefore making them a legal guardian. Later, in 2007, this provision was expanded to include any straight couple that lives together, or are considered to be in a “civil union”. Those in favor of the bill are fighting for that same provision to be extended to same-sex married couples as well, though it is entirely contingent upon whether or not a same-sex marriage bill is ever passed. The Senate then diluted the bill from concerning same-sex marriage, to only focusing on the legal recognition of same-sex civil unions. They also tried to eliminate adoption rights before the bill reached the Assembly in an attempt to prevent members of gay civil-unions from being able to adopt children; even if one of the partners involved is the child’s biological parent. They succeeded. On February 25th, a bill passed the Senate with a vote of 173-71 that would recognize civil unions between gay couples, although it did not include any adoption rights, and fails to recognize actual same-sex marriages.

There have also been events in opposition to same-sex marriage equality, including a public event held in Rome that was given the title “Family Day” on January 30th, which was supported by the Catholic Church. Organizers of the event, backed by the church, claimed to have over 1.5 million people in attendance. However, according to an article written in Il Foglio, it was discovered that a crowd of that size was physically impossible in the space, and that the real number of attendees was closer to 300,000. Still not insignificant. Meanwhile, there was recently a decision made by the Appellate Court of Rome that allowed for a lesbian couple to adopt each other’s children. The court decided that children have a right to “ongoing affection”, and that it should be one of the major deciding factors when making a ruling within family court.

In light of these recent events, and to help predict where the Italian debate on marriage equality may be going in the near future,  it is important to understand the stance of each relevant Italian political party on the issue. For the most part, the Democratic Party is in favor of equal rights being afforded to gay married couples, despite the fact that Renzi allowed for the Senate to eliminate adoption rights in last month’s bill, as it avoided the obligation to review a multitude of other amendments. There is then the New Center Right party, which ultimately supports Renzi, although they only support civil unions, and not gay marriage equality. Similar to the New Center Right, Forza Italia is strictly in favor of civil unions, though they do not support adoption rights. In contrast, The Northern League is entirely opposed to gay marriage rights, civil unions, and adoption rights. Finally there is the Five Star Movement, which does not impose a party platform, but has left its members free to vote according to their conscience.

It is now up to politicians such as Nichi Vendola, of the Left Ecology Freedom party,  and others who support gay rights, to continue the fight for marriage equality  in parliament, where regular citizens have less of an influence. Though, considering the passionate stance that those for and against hold, it is unlikely that either side will sway their position; meaning that same-sex marriage equality in Italy will continue to be a major topic of debate heading into the foreseeable future.

On the Brink of a Berlusconi-esque America – February 29

With the ever-so-quickly approaching presidential election of 2016, American politics is once again in the global spotlight. At first glance, this year’s election may present itself just like any other: a mixture of intellectual banter, endorsement conspiracies, and strategically driven policy reform. However, in 2016, political success within the American democratic system seems to be contingent upon outlandish character attributes and primetime entertainment value. For months now, European countries have watched in awe and dismay as figures such as Donald Trump have risen to the top of media and popularity polls throughout the United States. The Italian media, in particular, has begun to form an opinion about the Republican front-runner, and, according to a few recent articles, has one thing to offer: a warning.

Italy is no stranger to radical politicians, which only strengthens their claims about Mr. Trump. The Republican candidate even recently retweeted a quote from one of Italy’s most famous extremist dictators, Benito Mussolini.

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While Trump’s tweet has earned non-stop coverage within American media, Italian journalists’ reactions have been much more circumspect. Instead, they more readily draw comparisons between Trump and one of Italy’s other biggest personalities, Silvio Berlusconi – Italy’s recent prime minister and the longest to hold the position since WWII. “The similarities between Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi are striking”, wrote Italian political columnist Beppe Severgnini, “both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers. Both have a troubled relation with their egos and their hair. Both think God is their publicist, and twist religion to suit their own ends.”  Similar to Severgnini, Barbie Latza Nadeau recently touched on the manipulative talent that connects Trump and Berlusconi in an article for The Daily Beast: “They also share a ‘leave-it-to-me’ wink wink, nudge nudge political style that plays into voters’ vulnerabilities and fears…they seek to hoodwink desperate dreamers into believing that if they just sign on the dotted line, the riches will be theirs, too.”

The Italian media is speaking from experience; they have seen what happens when “hustler politicians” take power. Perhaps it would be wise to heed their warning. Perhaps it’s time to take an objective look not at who Trump is now, but at the potentially uncontrollable, Berlusconi-esque entity he can become if victorious in November. Because as columnist Annalisa Merelli directly warned the United States, “on the brink of ‘Super Tuesday,’ your country risks becoming the butt of a joke”, and that is simply something that America’s already damaged international reputation cannot afford.

Sala Rides the Expo Wave – February 11

Expo Milano 2015 Commissioner Giuseppe Sala emerged the winner in Milan’s center-left primaries for mayor last Sunday, garnering 25,600 votes, or 42.2 percent. Current Vice Mayor Francesca Balzani came in second with 33.9 percent, while Pierfrancesco Majorino was a distant third with 23 percent.

Sala is 57 years old and was born in Monza, north of Milan. Educated at Bocconi, he spent many years working for Pirelli and Telecom Italia before being selected in 2009 by former Mayor Letizia Moratti to serve as Director General of Milan. Following a year and half in this position, Moratti nominated him to undertake the monumental task of getting Milan’s World Fair off the ground, which was clouded with controversy and claims of corruption from the beginning. In 2013, Prime Minister Enrico Letta named Sala sole commissioner of the Expo in order to avoid further slowdowns, seeing him as the means of guaranteeing “fluidity and efficiency” in the marketing and development process.

While the Expo opened in May 2015 with many pavilions only partially completed and inspired violent protests in downtown Milan, it began to gain favor as major international leaders and celebrities were drawn in. The last two months of the Fair saw tremendous crowds, numbering up to 250,000 people per day at times. It is estimated that 21.5 million people visited the Expo from May to October, which was slightly under the 24 million initially anticipated. The numbers for the event have yet to be fully accounted for, but last month Sala stated that Expo earnings were 736 million Euro ($835 million), with operating costs of 721 million ($818 million). Overall the Fair was deemed to be a success due to Sala’s leadership, which was also seen as a boost both at home and abroad for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Partito Democratico.

Sala said on election night that it was “not an easy journey, so I am very happy…I think it is an excellent result.” The former commissioner declared his candidacy last December, and now has four months to campaign before the general election on June 12th. On the other end of the political spectrum, the center-right has nominated Stefano Parisi, who served as city manager of Milan under Mayor Gabriele Albertini from 1997 to 2000.

 

Murder in Cairo – February 4

After going missing on January 25th, the corpse of 28-year-old Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni was found on Wednesday, buried in a shallow grave on the outskirts of Cairo. Regeni had arrived in Egypt in September 2015 to pursue research for his doctoral studies on Egyptian economics, and disappeared on the 5th anniversary of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak, which was marked by various demonstrations. Last seen at the Bohooth Metro Station, he was found naked below the waist, with bruising and signs of torture across his body. His disappearance last month ignited a desperate campaign on Twitter through the hashtag #whereisgiulio, with friends and colleagues from across the world asking for any information on his whereabouts.

Regeni attended a classics high school in Trieste before entering into the United World College of the Adriatic (Collegio del Mondo Unito dell’Adriatico) in Duino (Friuli-Venezia Giulia). A successful student, he was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Cambridge in 2014, where he was based at POLIS, Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies. Regeni was a visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo, and was slated to stay until May. He spoke English, Spanish, and Arabic as well as his native Italian, and was passionate about the world and traveling, according to family friends.

Regeni’s parents arrived in the Egyptian capital on February 1st from Fiumicello, the small town not far from Trieste where Giulio spent much of his youth. Federica Guidi, Minister of Economic Development, cancelled her appearance at a trade conference in Cairo to meet with the grieving family following the confirmation of their son’s death. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (La Farnesina) has begun investigating the case, seeking to determine whether it was an abduction, a robbery gone wrong, or even terrorism. Paolo Gentiloni, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated in a letter to Egyptian authorities on Wednesday that the Italian government asks for “the maximum effort on the part of the police to reveal the truth and determine the facts, and the coordination of an investigation with Italian experts.”

Renzi Gets His Wings and EasyJet Lands in Venice – February 2

The “Italian Air Force One” has landed. During the early hours of Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s refurbished super-jet touched down at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, replacing his old Airbus A319 Corporate Jet, which required stopovers for refueling on long-haul flights. The 10-year-old Airbus 340-541 was leased from Etihad Airways, ending its civilian career in October 2015 after 54,000 flight hours. It has been fitted with four new Rolls Royce motors,and is able to fly up to 16,700 kilometers (10,376 miles) non-stop, and will allow Renzi to remain in constant communication through WiFi via satellite. While exact leasing costs have yet to be revealed, industry sources say that expenses could run between 230,000 to 315,000 Euro per month ($250,000 to $340,000), excluding repairs and fuel. The plane will flown by fighter pilots from the 31st Wing of the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare), which is based at Rome’s Ciampino Airport.

News of Renzi’s decision to upgrade his jet caused an uproar last fall, as critics claimed that the Prime Minister was wasting public funds unnecessarily. Retired Air Force General Leonardo Tricario, an ex-military advisor to Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo D’Alema, called the choice “A clearly non-essential expense in a time when public expenditures are being restricted,” while Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister from 2013 to 2014, reminded reporters in September that during his time in office he “Reduced the fleet and sought to limit the number of official state flights.”

EasyJet, the UK-based low-cost airline carrier, is expanding operations at Venice’s Marco Polo International Airport. The inauguration ceremony took place on Monday, with Frances Ouseley, Director of Italian Operations for EasyJet, and the Mayor of Venice Luigi Brugnaro on hand for the debut of the company’s 27th base in Europe. Brugnaro commented that “The choice of Venice as a base demonstrates once again the infinite possibilities that our city offers…thank you to EasyJet for believing in the potential of Venice, a decision that will surely bring success to the company.” Four A319 Airbus aircrafts have been added to the fleet, along with ten new routes, with Edinburgh, Bristol, Copenhagen, Prague, and Stuttgart among the cities that will see increased service. EasyJet will now employ 150 personnel in Venice, allowing for up to 45 percent more weekly flights. The carrier began operating out of Venice in 1998, and now is the largest airline serving “La Serenissima,” with 12 million passengers per year.

The company’s new venture comes after it announced that would be abandoning operations at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport following a major fire in May 2015 which reduced airport capacity to 60 per cent. CEO Carolyn McCall stated in June that “We will reinforce ourselves in Italy, strengthening our presence at Milano-Malpensa, Venice, and Naples, where we believe there are the best opportunities for sustainable growth.” Service to Rome will cease completely in April.

Starting Up…and Standing Still – November 24

The best young web entrepreneur of 2015 is Italian, according to the jury at Europioneers 2015, who picked Domenico Colucci’s Nextome app out of 60 startup finalists. Colucci, who is a 26 year old from Puglia, created Nextome in 2012 after he had difficulty locating a restroom in a shopping center. Nextome works by picking up a series of signals from a building’s WIFI and transmitting them to the user via Bluetooth technology, facilitating orientation in chaotic indoor spaces such as museums or exhibition centers. The application’s website notes that the confusion we experience in a foreign environment is accentuated in large public spaces, and that pinpointing the user location will provide “nearby points of interest, the fastest routes, and ongoing promotions.” Colucci stated that he was “very happy for this important award,” and thanked the jury and the European Commission for supporting the Europioneers project and appreciating the “potential of Nextome.” This was the third edition of the competition, whose prior winners included presentation software Prezi in 2014 and audio distribution platform Soundcloud in 2013. Nextome previously won Best Startup at last year’s Web Summit in Dublin, beating out 2,000 competitors.

According to a study released Monday by Istat, the National Institute for Statistics based in Bologna, 1 in 4 Italians are on living the edge of poverty. This figure places Italy in the range of poorer countries like Hungary and Latvia, far removed from Western European nations such as France and Germany. The numbers do point to some slight improvements over the last few years in other areas, as now 49.5% of people cannot take a week vacation far from home, down from 51%, and 38.8% of people would not be able to afford an emergency expense of 800 Euros, compared to 40.2% previously. But another sign that the Italian economy still faces significant challenges is the news that 1 out of 2 Italian families make no more than 2,026 Euro ($2,151) per month, for a net annual income of 24,130 Euros ($25,600). The highest median is found in Northern Italy, with an income of 27,090 Euros ($28,700) per year, while the lowest is in the Southern regions of Lazio, Campania, and Calabria. 46% of people who live in the South are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, an improvement from 48% in 2013.