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. Continue reading

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.

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.

Paranoia and Passports – November 20

The FBI issued a warning to the Italian government on Wednesday, saying that several national landmarks are at risk for terrorist attacks. According to the U.S. intelligence service, the Basilica di San Pietro, the Duomo of Milan, and La Scala are considered particularly vulnerable, while restaurants, bars, and hotels across Italy should be on alert. As security is tightened, Italian investigators are also trying to determine why Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect of the November 13th terrorist attacks on Paris, passed through Northern Italy on his return from Syria more than a year ago. A massive manhunt for Abdeslam is currently underway across France and Belgium, after he was not found during a raid Wednesday in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. Perhaps as a result of this tense atmosphere, a series of bomb scares have swept through both Rome and Milan this week, leading to long delays on public transportation. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has sought to reassure Italians, promising that everything is being done to ensure the nation’s security and that “we must first of all live, demonstrating the courage to not stay at home and not renounce our heritage or identity.” Renzi emphasized Wednesday in an interview on Sky Tg24 television that the Extraordinary Jubilee, which will open in Rome on December 8th, will not be cancelled “under any circumstances.”

The Schengen Area, which has facilitated travel through Europe by doing away with passport and border control since 1997, may be at risk. France had already suspended the agreement from November 13th to December 13th for the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference before the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people a week ago, but the country’s officials are now pushing for stricter rules across the EU in order to combat terrorism. In an interview on Thursday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that the Schengen Area will “become endangered unless Europe begins to take responsibility for its borders.” The European Commission also announced Thursday that “it will be necessary to begin systematic, coordinated controls on European borders, also on individuals with European passports.” An emergency summit is scheduled for today in Brussels, where future restrictions on air travel and the movement of EU citizens is expected to be discussed.

Precautions and Mourning – November 18

In the wake of Friday’s devastating terrorist attacks in Paris that resulted in the deaths of more than 130 people, the Italian government is stepping up security measures. On Monday, Minister of Defense Paolo Gentiloni stated that the government will “work to flush out terrorists wherever they seek to infiltrate…Italy needs to play a larger role in contributing to the coalition against ISIS and will help with the political transition in Syria without leaving voids that terrorists will attempt to fill.” Safety concerns have been raised about several major upcoming events in Italy, including the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which will be opened on December 8th in Rome by Pope Francis, and the Carnival of Venice, set to begin January 23rd. While in Rome 700 additional soldiers have already been stationed around the city and police patrols have been increased, the attacks combined with the recent ISIS video which lists Rome as a future target are already having an impact on the city’s tourism. According to Roberto Necci, President of the Association of Hotel Directors of Lazio, “The first impact of the attacks on Paris has been an above average cancellation of reservations in Roman hotels…people are afraid.” But officials are rejecting calls to postpone the Jubilee, saying that to modify the country’s behavior would mean “the terrorists have won.” The Governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, announced Monday that he is calling a roundtable to develop measures to strengthen security before millions of visitors descend on the city in January. Zaia stated that “We need to move quickly, because the Carnival is at our doors and after ISIS vowed to strike Italy as well I do not feel we are ready at all.” The measures under consideration include barriers to control the flow of pedestrians, the removal of masks at control points, and metal detectors.

The family of Valeria Solesin, the 28-year-old Venetian woman killed during the terrorist attack at the Bataclan Cafe on Friday night, arrived Tuesday afternoon in Paris to collect her body from the morgue. The sole Italian victim of the attacks on France’s capital that resulted in hundreds of dead and injured, Solesin was a PhD student studying demographics at the Sorbonne and had been living in Paris for four years. Her dissertation compared French and Italian families and the role of women in society, and she was working as a researcher at The Paris 1 Demography Institute. The Bataclan attack began around 9:40pm on Friday, when four terrorists entered the venue during an Eagles of Death Metal concert and began shooting, killing 89 people before being shot dead by French security forces after a 3-hour siege. Solesin is believed to have been killed close to the exit, as she attempted to flee. Her boyfriend, Andrea Ravegnani, was also at the concert, but survived. Chiara Ravegnani, his sister, remembered Solesin as “A great friend. Free. Full of ideas and strength. The best student in my course at the Sorbonne. She was very involved in volunteering, not only with Emergency. We had discussed the issue of terrorism at length, especially after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. She was against any war, any military intervention.”

A torchlight procession in her memory is scheduled for Wednesday evening in front of the Basilica di San Marco, and flags have been lowered to half-staff across the city.