Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, nave sanza nocchiero in gran tempesta, non donna di province, ma bordello!
Ambassador to the United States Giulio Terzi responds to James Walston.
Quoting Dante is, I admit, the last resort of a scoundrel or at least the indolent scribe. But this one, from Purgatorio,* is too apposite not to use. Roughly translated, it reads, "Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, a ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a whorehouse." It was also the title of a book by Paolo Sylos Labini published posthumously in 2006; Sylos Labini was not only one of Italy's most distinguished economists, but a man of absolute integrity who consistently and very openly refused to compromise with Power (even "power" with a small "p"). His last work described, analyzed and criticized the Italy of five years ago. "Why have we sunk so low?" he asked. "I exhort my fellow citizens to carry out an unflinching critical examination of our civic consciousness if we want to rise from the abyss." His appeal was more or less an economist's defense of the market economy and its rules, which defend the community against unbridled economic and political power. Italian prime minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's massive conflicts of interest have made a mockery of these rules.
Today's Italy has been battered by even more internal storms, as well as the obvious international economic ones; since then, the prime minister's residences have become brothels -- and not just metaphorically. Above all, the ship of state is close to being rudderless. So I am not the only person in Italy quoting Dante these days.
There has been a lack of clear leadership since the end of July, but over the last fortnight the lack of direction has become paroxysmal. For most of August, Berlusconi threatened elections in order to bring Gianfranco Fini, the rebellious former ally who broke with the prime minister in July and formed his own party, and his followers to heel. Then, as polls showed that the only real winner in an early vote would be Umberto Bossi and the Northern League, which favors autonomy for Italy's north -- and, worse, that there was a good chance that Berlusconi would not win a majority in the Senate -- he started backpedaling. These last few days, his public statements once again refer to "three more years in order to carry out the Great Reforms." The immediate aim is to pass a motion supporting a five-point plan concerning the economy, the South, fiscal federalism, justice, and security. The most controversial issue is "justice," which for Berlusconi means giving the himself immunity from prosecution ("in order to get on with the job of governing," he says). Devolved spending powers are fundamental for the Northern League, but others in the center-right are worried that poorer parts of the country will lose support.
Berlusconi boasts constantly that his personally run foreign policy is the envy of Europe, but the reality is different and as counterproductive as much of his domestic policy. Last week, he used his presence at the Kremlin-organized Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl, Russia, to take a swipe at Fini (without naming him), saying there were some who had created "little political businesses" (aziendine) in Italy; then he made the nth complaint that "communist judges" were stopping him and his people from governing; and finally, to cap his effusive welcome to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi two weeks ago, came the remarkable statement that his hosts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were "God's gift to democracy" (pity that the Economist had beat him to it with a cartoon showing Putin's real love of democracy and the press). More embarrassing still was the news that one of Libya's Italian-donated coast guard launches had machine-gunned an Italian fishing boat.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi's domestic woes are multiplying. The editor of one of his own papers, Vittorio Feltri in Il Giornale, criticized the prime minister this week for being indecisive and lacking leadership. Worse, his personal approval ratings are at 37 percent (down 4.9 percentage points since June), with his People of Freedom Party below 30 percent (down from 33.2 percent in June and 37.4 percent in the 2008 elections), according to an early September Demos poll. We will know whether the "three more years" proposal has any chance whatsoever at the end of the month when the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house of Parliament, debates Berlusconi's five-point plan and votes on it. In the meantime, the prime minister appears to be on a shopping spree, hoping to pick up independents to make up the loss of defectors to Fini -- he needs 19 to have a secure majority.