The Italians in Europe

G Frederico Mancini. Foreign Affairs. Volume 79, Issue 2. March/April 2000.

The Italian Miracle

Now that the euro has been launched, it is a good moment to step back and remember just how European economic and monetary union (EMU) came into being. Fearing that German reunification would jeopardize the ” Rhenish” balance on which Europe had rested until then, French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl decided in 1990 that the only credible guarantee of an ongoing German allegiance to European unity would be the immolation of the deutsche mark-and with it the almost totemic reverence it elicited from the citizens of the Federal Republic-on the altar of a common European currency. To this effect, a committee chaired by the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, unearthed a long-forgotten report drafted in the early 1970s by the prime minister of Luxembourg and made the recommendations ultimately leading to the adoption of EMU in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. It was a laborious compromise that the central bankers, with the German Bundesbank in the vanguard, did not welcome at all. They eventually resigned themselves to it, but only on one condition: the crossbar that EMU candidates needed to vault would be set so high that it would be inaccessible to those not blessed with a strong and stable currency. Thus EMU was effectively conceived as a dress made to measure for a hard core of virtuous states: Germany, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. But it was precisely the crossbar’s prohibitive height that made the countries doomed to exclusion aware of the depth of the pit in which they would be left to vegetate and prompted them to make extraordinary efforts to drag themselves out.

The effort made by Italy was more than just extraordinary; it was superhuman. It could not have been otherwise, given the gulf between the Maastricht requirements for budget deficits, national debt, and interest rates on one side and the corresponding indicators in that most fiscally profligate of European states on the other. But the Italians won their bet and stunned Europe in the process. If only for a few hours on Christmas Eve 1998, Italy, Europe’s prodigal child par excellence, ranked as the thriftiest of the lot. When Italian Prime Minister Massimo d’Alema, an imperturbable former communist, announced that the Italian ten-year government-bond yield had dropped below that of its German counterpart for the first time in history, his voice rang with delight. That financial markets should regard Rome as tougher on inflation than the most reliable member states of the European Union(EU)was the sweetest reward for Italy’s sacrifices that the country could have expected.

There’s No Place like Rome

Why have the Italians gone to such extremes to disabuse their fellow Europeans of their lack of confidence? Consider the hefty levy that the government christened “the Eurotax.” Why did this tag, which in any other country would have induced a majority of citizens to take to the streets, persuade a traditionally evasion-prone people to fulfill its duty without too much grumbling? Why do European Commission opinion polls consistently show that 65 percent of Italians favor European over national decision-making, while the corresponding figures in the rest of the EU lag at around 53 percent and continue to decline? Why do 88 percent of young Italians define their country’s political participation in a united Europe as “very’ or “extremely” important, even though 51 percent of young people identify most closely with their city and only 5 percent with Europe?

All these questions can be easily reduced to one: Why don’t Italians, unlike other Europeans, fear losing their national identity in a more closely knit and powerful EU? Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board who delights in excursions outside his area of expertise, has tried to find an answer. He writes that Italy’s fondness for Europe is “entirely consistent” with the nub of her cultural identity, namely the classic and religious universality of Rome. Furthermore, he believes, that identity has not yet fully crystallized. Cultivated Italians know how profound were the differences among their compatriots when the country was unified in 1861, or even in the aftermath of World War II. They also know that these cleavages remain vast. “States are,” Padoa-Schioppa concludes, “while Europe becomes; and Italy offers Europe the example of a people whose identity is still in the making.”

In all frankness, however, Padoa-Schioppa explanation is utterly unconvincing. Although Rome’s religious role does linger as a weighty component of Italian identity, the most culturally vital and militant wing of Italian Catholicism has looked for the past 50 years southward, to the developing world’s destitute and downtrodden, while its attitude toward an increasingly secularized Europe has swung from coolness to ill-concealed aversion. And if it is really true that many prominent Catholics and the bulk of Italy’s Christian Democratic Party strenuously advocated European integration, it is no less certain that their commitment has not been more fervent than that found north of the Alps. In the trinity of Europe’s Catholic founders Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, and Robert Schuman-the most devoted to Rome was the last, not the first. Thus Roman Catholic universality as a factor behind the dream of a united Europe is not specific to Italian culture-where, if anything, it competes with other dreams. Rather, it is shared by, and remains consistent with, a host of cultural identities throughout the continent.

Meanwhile, the “classic” universality of ancient Rome that PadoaSchioppa cites when he refers to the merging of disparate nations and cultures under a common law has faded to the point of becoming invisible. Scores of literati, with Dante at the summit, evoked it during the long centuries of Italy’s fragmentation and servitude, sometimes with a touching faith in its regenerating potential. But as those centuries glided on, every inch of the Italian landscape was being “trodden on, measured out, marched across, fought over, built on, ploughed up, transformed, [and] disciplined,” as the literary critic Robert Dessaix has so trenchantly put it. The memory of Rome as the unifier of the world was lost or entirely irrelevant, if not to all the architects, then surely to the myriad masons, farmers, surveyors, soldiers, and pilgrims who forged that landscape. How then could it bear on the political aspirations of their present-day descendants? When Mussolini tried to revamp the myth in the 1930s as a psychological prop for his expansionist policy, his rhetoric sounded hollow, so devoid was it of pertinence to the national and international reality. Italians did not mind being offered an empire in the Horn of Africa as an outlet for the migrants whom America no longer accepted, but they were much too worldly to fall for the renaming of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum or the sight of the new Roman Tenth Legion, this time quartered in Bologna, drilling in anticipation for the conquest of a modern Masada.

Death of a Nation

In contrast, Padoa-Schioppa’s explanation is incomparably deeper and richer when it points to the attraction of a multicultural European Union for a 140-year-old state whose identity is still in the making. This formula is more apt than any other in accounting for Italy’s europhilia. Defined by Prince Metternich with both accuracy and a whiff of disparagement as no more than a “geographical expression,” Italy slowly coalesced to become transformed by the state into a nation run by a diminutive intellectual elite. It was a fragile nation, evincing at every major crisis that it had not become one out of free will but by virtue of the force of extraordinary circumstances, deaf to the kicking and screaming that its commands aroused. Yet this wobbly compound survived all the crises that it encountered. When its army, made up of soldiers who understood neither each others’ dialects nor their officers’ polished language, halted a seemingly relentless AustroGerman offensive in 1917 a few miles north of Venice, many observers at home and abroad thought that the Italian nation had grown beyond the point of no return.

According to the controversial historian Galli della Loggia, the two tragic years following the armistice between Italy and the Allies during World War II proved this appraisal unduly optimistic. On September 8, 1943, the Italian state collapsed-or rather dissolvedin a wink. Left without clear orders, the army broke ranks, with most units getting hold of plain clothes and heading for home. Those who could not desert (some 82 generals, 13,000 officers, and 402,000 privates) surrendered without firing a shot to the less numerous German troops deployed throughout the country. The king, his family, and the prime minister fled Rome for shelter in the southernmost areas that the Allies had already occupied. All branches of public administration-the police, judiciary, transport, school, and postal systems—came to a halt.

Of course, Italy was not the only European state to experience a military debacle followed by a devastating breakdown in its national fabric. Nowhere else, however, did this breakdown occur in such outrageous ways. Nowhere else did the armed forces melt so thoroughly; nowhere else were the powers in charge, beginning with the royal family, so clearly paralyzed by the physical dread of coming face to face with the Germans. The demise of the state, in short, displayed a dearth of shared values, a spiritual vacuum, a collective weakness of character that was absolutely unprecedented and unparalleled. It proved that, in spite of initial appearances, the Italian state had not generated an organism capable of surviving as a nation. And had an Italian nation really existed, its framework was so precarious-or so threadbare-that it could not pass the crucial test of defeat in a major conflict. The title of della Loggia’s book devoted to the events of 1943 could not have been better chosen: La morte della patria-where patria, as any dictionary will tell you, means “country” or “homeland,” but is uttered with a thumping of the heart.

The Grand Illusion

As could be expected, della Loggia’s thesis touched Italy’s intelligentsia on the raw, stirring up a dispute that is still far from subsiding. Much too radical, charged the left. In particular, it accused the author of having practically ignored the fact that both state and society had been infected for 20 years by a regime whose incompetence and bombast had become a byword. In fact, that entity died in 1943 when the people realized that it was not worth the thumping of the heart. It was not the Italian nation but a parody of it, a tin god, that fascism had erected. When the cloud of dust raised by the fall of that fin god was dispelled, it became clear that the real patria was still alive so alive, indeed, that hundreds of thousands of citizens, including many who had thrown away their uniforms in September 1943, rose up in arms to liberate it.

Such an argument, which blames Italy’s military, political, and above all ethical catastrophe on fascism, may be comforting, but it does not hold water. As della Loggia himself points out, the Wehrmacht and the German administrative offices in charge of feeding the population did their job with all the effectiveness that the situation allowed when the Third Reich was overwhelmed in April 1945. If Nazism cannot be given sole credit for their performance, then by the same token fascism cannot be held entirely responsible for the dismal conduct of the corresponding Italian institutions. In either case, an explanation has to be sought at a much deeper level that delves into history, sociology, and anthropology.

Apart from that, the strategy of della Loggias critics-distinguishing sharply between Italian society and the fascist tin god—is tantamount to presenting fascism as a sort of parasite from another galaxy that implanted itself out of the blue on an otherwise healthy organism. The fact that such a view was shared by Benedetto Croce, one of the great intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century, does not make it less preposterous. Nor can it be said to be vindicated by the genesis, growth, and ultimate triumph of a widespread resistance movement. The partisans who constituted its backbone, half of whom the Communist Party controlled, fought not only a war of liberation against the German invaders but a civil war against their compatriots-who in no fewer numbers had joined the special corps set up by Mussolini’s last ditch republic in the north. In other words, fascism was inseparable from the bulk of the Italian people, an indigenous product of the social and cultural conflicts that Italy had experienced in the process of becoming a mass industrial society. That a substantial segment of the population took up arms against it was an extraordinarily positive development, but it does not prove that an Italian nation, a patria capable of inducing a common feeling of belonging in all layers of society, was still alive in 1945.

The events of the second half of this century also attest to this problem. In Italy, the advent of the Cold War opened a wide and apparently bottomless cleavage-unparalleled in Europe with the possible exception of France-between the Christian Democratic and Communist-led coalitions. The Christian Democrats, who were supported by a majority of the electorate and were therefore in government, aligned the country’s foreign policy with Washington’s wishes in ways so compliant that Italy was often described by the media as “the Bulgaria of the West.” The Communist-dominated camp, which had gone so far as to recognize the legitimacy of Yugoslav claims to Trieste when Tito was still the second-most revered leader of the socialist bloc, was for almost 25 years an unswervingly loyal agent of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the flexibility, independence, and intellectual sophistication that Italy’s Communists displayed in domestic politics emerged on the international scene only in 1968, when the entry of Warsaw Pact troops into Prague put an end to the dream of socialism with a human face.

In other words, neither of the forces commanding the allegiance of the Italians was able to interpret the national interest other than in terms of its identification with, and subordination to, the competing imperial interests of the two superpowers. More significant, this interpretation was internalized by their constituents. For at least three decades, the ideological tension among the rank and file was so acute that it permeated the daily life of ordinary people: in factories, universities, publishing houses, the film industry, and even recreational places like soccer stadiums, pubs, clubs, and ballrooms. The working class and its institutions organized themselves as a Gegengesellschaft, an alternative society, following the example of their German predecessors during the time of Bismarck’s antisocialist laws-but possibly with an ever deeper feeling of estrangement and antagonism toward the rest of society.

Doing It Their Way

During the late 1980s the Cold War came to an end, and so did the last sequels of the political and social fractures that it had produced. Their withering away, however, made room for new and ugly forms of another cleavage that had dogged Italian society since the time of unification: the split between north and south. The sociological causes of the Mezzogiorno’s economic weakness-powerful crime syndicates, distrust of free enterprise, “amoral familism”—which thwart its full integration into the mature capitalist system of the north, are too well known to dwell on. What is important is the fact that the norths vexation over the Mezzogiorno’s inability to use effectively the huge resources that the government allots, and its annoyance over the less agreeable peculiarities of southern culture, had never turned into wholesale hostility or taken on openly racist overtones. All that those feelings produced was a scoffing attitude on the part of the northern populace and a tinge of condescension in polite society.

This basic tolerance, however, evaporated at the beginning of the 19gos. Umberto Bossi, a classic populist demagogue who revels in coarse language and manners, was able to lay the foundations of a true-blue racist movement that soon snowballed beyond its place of origin in Lombardy and ended up invading the Po valley. In this area, the Northern League, as it is now called, polls zo percent of the popular vote, controls a host of provincial capitals, and runs institutions (even a parliament and militia) that are coextensive with and aloof from those of the central state. As a daily nourishment for its constituents’ animosity, the league proposes to cut all state aid to the south and demands that judges, prosecutors, and schoolteachers of southern origin be removed from the posts they occupy in the north. But its long-range goal, shrieked out or soft-pedaled according to political and electoral expedience, is the secession of the “Northern Nation” from Rome (that “robbers’ den”) and the southern “freeloaders.”

The latter prospect sounds foolhardy enough, but foolhardiness turns into downright extravagance at the sight of the league’s leadership striving to found its claim to the independence of the Po valley on ethnic grounds and borrowing some of the catchwords of the Parti Quebecois or the Scottish Nationalist Party. A high-principled, hard-working north wanting to sever its bonds from a crime-ridden, bloodsucking south is, indeed, a proposition built on caricatures; as a political project it is not entirely devoid of credibility. But talk of a Celtic north seeking to shake off the yoke imposed on it by Latin Rome and a Mezzogiorno still showing traces of its Greek roots is a laughingstock-and Bossi’s frequent references to the gallant deeds of Braveheart add a further touch of folly. But all this still does not prevent serious observers from realizing that Bossi’s attempt to portray the league as part of a respectable, global phenomenon of ethnic revival serves an astute purpose: to confer legitimacy on the domestic racism that is the authentic fuel of the movement.

In short, the Italian community is not undergoing a process of aggregation that might lead it some day to condense and become an irreplaceable focus for group identity and political life. Italy may still be, as Stendhal wrote, the land where “the plant ‘man’ grows more vigorously than anywhere else”; it may go on seducing the world with the inborn taste, the versatility, the alertness, the joie de vivre of its people; in short, it may live up to its reputation as, in Dessaix’s words, “an erotic powerhouse in a number of non-political ways.” But the territory occupied by Italy does not, and probably will never, host a nation–in the sense that France and England, or even Germany and Spain, do.

One Europe, Ready or Not

This conclusion, however, does not detract from the basic soundness of Padoa-Schioppa’s explanation for the spell that the prospect of a multicultural “United States of Europe” has cast over the Italian mind. If anything, it reinforces it. Europe can and should become a federal state, but that is as far as it ought to go. Europe must resist with great firmness any attempt, however noble, to color the notion of citizenship with that of nationhood or identity. Europe’s multiple selves, its diversity (which even state borders inadequately define), together with its long past and ingrained sense of tragedy, are the factors that make Europe European. And they are the best tools it possesses to tackle the future. So why squander this wonderful capital? What advantages would it draw from becoming a nation that could make up for the loss of its components’ sometimes uneasy but still fruitful rubbing of shoulders with one another while knowing that their roots, cultures, and primeval loyalties are different?

Italians understand all this-if not always at an intellectual level, then by instinct-and they like it. Although their hearts do not throb before Europe’s blue-and-gold flag, they envisage Europe as a common home for themselves and the other 14 peoples of the EU. This home is bound to provide more and more comfort to its habitants, but it will also enforce discipline on them while protecting them from outside menaces. They do not want a patria replacing the one lost in 1943, which Italians were unable or unwilling to reconstruct at the end of the war. What they want is an overarching state, or at the very least a polity in which cooperation among existing states is no longer based on inevitably shaky and malleable intergovernmental agreements but is institutionalized in an all-encompassing network of supranational powers.

The reason why Italians do not long for a new patria-and are keen on Europe precisely because it does not aim to become one should now be clear. Italy’s experience with nationhood was far from happy: 6o years of goading and pushing by a nominally liberal but basically authoritarian ruling class, followed by 20 years of tyranny and bravado, and at the end a disgraceful implosion. Even more important, however, is that as political animals, the Italians have always liked and still like littleness. The social unit where they feel snug and devote energy to the general welfare is their city and sometimes even their quarter (think of Siena and its Palio). Indeed, was not Italy at its most glorious during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when it had not one capital city but ten, all of which were usually at war with one another? Today, intercity warring is of course confined to soccer stadiums and is no longer an Italian peculiarity. In Italy, however, something of the old spirit, a passionate attachment to the city colors, seems to prevail over the other, more sophisticated causes that social scientists have identified in studying this phenomenon.

If Italy’s lack of interest in the development of a European nation has deep historical roots, its partiality toward the establishment of a European state, or at least a strengthening of the EU, stems from strictly practical considerations. In the minds of its people, Italy has been so poorly run from Rome that almost any alternative would be acceptable. And the European alternative has paid off. Whereas most of Italy’s negative experiences have been homegrown, most of the positive ones-above all the financial cleanup but also increased competition, reduced red tape, and growing privatization-have been imposed or prompted by Europe. On the other hand, Italians’ scant confidence in their leaders and their parties leads them to think that both will have to be kept under constant surveillance if Italy is to avoid the happy-go-lucky policies that caused its financial disaster at the end of the 1980s. They are also astute enough to realize that the effectiveness of that surveillance will be directly proportional to the degree of deterrence and repression wielded by European institutions. It is as simple, and as sad, as that.

This thesis boils down to a straightforward proposition: Italy has a lot to gain from participating in Europe’s integration, especially if the EU shapes itself into a federal mold unencumbered by identity concerns. But is there anything-besides being an “erotic powerhouse” that Italy can contribute to the European venture?

At the institutional level, two highly successful features of the Italian system of government could interest the designers of European federalism. One is the German-speaking province of South Tyrol, which enjoys rights so generous and so faultlessly respected as to stifle the tensions that degenerated into terrorism in the early 196os. These rights, however, presuppose and are intended to perpetuate a rigid separation between Germanophones and Italophones. So although the Tyrolian example has no general value for Europe—whose federalism should strive to open new and broader avenues between different cultures that have nothing to fear from one another-it may help those cases where a linguistic minority feels besieged or otherwise threatened. Considering that such cases are bound to multiply as a consequence of EU enlargement, this would by no means be a trifling contribution.

The second feature is a 1993 reform of Italy’s policymaking machinery. Its authors created the most comprehensive type of social partnership on the continent, involving trade unions, employers’ associations, and interest groups in political decision-making, thereby ensuring a wide social consensus for government policy. It is unquestionable, for instance, that if the business world and the labor movement had not been allowed to negotiate with the government over the policies behind the financial cleanup, their constituents would not have accepted the sacrifices required by workers with the aplomb they actually showed.

This example clearly demonstrates why and how the Italian model of social partnership could also benefit Europe. Even at this stage of integration, the aloofness of Brussels and the diversified nature of Europe’s “general public” constitute a serious threat to the legitimacy of the European Commission and the Council of Ministers-and hence to public acceptance of the choices they make. In a statal Europe, where those choices would need to be more incisive and embrace wider areas, strengthening the central government’s legitimacy would become imperative. Indeed, it would be a matter of life and death in a more democratic polity, which would face the resistance of a large minority and need to laboriously put down its roots. Under such circumstances, an intimate involvement in Europe’s policymaking mechanisms of large and small interest groups, whose primordial function is to organize their constituents’ consent, could amount to a valuable asset.

The Good European

Finally, the most precious asset that Italy can bring to an EU advancing toward statehood coincides with what some of the country’s friends regard as its greatest liability: the frailty of its identity, the trouble it has in shaping up as a nation and asserting its national interest independently from (or in opposition to) the constraints derived from its wider political participation. Apart from the damage caused by its frequent infringements Of EU rules-a product of the hopeless inefficiency of its lawmaking and administrative bodies Italy is the only large member state that has never triggered a major crisis or impasse in European integration. In comparison with France (remember de Gaulle’s high-handed “empty-chair” policy?), Britain (remember the Iron Lady’s petulant “I want my money back”?), Spain (ever heard of its adamant refusal to consider a reduction of European aid?), and since its last election, Germany, Italy’s record for European loyalty is impeccable.

Does this record open for Italy the possibility of becoming Europe’s unifier? Alas, this role is not likely to materialize. To play a unifying role, a country must carry weight in ways other than those that make Italy the exciting place it is. Before all else, it must possess an incisive foreign policy, a tool that Italy lacks precisely because its feeble identity prevents it from asserting its national interest with the required energy. The real engine of European integration so far has been the Paris-Bonn axis, notwithstanding the less-than-impeccable record of France and, more recently, Germany. True, Paris and Bonn could always rely on Italy’s support when they decided to move forward. No less true, such support has sometimes proved invaluable. But is this not tantamount to admitting that, so long as European politics is dominated by the ethic of might, Italy is doomed to play second fiddle?

Having to play second fiddle should not cause frustration, however. Viewing the ethic of might as an impermeable monolith is a fallacy. Despite the intransigence of totalitarian regimes and the chattering of cultural relativists, half a century of treaties, struggles, and debates favoring human rights has eroded that ethic. As General Augusto Pinochet’s vicissitudes have proven, some tenets of international law that we were once taught to regard as perennial are now clearly fraying at the edges. Why could not European law and politics, which have far more aggressively tried to curb the notion of sovereignty and might, grow more and more responsive to a culture like Italy’s, so obviously uninterested in either notion? Italy’s limited political weight will preclude its leading the way to European unification, but Italy’s passion for Europe may in time contaminate its partners.

On the first of January 1999, as I was watching the ceremony that inaugurated the euro, those glowing faces, those unusually vigorous handshakes, the barely concealed pride gave me the impression that some sort of Italian contamination was under way. Perhaps facts will prove me wrong, but they will be followed by other facts and those could vindicate the accuracy of my fancy. In any event, aren’t professors, even if they also happen to be judges, entitled to a bit of daydreaming?