In the United States, citizens with Italian national origin are the seventh largest ethnic group at 17.2 million. Thus, Americans are well aware of Italy and Italians; unfortunately, what we know is often a jumble of odds and ends (Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and Marc Anthony’s funeral oration; the Roman Empire and the schoolchild’s need to translate Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” for Latin class).
We are aware of assorted Italian actors/actresses (Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida) and Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns” (or more sophisticated Federico Fellini films). Perhaps, we’ve toured Italy admiring Roman ruins (the Colosseum), the “Leaning Tower of Piza,” the canals of Venice, the Vatican incorporating Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and countless other unparalleled museums featuring Renaissance painters and sculptors.
Or perhaps we had a grandfather who spent part of WWII fighting Germans in endless bloody battles (Anzio, Monte Cassino), with the exhausted infantryman sardonically depicted in Bill Mauldin’s “Willy and Joe” cartoons.
And don’t forget American love of pizza (although one can argue for non-Italian origin).
These trivial pursuit factoids aside, post WWII Italy has had significant difficulty being accepted as a serious actor in world, or even European, affairs. It certainly has not “punched” at its weight during this period.
Some of this implicit disrespect is homegrown. The Italians have made a fetish about living “la dolce vita” and being “lovers, not fighters.”
In 1964 Luigi Barzini, an Italian journalist and commentator, published a devastating assessment of his country and its citizens, “The Italians.” There was a stark juxtaposition between the Italy of Dante, Leonardo de Vinci, and so on, and the ongoing chaos.
Such chaos was reflected in the political revolving door of over 50 governments between 1946-94 and, even after comprehensive restructuring of political parties post 1994, a level of corruption, incompetence, and malfeasance that is textbook in its recounting.
More recently, Silvio Berlusconi served four times as prime minister over nine years, intermittently between 2001 and 2011. A billionaire and one of the world’s richest men, Berlusconi battled accusations and ultimately criminal convictions incorporating wild parties and a teenage prostitute. Noted for his brash, overbearing personality, he was hardly an illustration of diplomatic or political probity—but vastly amusing for the media domestic and international.
Nor were Italian domestic finances in much better condition. Recall the perhaps tongue-in-cheek observation that if Italians paid all taxes they owed, it would exceed 100 percent of their income.
But Italy cannot be ignored in its financial travails: it is not Greece. Italy is the third largest economy in the Eurozone and ninth in the world. But also its governmental debt is the third largest in the world (just behind the United States and Japan).
More importantly, Italy’s combination of low growth, high unemployment, and high public debt makes growing its way out of difficulties problematic. Lower living standards persist, and fiscal stimulus is unaffordable.
Consequently, Italy has been one of the poorest EU economic performers and the only regional economy that has not become more competitive against Germany since 2011.
The result has been predictable political/domestic frustration echoing populist anger demonstrated elsewhere in Europe, sparked additionally by swarms of refugee/immigrants that many Italians believe detract from their quality of life.
An original founder of the European Community, Italy was long one of the most Europhile supporters; now it is in the first rank of the Euroskeptics.
Thus, the March election results, although a surprise to the powers that were, reflected long building anger on both right and left. The leading parties were the leftist “Five Star” under Luigi Di Maio and the right wing “League” headed by Matteo Salvini. Initially, the thought of a coalition was deemed as unlikely as one between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
But the unparalleled opportunity to implement their policies, mutually incompatible as they might appear, was sufficient lure. Although on May 27 Italian President Sergio Mattarella rejected the first proposed government, which incorporated an economic/finance minister regarded as committed to leaving the Eurozone, party leaders agreed May 31 on a less confrontational economics minister, which Mattarella accepted.
Trying to make the incompatible compatible (League’s commitment to cut taxes and deport immigrants and Five Star’s principles of flat tax and universal basic income) may well be impossible with new elections sooner than later.
The existential problem, however, is that both parties epitomize a hostility to EU/euro control and constraints earlier characterized by “Brexit” and anti-EU hostility demonstrated in France, Germany, and so on. Italy dodged a bullet this time; but the gun is still loaded.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”