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Mediterranean Cemetery

16 October 2013

Mediterranean Cemetery

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” said Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. “As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”

He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta. In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water – only 120 km. (80 miles) separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa – as died along the US-Mexican border in all of last year.

On the southern US border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don’t go with them. They don’t want to get arrested at the end of the journey. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.

The refugees – more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea – have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do about it. In many cases, the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.

Then they are in the water, and of course there are no life-jackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can’t swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.

“For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead,” said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy on Monday, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, “It’s not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port.”

They don’t want the migrants to die, but they don’t want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries that are getting a lot of asylum-seekers, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fueling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash.

The numbers are not really all that huge. Frontex, the EU agency that deals with refugees, recorded only 272,208 asylum-seekers last year. That’s the biggest number since 2005, but it’s only a drop in the bucket among the EU’s 400 million people.

The problem is that they almost all head for a few relatively rich countries in western Europe – Britain, France, Germany and the Low Countries – or else end up stranded in Greece, Italy or Spain, the countries closest to where the refugees sail from. And for Italy, in particular, the problem has got a lot worse recently.

A joint EU police force managed to close off the previously favoured route for Middle Eastern refugees, the Greek-Turkish border, in 2010, but that just redirected the migrants to sea routes across the Mediterranean. The recent revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have crippled the ability of those countries to control their own coasts. And the wars in Syria and Somalia are generating ever larger numbers of desperate asylum-seekers.

The Italians do let most of the migrants stay – although Germany accused Italy last May of encouraging the refugees to move on by giving them 500 euros ($680) and a “Schengen” visa that allows them to travel to most other EU countries without passport checks. But the brutal truth is this: the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.

Most of the migrants currently risking their lives in those little boats are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. The nationalists in those countries will indignantly deny that, but you only have to talk to ordinary people there to know that it is true.

Europeans, like most people, want to see themselves as generous and caring, but behind all the humanitarian talk there is the stark reality that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey. European leaders who let that happen would be committing political suicide.

The least bad solution would be to encourage the emergence of stable governments in Tunisia and Libya that could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The numbers…seekers”)

 

Berlusconi: Down But Not Yet Out

4 August 2013

Berlusconi: Down But Not Yet Out

By Gwynne Dyer

“I will not go into exile like Bettino Craxi was forced to,” said Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi as he awaited the outcome of his final appeal against a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. (Craxi, another former prime minister and a friend and protector of Berlusconi’s, fled to Tunisia and died in exile after being convicted of corruption and sentenced to nine years in prison).

“If they convict me, if they take that responsibility upon themselves, I’ll go to jail,” Berlusconi continued. Brave words, but they would have been even more impressive if Berlusconi, who is 76, didn’t know that criminals over the age of 70 almost never get sent to prison in Italy.

Last week Italy’s highest court rejected Berlusconi’s last appeal and confirmed his sentence, although in practice it is unlikely to amount to more than a year’s house arrest. However, it did not confirm the lower court’s decision to ban him, as a convicted criminal, from holding political office for five years. That will be reviewed by a lower court, and may not be decided for many months.

So for the moment, at least, Berlusconi can go on being a senator, and the leader of his People of Freedom party, and in effect the co-leader of the coalition that now governs Italy. He has already been convicted and sentenced to jail for two other offences that are going through the appeal process now, but “lo psiconano”, the psychotic dwarf (as rival politician Beppe Grillo calls him), still dominates the Italian political horizon.

Silvio Berlusconi has been at the centre of Italian politics for the past twenty years, half the time as prime minister, but there is reason to believe that he first went into politics mainly to avoid various criminal prosecutions. You cannot be tried while you are prime minister, and if you stay in office long enough the cases expire because of the statute of limitations. (And while in office, Berlusconi changed the law to make them expire more quickly.)

So it was only when he lost power in 2011 that the many pending cases against him could go ahead. The results, so far, have been three convictions.

The first was for tax fraud, in a case where his Mediaset company paid false invoices, hundreds of millions of euros too high, for distribution rights to US films. (The excess money went into an overseas, tax-free slush fund.) The second was for leaking a police wiretap to one of his publications. And the third was for having sex with an under-age prostitute and abusing his prime ministerial powers to get her out of jail.

The prostitute, 17 at the time, was a Moroccan erotic dancer working under the stage name Ruby Rubacuori (Heart-Stealer). She attended one of Berlusconi’s notorious “bunga bunga” parties, and out of the dozen or so women there, she was the one who attracted the great man’s special attention.

So he took her upstairs, gave her 7,000 euros, and (in his version) sent her home untouched. Later on he also gave her jewellery, lots more money, and an Audi – and when she was arrested on suspicion of theft, he called up the police station and got her released by claiming, untruthfully, that she was the grand-daughter of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Charges were laid, and even though Berlusconi gave 127,000 euros to three key witnesses just before the trial began, he was found guilty last June. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and a lifetime ban on holding public office. That case has now also started its way through the lengthy appeals process, but one by one the doors are shutting against Berlusconi.

How did he get away with it for so long? One reason is a justice system so inefficient and overloaded that it’s easy for a rich man with good lawyers to string a case out until it dies of old age. Berlusconi is the richest man in Italy, and Italy has 9 million court cases pending. (There are only 60 million Italians.)

The larger reason is that Berlusconi, for all his sleaze and corruption, is a brilliant politician. His unique achievement was to create a coalition of north Italian racists, central and south Italian post-fascists, and just plain conservative Catholics, and hold it together for almost two decades.

That coalition is gradually disintegrating now, but it blocked the modernisation of Italian politics that should have followed the “Tangentopoli” scandals and the collapse of the old political parties in the early 1990s for a full two decades.

Berlusconi’s departure from politics will be good for Italy, but his long time in office has done permanent harm to the country’s economy and its political and legal systems. And what will he do when he is finally banned from politics?

Well, he may have to spend a year under house arrest, but he has lots of very big houses, and lots of young women will still come to the parties of such a generous man.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“How…decades”)

Italy: Grillosconi Wins

28 February 2013

Italy: Grillosconi Wins

By Gwynne Dyer

The winner of last week’s election in Italy was a mythical beast called “Grillosconi”. That is bad news for Italy, for the single European currency, the euro, and even for the future of the European Union. Not that “Grillosconi” will ever form a coherent government in Italy. The problem is that he – or rather, they – will prevent anybody else from doing that either.

The newer part of this hybrid beast is Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comedian who is essentially an anti-politician. His blog boils with bile against Italy’s entire political class, and his public appearances are angry, foul-mouthed, arm-waving rants against the whole system.

Raging against Italy’s privileged, corrupt and dysfunctional political class is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which in just a few years grew from nothing to take a quarter of the national vote in last Sunday’s election, has nothing useful to put in its place. Just “throw the bums out”, and the democratic power of the internet will solve all of Italy’s problems.

“We want to destroy everything,” Grillo said in a recent interview with the BBC. “But not rebuild with the same old rubble. We have new ideas.” We have heard this sort of talk in Europe before, always from people who turned out to be totalitarians of some sort, whether Communist or fascist. It should not be necessary for Italy to go through all that again.

The older part of the beast is Silvio Berlusconi, the former cruise-ship crooner and billionaire media magnate (he’s the richest man in Italy) whose cynical populism has dominated Italian politics for the past twenty years. For more than half of that time he has been the prime minister, and even when he’s out of power he dominates the political stage.

Berlusconi is 76 now, but he still manages to generate constant sex scandals. (His “bunga bunga” parties are notorious, and he currently faces charges in connection with an under-age prostitute.) He has been fighting charges or appealing against convictions for corruption for the whole time he has been in politics, and keeps changing the criminal law to avoid doing jail time. Yet a large number of Italians go on voting for him.

Their devotion is even more inexplicable when you recall that Italy has been in steady economic decline for most of Berlusconi’s two decades as the country’s dominant political figure. The Italian economy is smaller than it was twelve years ago, over a third of the under-25s are unemployed, and the state auditor estimates that 60 billion euros is stolen from the national budget by corrupt politicians every year.

So 29 percent of Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi’s party in the election last weekend, and 25 percent voted for Beppe Grillo’s. More than half of Italy’s voters preferred some part of the “Grillosconi” monster to more serious politicians who talked about fixing the economy, tackling the budget deficit, fighting organised crime, and reforming the country’s badly broken justice system.

The result is political paralysis: no party or group of parties is able to form a stable government, and there will probably be another election within a year. (Only one Italian government in the past seven decades has served out its full five-year term.) But why should we believe that that will produce a better outcome? Grillo confidently predicts that his Five Star Movement will win a majority next time round, and he may well be right.

Berlusconi promises to bring back the good old days with a wave of his magic wand: 4 million new jobs, tax cuts, and even refunds for taxes paid in the recent past. But you have to shut your eyes to the financial disaster that is engulfing Italy to believe that, and it will be even harder to do that a year from now.

Grillo promises salvation in a fantasy future where everything happens on the web, but he’s really just getting the protest vote. Even he admits that “the (Five Star) Movement is a dream of what could happen in 20 or 30 years. Not now. Now, nothing will happen.” So why would anyone look to him for a solution to today’s pressing problems? Good question.

Meanwhile, the Italian economy continues to decay, and the government goes on spending money it does not have. One number says it all: about 70,000 Italian public officials are given cars with chauffeurs. (In Britain, the number is 300.) The risk grows that Italy will need a financial bail-out so massive that it causes a collapse of the euro.

Why so many Italians put up with this kind of thing passes understanding. But so does the fact that so many of those who are infuriated by it turn to a clown like Grillo, who offers salvation in the form of a web-based direct democracy. The crisis will therefore continue indefinitely.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Berlusconi…question”)

 

 

Berlusconi’s Return: Curse of the Undead

14 July 2012

Berlusconi’s Return: Curse of the Undead

By Gwynne Dyer

Abraham Lincoln was right: You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. Unfortunately, his dictum is irrelevant to modern Italian politics. In a democratic country with a number of different parties, like Italy, you only have to fool about one-third of the people all the time to get and keep political power.

Silvio Berlusconi is making a comeback bid. Only eight months after the disgraced politician left the prime minister’s office by the back entrance to avoid the jeers of hostile crowds (they sang “Hallelujah” instead when they heard he was gone), he is talking about a return to politics before the elections next spring. And he could actually win.

Even six weeks ago this seemed preposterous. “Berlusconi is so dead he doesn’t even wear his makeup any more,” said comedian Beppo Grillo, and the various trials that Berlusconi faced for bribery, fraud, tax evasion, and paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl were taking up most of his time. But if he is a political zombie, he is one with lots of luck and plenty of money.

In February the bribery case, in which Berlusconi was accused of paying British lawyer David Mills to lie under oath in corruption trials in 1997 and 1998, ran out of time under the statute of limitations. (Mills was convicted of accepting the bribe and sentenced to four and a half years in jail, but his sentence was cancelled on final appeal because of the same statute of limitations.) And who shortened the time available to complete a prosecution? Why, Prime Minister Berlusconi, that’s who.

Indeed, some people argue that Berlusconi first went into politics in 1994 to avoid conviction in various criminal cases. He changed the law on accountancy to escape conviction for false accounting, and so far his changes to the statute of limitations have let him escape from six separate prosecutions for corruption, embezzlement and tax fraud. His most recent escape was last week, when a judge dismissed more tax-fraud charges against him because of the same statute of limitations.

That left only one set of charges relating to financial matters and the case alleging that he paid for sex with a minor at one of his famed “bunga bunga” parties. But she denies it happened, and also denies that his gifts to her of jewellery and money worth $300,000 had anything to do with that denial. So the 75-year-old billionaire is confident that his legal problems are under control.

He would be even safer, however, if he were back in office and able to rewrite the laws whenever necessary, and besides he obviously misses the limelight. So he has started talking about a political comeback – and the circumstances are looking quite promising for him.

He was forced out of office last November because other European leaders were fed up with his embarrassing antics (at European Union summits they were going to comical lengths to avoid being photographed with him), and because the financial markets had lost all confidence in his government. His main tactic in politics has always been to bribe the voters with their own money, and the Italian economy was going down the drain.

So Berlusconi was pushed out, and the non-political technocrat who became prime minister in his place, Mario Monti, was given the task of reining in spending and avoiding a default on Italy’s huge debts. At first Monti enjoyed 80 percent support in opinion polls, but as his spending cuts and tax rises began to bite his popularity sank. Besides, he has promised not to run in next year’s election anyway.

Berlusconi’s party, People of Freedom, has fallen on hard times politically during his absence. By mid-June, however, the polls were saying that if he took back the leadership, it would win 33 percent of the votes in an election.

“We are all asking him to run and I believe that in the end he will decide to lead the party,” said Angelo Alfano, the current leader of the Freedom People party, last week. Indeed, many people believe that Berlusconi chose the colourless and unpopular Alfano as his successor precisely because it would make a comeback easier.

Berlusconi is still being coy about his plans, but he is talking like a candidate. If he were in power, he hints, he would reverse Monti’s tax rises and revive the lavish spending pattern of his previous administrations. That would cause Italy to crash out of the euro, the common European currency, of course, but he had an answer for that: Italy should go back to the lira anyway.

Italy has the third-largest economy in the euro zone, so that could bring the whole currency crashing down, but what does that matter so long as Silvio Berlusconi is doing well? The man is a scoundrel, but a charming and very clever one, and that is something that Italians cannot help admiring. You can’t fool all the Italians all the time, but you can clearly fool a third of them forever.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Indeed…limitations”; and “We…easier”)