What’s Wrong with Italy?

1 March 2007

What’s Wrong with Italy?

By Gwynne Dyer

The most extreme diagnosis of Italy’s problem was offered by journalist Peter Popham in the Independent. He blamed it all on the Vatican: “Imagine that Hitler did not die in his bunker in 1945 but instead cut a deal with the new West German government, giving him continued sovereignty over a small patch of Berlin — and continued intellectual hegemony over the millions he had brainwashed during the previous decade….Italy’s Vatican problem is a lot like that, with the difference that the Church has been wielding its mind-control for nearly two millennia.”

The trigger for this extraordinary outburst was the week-long political crisis that nearly brought down Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, Italy’s 61st since the Second World War. Yet Popham is not anti-Catholic. It’s just that, like most people who spend a lot of time in Italy, he has simultaneously fallen in love with the country and utterly lost patience with it.

It’s an affliction he shares with a great many Italians: no country except Argentina spends more time debating what is wrong with it. He blamed the Vatican on this occasion because the crisis was provoked by a government plan to legalise “civil unions” (marriages by another name) even for gays, which greatly annoyed the Catholic Church. But it’s more complicated than that.

The vote that Prodi’s government lost was actually on a proposal to leave 1,900 Italian troops in Afghanistan until 2011 and to double the size of an American military base outside Vicenza. Both projects are very unpopular in Italy, but they were part of the deal that created the nine-party coalition behind Prodi’s government, and only two senators from the far left defected in the key vote on 21 February.

The government would still have won the vote if senator-for-life Giulio Andreotti had not unexpectedly voted against it. But the 87-year-old Andreotti, seven times prime minister and often known as the “Prince of Darkness,” is a strong supporter of NATO and the American alliance, so why would he vote against that bill? Because it was going to be so close that his surprise “no” vote could bring Prodi’s government down.

Why would he want to do that? Andreotti has always been very close to both the Catholic Church and the Mafia, but on this occasion it was the former tie that mattered. The Vatican wanted to kill the “civil union” proposal, which required killing Prodi’s government. Andreotti just seized the opportunity that presented itself. It worked, too: a week later Prodi managed to revive his coalition government, but this time their agreed programme does not include the “civil union” project.

The normally judicious Peter Popham was so irked by this that he implicitly compared the Pope to Hitler, but it is nonsense to blame all of Italy’s ills on the Vatican. The Catholic Church used to have huge clout in Italian politics, but that is because almost all Italians used to be devout Catholics. It’s still a bit weird to have a tiny sovereign state ruled by a foreigner in the middle of your own capital city, but the Vatican today has no more influence on politics in Italy than the evangelical churches have in the United States. (But no less, either.)

Most Italians would agree that there is something wrong with their country, but it’s not the Church that bothers them. The stagnant economy makes matters worse — even Spain will overtake Italy in per capita income in a couple of years — but there is an underlying sense of frustration that permeates Italian life.

The Byzantine bureaucracy and the ubiquitous corruption are a big part of the problem. Getting a job usually depends on what group, party or family you belong to, not on your abilities, which is hugely frustrating. The core problem is that Italy is not really a modern society at all.

For almost forty years after 1945, while the rest of Europe was growing and changing very fast, Italy grew but didn’t change, because politics and all of society were frozen in a deeply conservative and profoundly corrupt pattern. In order to keep the huge Communist party from winning power and taking Italy out of NATO, the Christian Democratic party had to be kept in power permanently — and it was, thanks to foreign money and foreign intelligence services, to its alliance with the Catholic Church, and to its other alliance with the Mafia.

That system ended fifteen years ago when the Christian Democrats imploded in a blizzard of corruption scandals and Communism simultaneously went out of fashion, but Italians have a lot of lost time to make up.

Moreover, the decision to swap the lira for the euro was a disaster for Italy, because it lost the ability to remain competitive by continually devaluing its currency. Italian politics are still poisonous, the justice system is a joke, and the efforts at reform are endlessly sabotaged by the beneficiaries of the current state of affairs.

But that is about what you’d expect at this stage of the process of modernisation, because it IS a process, and it takes time. Spain is about thirty years into a similar process, dating from the death of Franco and the end of fascism, and it is thriving at every level. Italy is fifteen years in, and feeling the strain. But it will probably get there in the end.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The normally…States”; and “The Byzantine…all”)