ROME — "We deserve a smile ..."
With these words, Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged the country to celebrate the reopening of the country's regional borders on June 3. Unfortunately, there's very little to smile about, and nothing to celebrate. As it reopens, Italy is a country that has been worn out by the coronavirus. Consider the following numbers: During the three months under lockdown, 30% of the country's economy was halted, as was 35% of its workforce. The Bank of Italy says GDP could fall between 9% and 13% in 2020. Some 7 million workers have been furloughed, and up to a million could be fired by the end of the year. Some 60% of self-employed workers have already lost a third of their annual revenues. Four out of every 10 families struggle to keep up with mortgage payments, and four in five citizens applying for loans under 25,000 euros guaranteed by the state are being rejected by the banks.
Ignazio Visco, the governor of the Bank of Italy, is right: Many have lost their lives, many are mourning their dead, many fear unemployment, but nobody should lose hope. But for whom or what should Italians have hope? There is little promise for the summer and even less for the autumn (let alone next year). All attempts to stretch our gaze beyond our present misery have failed.
The Festa della Repubblica on June 2 went by in a heartbeat. The President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, tried to find some meaning in it, to add voice to the growing will to start an economic recovery and renaissance, which runs deep throughout Italy. In front of the "invisible enemy" he talked about moral unity, sharing a common future, of constituent spirit. He asked institutions and political parties not to exploit citizens' suffering caused by the disease, and not to waste the sacrifices of ordinary people. He went to Codogno, the town where the first locally transmitted coronavirus case was discovered, to remember all the casualties of this war that nobody wanted to fight, and to repeat what we have been hearing for days, which is that "together, we can make it." It was a message of strength — not rhetoric — for the coronavirus aftermath.
The Archeological Museum of Naples reopens after the coronavirus lockdown. — Photo: Antonio Balasco/IPA/ZUMA
Who heeded it? While Mattarella thanked Italy's civil heroes, the doctors and nurses of the Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Rome, one could see a dramatic emptiness forming around him. In Rome, the populist right — not wearing masks — occupied a square shouting a cynical vaffanculo to Italy's post-War constitution, to the government and social distancing. The reformist and passionless left laid claim to nothing, limiting itself to institutional good manners and praise for Mattarella. Result: A great civil and political speech from the country's highest institution was reduced, as usual, to a mere lecture.
The next day Conte tried, launching his own artificial-sounding version of "a new beginning." An appeal to the opposition, an invitation to labor unions and other social forces. But his plans alienated the parties upholding his government — the Five Star Movement and the Partito Democratico — and Conte too found himself to be more alone than before. He asked for political and social support (to no avail) because he can't carry the country's reconstruction on his weak shoulders. The only available support is from Silvio Berlusconi, who among his businesses suffering and his party floundering, would sign up for almost anything to free himself of far-right Matteo Salvini's non-starter alliance.
This is Italy right now. A sick country and a rickety palace. Of course, during dramatic social upheaval, the country can't do without some low-intensity guerrilla warfare in the background, whether organized by violent neo-fascists, lost souls in orange vests or football ultras in serious withdrawal from Sundays at the stadium. More embers smouldering underneath a country that has already been burned by the pandemic.
Will we waste this too?
One could wonder if there is anyone out there that can put out the fire, find order in this disorder and draw up a serious plan of reforms — and explain it to the European Commission as it distributes Recovery Fund aid. Among increased spending capacity because of the relaxed borrowing rules, EU funds and savings from the European Central Bank's purchasing plan, Italy could come to count on a massive 200 billion euros.
Will we waste this too, or will we be able to use it to change the identity and future of the country? Once again, we reckon with a frightening lack of leadership.
I'm sorry to bring up Germany again. Just three days ago, the German government approved what the Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier called "the greatest stimulus program of all time." Worth 130 billion euros, the plan is predicted to boost the GDP by 4% and adds to the 353-billion euro plan approved in March and to the 817-billion euro state guarantees Germany announced in April. No tax breaks for this or that category: just VAT cuts worth 20 billion euros. As for the rest, strong incentives to public and private investments in digital networks, infrastructure, electric cars.
To approve the measures, Chancellor Angela Merkel basically held the Grosse Koalition hostage, keeping the leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) locked up in a room, where they negotiated for 21 straight hours. Then she came out, a bit tattered, but nothing like Louis XVI — and with the agreement in hand, ready for printing in the official journal and end up in the pockets of ordinary Germans. Its title was very simple: "Boom," which Italians have been waiting for 50 years to see.