Geopolitics

What A German Dreams For Italy

(Hint: it won't ever come true)

It looks so good...
It looks so good...
Stefan Ulrich

-Essay-

This was the dream: Italy’s citizens honor Mario Monti’s commitment to reform and Monti’s party becomes the strongest in Parliament. With the moderate left under Pierluigi Bersani, it forms a stable government that continues on the path of reform. Meanwhile, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement comes in third, and as the opposition keeps pumping for reform. In the doghouse sits Silvio Berlusconi, who ruined Italy economically, politically and morally.

Berlin, and in fact the whole European Union, were dreaming this dream because it’s in their interests for Italy to do well. And now for the brutal wake-up to reality: only one Italian in 10 voted for Monti. The elections were an opera buffa, but a truly unfunny comic opera. A cunning faun, half-human, half-goat, and a fulminating clown were the surprise winners.

Berlusconi and his coalition are now nearly as strong as the left in parliament. Grillo’s party got more votes than any other single party, with Bersani and Berlusconi both relying on allied parties. Together, Berlusconi and Grillo, both of whom rail against the EU, took 55% of the vote. Monti and Bersani cannot govern. It’s not only a disaster for Italy, it’s a disaster for Europe.

Why are the Italians doing this to themselves and the continent? One possible reason is that many Italians simply no longer believe in the state and the common good. Their hopes for change have been dashed for decades. Whether they voted Christian Democrat, Communist, Berlusconi or the reform-minded left, not much changed in the inflated, ineffective, and corrupt party state – except that taxes went up.

Facing frustration with their own country, Italians used to turn to Europe. No other people was as gung-ho as they were about the EU. But Italians no longer perceive Brussels as an anchor, but rather just a sinker, pulling Italy down.

Monti’s reforms have made the lives of many Italians worse, at least for now. Young people still have trouble finding fixed employment. Older people can barely manage on their pensions. The economy is in recession. The German “reform realism” that imbues the EU is seen as a hostile diktat.

To many Italians, the cure was worse than the disease, and Monti and Bersani – and Berlin and Brussels with them – were unable to make them see it differently.

Old fights, new beginnings

People everywhere who feel their situation is hopeless are attracted by demagogues. Berlusconi embodies the cynicism of the disappointed, the “it’s okay to do whatever you have to to make a few euros” kind of cynicism. Before the elections, he promised Italians they would be reimbursed billions in tax money. There’s a name for promises like that: buying votes.

Grillo on the other hand is the Utopian, the great cleaner-out of the Augean stables, the New Beginnings man.

These elections also mark a change of system for Italy. The First Republic after the war was dominated by the Christian Democrats who allied with small parties and governed from the middle. That system gradually succumbed to corruption. In the early 1990s Berlusconi came along and promised a better Second Republic, a U.S.-style bipartisan system that would alternate between the right and the left, and in so doing, strengthen Italy. The idea wasn’t bad, but it failed.

Historically, Italy has tended to a kind of angry dualism: Guelphs vs Ghibellines, Don Camillo vs Peppone, North vs South, Lazio vs Roma soccer rivalry. Now the Berlusconi bloc and the left are facing off, and both of them have a major weakness: Berlusconi is clearly not about reforms, but rather his own power and business interests; and the left is prey to constant bickering within its own ranks.

The Third Republic shows an Italy divided in three: Berlusconi’s right, Bersani’s left and Grillo’s angry men. For Italy to have a government, two of the big three have to form a coalition – something that’s difficult to impossible right now. The left can never trust Berlusconi, and he’s more unpresentable than ever at the European level.

Grillo on the other hand has made it clear he thinks all the others are corrupt deadbeats. Nobody really knows what his party stands for. Yet a fast return to the polls serves nothing if election laws aren’t changed beforehand. And the parties would have to agree on that.

So, right now, Italy seems ungovernable.

Maybe something else is possible: maybe the Grillo movement’s parliament members and the parliament members on the left will discover they have something in common: the well-being of Italy. Maybe Grillo’s angry men will morph into citizen-friendly reformers and govern with the moderate left. That would cut Berlusconi off from power and maybe he could even – finally – be brought to justice! But we're dreaming again...

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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