To my German friends:
No, I am no Berlusconi fan either – I think he has been anything but competent during his terms as prime minister. But let me tell you something: it appears that part of his success is due to German attitudes and policies. Most Italians, or at least those who voted for him, believe that some Berlusconi is just what Germans deserve.
Accept it or not, be it right or not, Berlusconi’s zombie magic is a product of Germany’s foreign policy imposed on Europe. What do Italians hate? Austerity. What did Berlusconi say? No austerity. That’s the simple logic behind his magical return to political influence. If you need more evidence, take a look at the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo: in matters of European policy, his positions bear resemblance to those of Berlusconi. It now appears that Grillo’s party, the “Five Star Movement,” won a staggering 25 percent of the vote in yesterday’s elections. Mario Monti, who was perceived as the trailblazer of austerity measures, stood at a miserable ten percent.
Whenever I am unlucky enough to stumble into a conversation about Berlusconi in Germany (thanks to you, cabbies!), all I hear is: “Do you really think there are alternatives to austerity,” followed by a happy grin and a “How can you keep on voting for the Bunga Bunga guy?”
Let’s answer the first question first. Yes, austerity is idiocy. It does not solve the main issue that led to its introduction: the sustainability of public debt. In Italy, taxes are at 55 percent and public debt keeps on growing. Moreover, high taxes are depressing the economy and are forcing people out of employment. Among younger people the unemployment rate is more than 37 percent. This is also a long-term problem: how can we expect that a person without professional training or experience become an income producer overnight, and thus able to service debt? Austerity is not sustainable, and dissent is exploding.
It’s not just me saying this. The argument has been voiced by people like Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman. Larry Summers, an important economic advisor to US President Obama, recently mentioned during Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show how US states which received the most financial aid funds during the crisis also turned in the best post-crisis performance records. Why should stimulus work in the US but not in Europe? Do we really believe that a crisis-ridden territory is saved through ridiculously increased taxes and ridiculously reduced public spending?
I’m not betting on it. And what is worse: increased taxes prevent reforms. How can anybody pretend to reform a collapsing economy? Do you really think that a country which chooses Berlusconi as its leader is willing to have reforms imposed from the outside? Do you think that a country where people lose their jobs is a country where people would accept a reduction in labor protection? Do you think that a country where parents (and even grand-parents) contribute to the living expenses of their sons and daughters is also a country that would accept a reduction in pension money? Of course not. Hell, no.
Berlusconi is a Samsonian vote against Germany, because many Italians, or at least those that vote for him, believe that Italy has been wronged by the “Euro scam.” Germany is a marvelous country and has remarkable industrial prowess, yet the benefits it is enjoying from the Euro seem to be out of proportion when compared to the country’s merits. There is no real economic reason why in some regions of Germany unemployment is below 4 percent, whereas in Spain it is at 26 percent nationwide. It’s fair to say that Spanish unemployment rates should be higher than in most German federal states, perhaps around ten or twelve percent, if the playing field were level. But the difference between Bavaria’s 3.8 percent and Spain’s skyrocketing unemployment is too extreme to be justified with meritocratic arguments.
The Euro has been a monetary war that has produced winners and losers. We read it in the numbers: since the crisis, Germany has been the only large European economy where unemployment has actually decreased. In France, Italy, Spain, and Greece it increased, especially among younger people.
It is time to start thinking about peace. Germany should imagine Italy and Southern Europe as if they were Russia in the 1990s. Back then, the West decided not to sustain the ruble (Russia’s currency) and basically left the country without political influence. As a result, Russian nationalism flourished. The same phenomenon can be observed in Italy today: Berlusconi and his colleague Beppe Grillo (they are both politicians and comedians, voluntary or not) encapsulate strong nationalist tones in their political messages. This is a normal reaction, given that the only role Italians have been assigned to play has been humiliating: they are the taxpayers in the economic game of chess.
One should think of austerity more or less like a polished version of the “Young Plan” imposed on Germany after the First World War. The amount of war reparations Germany was supposed to pay led to economic turmoil (Europe today: check!), to inflation (check!), and to nationalist reactions (check!). It is time to stop the spiral. Of course, Berlusconi and Grillo aren’t fascists, and we must not fear the rise of another authoritarian dictator. But it’s noticeable that Italy’s new political movements stalwartly focus on the national interest. You already know that Berlusconi does not like Europe and has been disrespectful of Chancellor Angela Merkel. As for Grillo, he advocated holding a referendum about Italian membership in the Eurozone. Guess what the outcome would be…
I know that I eventually have to talk about Bunga Bunga. Let me take a deep, long breath. Inhale, exhale. Ready? Here we go:
The more you mention Bunga Bunga, the stronger you make his inventor. Because Berlusconi’s fans just could not care less about Bunga Bunga. It is horrible, despicable, and amoral. But Berlusconi’s supporters believe that Germans are so obsessed by Italian presidential parties because they are eagerly searching for something – anything! – to criticize Berlusconi. Italians believe that Germans attack Berlusconi because he is a problem for Germany. The reasoning goes: “You gave us austerity, so we give you Berlusconi.”
Let’s be honest: Given the choice between austerity and Berlusconi, most sane people would go for Berlusconi. Many Italians do not care that he has proven himself incapable of managing the country. They are in suicide mode.
So, if you really want to do something for Italy – and possibly for yourself – stop questioning the Bunga Bunga. As for Italians, try to stop thinking about why they should not vote for Berlusconi, and ask why they voted for him. It is a great way to grasp an understanding of Italy, and possibly of the way a country like Germany may shape its new, well-earned European leadership.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes