Fellowship of Destiny

We are about to lose Italy, and I mean it quite literally. For her own but also for Europe’s sake, this must not happen. The precious reader may consider my assessment of the situation utterly implausible, think that I am exaggerating Italy’s importance in the European context or the possible consequences of failing to recognise and address her misery properly. In this case, especially if you are European, please take the time to reconsider your opinion — and read on.

Map: Italian regions and provinces

Source: Wikimedia — Public Domain.

I cannot possibly be expected to forecast any or all of the consequences accurately. Nations do not go down in a flurry, countries do not fall like houses of cards, even though they may sometimes give this impression in retrospect.

Italy, and even more so Europe, is a complex socio–economic system, depending on (and influenced by) too many individual factors to properly count or seriously anticipate. Even seemingly small events — considered rather insignificant at the time — may change the course of history utterly, while others — assumed rather dramatic at first — may pass without lasting effect.

Consequently, I would be a fool to allege that anything offered here (as direct consequences) is inevitable. Nevertheless, it is safe to state that none are utterly impossible. The mere possibility should be reason enough to thoroughly consider the issues and causes discussed — and properly address them while there is time.

Is an “Italexit” Conceivable and What Could Be the Consequences of a Secession?

Of course, in theory, virtually everything is “conceivable”. Yet considering the practical implications of Italy’s secession from the European Union (EU), this is an option we should not even begin to think about. Unlike the “Brexit”, an “Italexit” (or whatever you would prefer to call this venture) would shake the foundations of the Italian state.

Whether or not the EU could possibly survive another secession is not the question — she certainly could and most likely would. The challenge all of Europe would face were a geographically (and to some extent also politically and economically) isolated, failing state in a geopolitically sensitive area at our doorstep.

What the Union cannot afford, however, is another bailout — at least none of such proportions. This is not a matter of will but rather one of financial means. If anyone thought “Operation Saving Greece” was a prohibitively expensive venture, one might want to reconsider this assessment in the light of the following numerical data.

Italy’s nominal GDP is about ten times that of Greece’s. In 2017, Italy’s GDP share in the Eurozone was 15.3%, while Greece’s was at 1.6%. To give the matter an everyday dimension: that’s the difference between buying a Bella Ciao Ingegnere (an Italian bicycle) or a Fiat 500 (a popular Italian car) to run your daily errands.

In financial terms, an “Italexit” would hurt the EU (as a union of national economies) less than any joint effort to compensate for the economic failure of her third largest member (not counting the UK, as the “Brexit” would be complete before either a possible exit or bailout of Italy could even commence).

Yes, the loss of Italy would cause quite some commotion for the EU in terms of infrastructure and administration: e.g., several important Mediterranean ports would suddenly be located outside the territory of the European Union, external border lines would have to be redrawn, certain EU agencies would have to be relocated, and so on. Yet compared to the economic (and inevitably resulting political and societal) consequences of several massive rescue packages, these rearrangements may be considered small fry.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

For Italy, either option (exit or bailout) would sooner or later lead to collapse — but so will the continuation of the status quo. The only contentious issue in this context, I think, remains whether political upheaval would be the cause or effect of economic degeneration.

Any attempt to rescue Italy financially would lead to (or at least be seen in certain circles as) a modern form of vassalage. Yet letting her down could cause the matter to assume geopolitical proportions (at least as far as several regions in southeastern Europe are concerned), sooner or later.

A “soft exit” — e.g., Italy leaving the monetary union but remaining in the common market — is difficult to imagine (and would be even more difficult to negotiate). The powers that be (on either side of the table) would most certainly not come to terms. Moreover, this (just like a “hard exit”) would not solve Italy’s currently most persistent political problem: the seemingly unsolvable “refugee issue”.

The political administration in Brussels is not able to make convincing offers at her own discretion, and Italy, on the other hand, is not in the position to demand as much, as she has nothing left to offer in return.

A “hard exit” would isolate her both in the theoretical and practical sense, politically as well as strategically — and, of course, also economically. While it may seem difficult (or nearly impossible) to some in Italy, at the moment, to secure the EU’s external border and deal with waves of economic refugees (practically sans support of fellow members), the impact of finding oneself on the “wrong” side of this line would be considerably more difficult to cope with.

It would, for example, mean that Trentino–South Tyrol (the economically most successful region in Italy) would be “cut off” the principal land route to Germany, as Austria would be obliged to permanently close (or at least rigidly control) the southern end of the Brenner Pass (Passo del Brennero). Indirectly, this would also affect neighbouring Lombardy (contributing appr. one–fifth of Italy’s GDP).

The provinces Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Veneto, and to some extent also Emilia–Romagna would be affected by closed borders in Carinthia and Slovenia, while Piedmont would suffer from all direct routes to France being closed.

Considering that Germany and France are Italy’s largest trading partners, this measure (rearrangement of EU’s external borders) alone would already have a severe impact on several economic sectors (we are not even talking about possible tariffs yet, but merely about raised prices due to a complicated exchange of goods).

It would also mean that Italy would have to thoroughly revise her energy supply concept, as operating power plants on EU soil exclusively (Italy discontinued her nuclear power development programme altogether in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and turned to outsource nuclear power supply to France and Slovakia) would leave her vulnerable in terms of energy management.

[Author’s note: Thanks to reader CrocoDuck O’Ducks I realised that this last paragraph is misleading. Italy does have plants utilising various power sources on her own territory, only the nuclear power development programme was discontinued.

The notion that she would have to revise her energy supply concept was informed by several reports (among those European energy market reform, Country profile: Italy by Deloitte) over the past few years all of which seemed to agree that energy costs in Italy are unusually high as a result of her strong dependence on natural gas. This led me to conclude that they are trying to cut costs by importing cheap nuclear power.

Yet Enel (owned by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance) did sell her holding in Slovakia in 2015 and owns only 5% of Powernext in France.]

Without even the (at least theoretical) opportunity to negotiate a resettlement, Italy would have no option left but to close all her Mediterranean ports for arriving refugees (which would most likely be understood as an infringement of international agreements rather than an “act of self–defence” by many parties).

This in itself could be viewed as a sign of imminent political instability and lead to a reduction of credit ratings (which would make it more difficult and costly for her to borrow fresh money for years, perhaps decades, to come).

The infamous north–south divide (separating the industrial north from the agricultural south), having influenced Italian economic statistics for decades, would widen even further and eventually gain enough relevance to cause several of the northern provinces to seek political and economic independence from Rome (the usual prime suspects in this respect: Trentino–South Tyrol, Lombardy, and Venezia). The downward spiral would turn faster and faster (especially in the southern provinces) until Italy as we know her today would cease to exist.

The Cup Will Not Pass from Us

To think “this cup will pass from us” of its own accord, arguing that “unstable governments have a tradition in Italy, she will eventually also overcome current difficulties”, is contemptibly naive.

While it is true that since 1861, with the exception of Benito Mussolini’s fascist trolls, no prime minister has managed to compose even one full–term government, it is also true that Italy’s political orientation since the end of the Second World War has not changed as dramatically as in the past twenty–four years (triggered by Berlusconi I).

Everyone who has spent more than a weekend at the carnival in Venice or at a fashion show in Milan cannot possibly have missed that the societal tensions between the people in the north and south are more than tongue–in–cheek teasing and amiable banter.

No one who has observed the political development of the past three decades will have missed that, especially in the north, nationalist and separatist movements have gained momentum in recent years. Gli anni di piombo (the years of lead) may well be over, but gli anni della distruzione (the years of destruction) may be yet to come. This is not what any sane European could possibly want.

We Need to Help Italy Help Herself

One way or the other, each and every European country would benefit from a genuine effort to help Italy help herself, while all populist excesses (on either end of the political scale, in Italy and elsewhere in Europe), such as constantly fanning the (comprehensible) fear that economic refugees would jeopardize domestic jobs and cause crime rates across Europe to rise (both favourite arguments of poltergeists on the far right) or stubbornly ignoring uncomfortable issues (the political approach of hopeless dreamers on the far left), will harm us in the long run.

To arrive at a consensus that affords a dignified solution for everyone without leaving behind anyone, political and economic issues need to be considered with an open mind and discussed without bias.

Granted, unrestrained devotion to the spirit of optimism as a result of the Deutsches Wirtschaftswunder (lit., German economic miracle) was leftist nonsense and short–sighted political practice (the shortcomings of policies of those days are still influencing factors of today’s issues), but to indulge unconditionally in the agony caused by both the economic and refugee crises is rightist baloney of identical order. It seems to me that some parties in Europe have come to enjoy their self–assumed victim role a hint too much.

Eventually, all member states will have to step up and support Italy in dealing with economic refugees. (Yes, I am aware that this cannot possibly be a long–term solution, but to stubbornly invoke the Dublin Agreement — whether or not the Geneva Convention is applicable — cannot not be a solution, either.)

To exploit high unemployment rates in individual member states as an excuse for refusing to admit refugees, is polemical and lacks all reference to political and economic realism. We do need sufficiently skilled foreign workers, especially in leading industrialised countries, today, as much as we needed foreign labour prepared to fulfil poorly paid low–key tasks in the 1960s.

If for a different reason: Due to the progressive aging of most European nations, we are already lacking skilled labour in almost all sectors of the economy. After all, the “baby boomers” are to retire anytime soon — and many industries across Europe are already desperately seeking suitable apprentices and employees (also as a result of failed education policies of several decades).

In this respect, it is unreasonable to expect Brussels “to provide a quick fix”, as any approach at the supranational level would instantly meet with opposition in individual member states — and for one good reason: The EU cannot hope to provide this service in a satisfactory manner unless individual member states eventually do their homework. It will take a genuine effort on all levels to solve this issue — and it needs to be approached from the basis.

With reliable statistics (required number of employees, their professional qualifications and language skills, as well as the maximum number of integrable individuals per member state), provided and regularly updated by individual countries, it would be possible to draft practical guidelines and policies and develop the required infrastructure and standardised procedures. Without these figures, all efforts would be love’s labour lost.

It is astonishing (and somewhat disturbing) that after nearly seven decades (since the Treaty of Paris) many political actors still appear to have no idea as to how supranationality may be put to good use.

The Right to Live Does Not Include the Right to Live Better

It should go without saying that the Geneva Convention is not negotiable (i.e., refugees of war and victims of oppression anywhere in the world are to be protected from harm). And the Dublin Regulation makes sense as far as the country where a person has initially sought asylum remains responsible for evaluating the application.

Yet Geneva and Dublin should not be understood (or even applied) as complementary or mutually exclusive. That is to say, a person considered vulnerable according to the Geneva Convention (refugees of war and arbitrary oppression) are to be granted asylum across EU territory, regardless of the country of application.

Contrary to (repeatedly reported) common practice, this cannot mean this person has choice of location. A safe haven is a safe haven, wherever this may ultimately be in Europe. Logic has it that asylum seekers cannot wander freely about Europe, trying to find the country that best meets their expectations — not even citizens of any one EU member state are entitled to do so — applying for asylum here and there along their way.

Such is not only questionable practice, it also supplies cheap fodder for the propaganda machinery of trolls huddling in the far right corner.

On the other hand, it is equally unreasonable to expect the few countries in Europe where an initial application is (under normal circumstances) even possible to entertain all refugees of war and oppression until their application has been successfully processed and shelter them ever after.

The right to asylum is a human right and an ethical obligation — there cannot be two minds about it. Yet the Geneva Convention covers the right to live, not the right to live better (and the document is unlikely to be extended to include economic grievances as grounds for asylum anytime soon).

Stubbornly ignoring this principle and relying on emotional reasoning ultimately fosters anti–democratic forces across Europe. It doesn’t take a signed–up right–wing nationalist to realise that certain circles on the left end of the political spectrum have long since departed from any form of realism.

We Need Agreeable Standards Across Europe

“Undzer eygn mishpokhe ershter” (our own kin first), is per se not a nationalist sociopolitical approach but a natural aspect of human nature (even when it’s uttered by parties otherwise considered to lean towards extreme “isms” by many). Yet it turns nationalistic when individual muppets think their own tribe is intellectually or humanely superior and therefore must be protected even at the expense of others — and act accordingly. This is when it gets disgusting.

We, the peoples of Europe, must eventually realise that the only path into a better future lies ahead. Backward thinking and acting will not only give us no advantages, but, in the not–so–long run, do us more harm than good.

We need to finally depart from unreasonable conservative ideologies and the absurd social snobbery of having once been someone. Our only salvation lies in sound cooperation, not in stubborn opposition.

To this end, we need standards and a reasonable use of supranational structures (instead of complaining about them for tactical reasons in election campaigns).

Why do we, for example, not introduce a standardised education system to ensure equal levels of knowledge for all graduates — irrespective of type of school — anywhere in Europe? (If anyone happens to think we already do have such a system, please explain the considerable differences in results of individual PISA tests across Europe.)

The terrible truth is that we do not grant everyone equal access to adequate education (whether by intention, ignorance, or negligence), which is why some countries now have an integration problem (in social as well as economic terms) with third–generation citizens (the grandchildren of former immigrant workers) who feel (and in fact were) left behind.

Without a uniform minimum of education, it is impossible to make general statements about Europe’s state of development — in terms of language skills, common values, or cultural background, to name but a few — and therefore perfectly unreasonable to expect equal or at least comparable achievements from others. This is arbitrary selection in its least worthy form — and the diametrical opposite of meaningful inclusion.

With a guaranteed general level of education and a common official language — be it English (as a globally accepted lingua franca) or German (as the most widely spoken language within the EU) or French (as the traditional language of diplomacy); I really don’t care — it would not only be possible to level out internal mismanagement more effectively and efficiently, we could also better communicate our common goals to the outside world.

In other words, we (individual member states) could meet at eye level and effectively help each other out before disaster strikes and, at the same time, make it clear that economic refugees will not have a promising future in our midst unless they happen to meet our common criteria — that is to say, sufficient language skills (common language in the first place and the individual national language of the potential destination in the second), common European values, and respect for a commonly agreed cultural background.

To invoke spongy formulations of existing international agreements — whether they actually may or may not be applicable in individual cases — is not helpful. This approach leaves too much room for individual interpretation and exploit, and ultimately fosters false hope among the most desperate.

At the end of the day, it is safe to state that no member state may deny her responsibility for the current state of the European Union in general and Italy’s situation in particular. We all have contributed to it by our own ignorance, by indifference, or simply by negligence, and therefore it is only just that we all participate in settling the matter without further drama — for Italy’s sake and ultimately also our own.