Tuesday, September 15, 2015

As Cameron flies EasyJet, Renzi takes private plane to US Open final

Not too long ago, the British public went wild over some pictures portraying PM David Cameron eating Pringles on an EasyJet flight, as he was flying to Portugal to join his wife and kids on holiday. To an Italian, whether he was eating Pringles or having tea is quite irrelevant. The fact that he was on a low-cost flight is enough to cause surprise.
Something similar happened in Italy a few months ago, when the newly elected President Mattarella took a regular Alitalia flight from Rome to Palermo. This was the first time that a President had flown on a commercial plane since President Pertini, who did so a few times in the 1980s. It was indeed quite shocking to see such a “humble” behaviour, as this is definitely not typical in Italian politics. On the other hand, Cameron was mocked for his Pringles more than complimented for being so “frugal” to fly EasyJet.

Matteo Renzi with US Open finalists Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta

Just a few days ago, in stark contrast with Cameron, Italian PM Matteo Renzi was criticised for taking a private plane to New York, in order to watch the all-Italian women's US Open final. To be there, he cancelled all his commitments, which included the “Fiera del Levante” (“Fair of the South”), an annual event held to discuss the economy of southern Italy. He justified his presence at the match by saying that a final where both tennis players are Italian marks an important moment in the history of the country, and he had to be there to show support to “the girls”. He added that the “Fiera del Levante will be there next year”. Nevertheless, Renzi is ignoring legitimate criticisms for taking a private flight at the expenses of the taxpayers, labelling them as “populism”. According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, such flight cost between 150,000 and 200,000 euros (http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2015/09/15/voli-di-stato-quellaereo-si-chiama-peculato/2036669/).
Renzi has been talking for years about the need to cut travel costs for Italian politicians, who are entitled to the so-called “blue cars”. He symbolically “sold” a few blue cars on EBay shortly after becoming PM in 2014, to show his will to reduce their number. Nevertheless, now Renzi seems a lot less committed. Lately, he has been travelling almost exclusively by helicopter between Rome and his native Florence. He also took the helicopter to go on a skiing holiday with his family for New Year’s Eve. According to him, he is always forced to do so because of “security reasons”.

One can only wonder what Renzi’s British counterpart might have to say on this matter.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sergio Mattarella is elected President of the Republic

Yesterday morning, the Italian Parliament elected the Republic’ s 12th president: Sergio Matterella. He was elected with 665 votes out of 1009, but 505 would have been enough: after three inconclusive rounds of votes, a candidate only needs to get a simple majority to become President, not an absolute one.
Former President Giorgio Napolitano was the only one in the history of the Republic to be elected twice. He said from the start that he would stay in office only to allow institutional reforms to be passed (as a matter of fact, they have not been finalised yet, but they are close). He resigned in January, after largely anticipating that he would do so.
Mattarella’s election has been called a “political victory” of PM Matteo Renzi, because it was Renzi’s idea to nominate him. Every commentator is saying that Renzi made a very clever move and, overall, a good choice.

Newly-elected Sergio Mattarella and former President Giorgio Napolitano

It was a clever move indeed, because there is very little to object: Mattarella is a perfectly-suited individual for the presidential role. Even being relatively low-profile works to his advantage.
Sergio Mattarella, 73, Sicilian, was a Christian Democratic MP, and he served as a Minister more than once. After the Christian Democratic party disappeared, he joined the newly founded centre-left Margherita, and later on helped to create the current Democratic Party. In 2011, he became a judge of the Constitutional Court.
He is known for his work as a Mafia prosecutor, after his own brother was killed by organized crime.
There is also a good precedent for Mattarella: when in 1990 the Andreotti’s government passed the “Mammi’ law”, a law regulating the Italian media sector according to which Berlusconi’s dominance in the market was de facto legitimised, Matteralla, who back then was the Minister of Education, resigned in sign of protest. These sort of things, which might sound quite normal in the UK, are extremely rare in Italy.
Tim Parks, a British journalist, said that in Britain calling the new President “an honest person” would be an offence to the entire country, because it would imply that someone dishonest either was there before or, in any case, could be there (http://www.ilfattoquotidiano.it/2015/02/01/sergio-mattarella-scrittore-tim-parks-famoso-per-renzi/1388355/). In Italy, it is almost as if we should be thanking the Parliament for electing someone that we can live with.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia did not support Mattarella’s candidacy, although about 40 of his MPs are thought to have voted for him in the end (the President is elected with a secret ballot, so it is very common to see people claiming they would vote X and then vote Y). Also Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement did not vote for Mattarella. They held an online consultation with voters and the candidate who emerged from it was judge Federico Imposimato, honorary President of the Supreme Court. The Five Star Movement was united in supporting him, but as mentioned, at the fourth round of votes a simple majority is enough to elect the President, and they had to admit defeat.
The first “tests” for the newly-elected President will soon be there. Commentators are now wondering whether Mattarella will sign the electoral reform Parliament is currently working on, nicknamed the “Italicum”, which in many respects is quite similar to the current Porcellum (http://italianfactsrd.blogspot.it/2013/04/italian-electoral-system-how-porcellum.html). As a Constitutional judge, Mattarella declared the Porcellum “unconstitutional”. While the President of the Republic in his role as Head of State does not play a role in initiating legislation, he can refuse to sign a bill and send it back to Parliament to be amended if he considers it "unconstitutional", since his job is ultimately to make sure that the Constitution is always respected. We should, then, expect Mattarella to send back the Italicum. More in general, the country is waiting to see if he will be willing to assert himself, or of he will just sign whatever the executive places in front of him. Needless to say, an "Anti-Mafia President" would be a blessing, considering the latest corruption scandals.

Good luck to President Mattarella, and, as always, good luck, Italy. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Corruption in Italian Politics- NY Times: "Virtually no corner of Italy is immune to criminal penetration"

Italy has recently regained worldwide attention because of a very unflattering title: most corrupt country in the EU. Transparency International in its annual Corruption Index ranked Italy 69th out of 175 countries, last in the EU together with Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. The result was the same in 2013, and, believe it or not, it was actually an improvement from 2012, when Italy was ranked 72nd.
Shortly after the report was published, “Mafia Capitale” exploded. It emerged that a criminal organization operating in Rome, and a local one, not a transplanted “traditional” mafia, had deep-rooted links to local politics, police and business.
The New York Times described Italy as a “country where corruption is taken for granted as a part of daily life and that “no corner of Italy is immune from criminal penetration”, not without a reason.
That corruption is found everywhere in the country, and not only in the southern regions, is quite clear now. Two very prominent cases that were uncovered during the last months in northern Italy are Expo 2015 and the MOSE project. These are examples of what in academia is known as “grand corruption”, aka the payment of a bribe in order to obtain a major contract.

The 2015 Universal Exposition is supposed to take place next year in Milan. Starting in May 2014, a series of scandals saw members of all the main political parties arrested and investigated for irregularities in awarding public contracts. The extent of the problem is believed to be so large that Raffaele Cantone, the magistrate who is President of the new-born National Anti-corruption Authority, was nominated head of the Expo to monitor the situation. 

Raffaele Cantone, President of the National Anti-corruption Authority

Venice was also shaken by the MOSE investigation. The project of mobile gates to protect the city from flooding recently saw 35 people arrested, including mayor Giorgio Orsoni who eventually negotiated a plea bargain. According to allegations, Orsoni took money to illegally fund his electoral campaign from Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the firm who won the MOSE contract.
In these cases, politicians usually defend themselves saying that those who are caught are a couple of “rotten apples”. Journalist Marco Travaglio claimed that “the basket itself is rotten”, so every good apple goes bad too. In addition, this is also a cultural problem. Magistrate Cantone stresses this point, saying that in Italy there is a “cultural underestimation” of corruption: when a new scandal comes up, “we live moments of daily outrage which vanish shortly after”. He added that the parliament has “different sensibilities” about the topic -he put it in an extremely soft way, to say the least.
PM Matteo Renzi said that the government will introduce a bill that focuses on four main points to fight corruption: longer prison terms so that even if a culprit negotiates a plea bargain he still has to spend some time in jail; easier requisition of culprits’ properties; need for corrupt to pay back everything they stole; longer procedural time limits, so that the corrupt have less chances to get away with it. Cantone said that the latter is a very positive step, although more should be done, such as focusing more on promoting transparency and reuse confiscated properties in a productive way to send a positive message and start changing citizens’ attitudes.

For those who speak Italian, you can watch Cantone’s interview at this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=py5HWWHQ-kE, while Renzi’s message can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rFDC9T0Aps&feature=youtu.be

Monday, July 28, 2014

Italian Senate- Renzi's reform for a non-elected second Chamber

I have discussed the electoral reform that PM Matteo Renzi is trying to pass. There is an even bigger reform that Renzi is determined to achieve though, a constitutional one indeed: the reform of the Italian upper house, or Senate.

Senato della Repubblica

Currently, Italy has a system known as "perfect bicameralism": both chambers are directly elected during the same general election, and have exactly the same authority on every matter, including monetary ones. This is really rare, especially in parliamentary systems; Italy and Romania are indeed the only two countries in the EU with such a system. Perfectly equal chambers are more easily found in presidential systems, where the distribution of powers between executive and legislature is completely different from a parliamentary system. In the latter, it is generally assumed that the government remains within the legislature and as long as it has a majority it manages to pass its bills, and parliament kind of has to deal with that.
In Italy, perfect bicameralism was justified because, after the fascist era, there was the need to prevent the rise of a new dictatorship, and therefore the equal distribution of powers between chambers had a clear and reasonable aim. It might, however, look a bit anachronistic now and, above all, it also has its problems. The main one is that it takes forever for a bill to be approved. The average time of approval for a bill in Europe is around 200 hours, while in Italy it takes around 600 hours. It is also very expensive: the Italian Senate has over 300 members that, on top of a salary, also receive a life annuity even after the end of their mandate.
What Renzi has been advocating is a reform that would turn the Senate into a non-elected chamber, whose members would be nominated by the regions' administrations. He calls this "Senate of (local) Autonomies", and is based on the German upper house, the Bundesrat, whose members are delegates chosen from the state governments. Because they are delegates, they do not perceive an additional salary, and this would save a lot of money. This kind of second chamber serves merely as a consulting body, and its powers would be almost entirely stripped.
Yet, as virtually any reform, this one also has its cons. A non-elected chamber is not accountable to electors, and perfect bicameralism supporters argue that it gives the government too much power. They claim that it would still be possible to reduce the Senate's powers without reducing to a virtually powerless body, and also to reduce its size while keeping it as an elected chamber.
There is a part of the reform that I really do not appreciate, and that is the introduction of legal immunity for senators. First of all, they wouldn't even be elected, so no, being a senator shouldn't grant them immunity. And second of all, considering how many politicians in Italy are found guilty of any sort of crimes, they really shouldn't be rewarded with immunity, because the whole political class simply does not deserve it.
These days the government is struggling to discuss the Senate reform because the opposition (mainly Grillo's M5S) is trying to slow the process down. Renzi claims that he would be willing to meet with all parties again to discuss changes, but that he wants the essence of the reform to stay as it is.

Disagreements are not surprising. Second chambers are widely discussed institutions in the academic world, and there are also arguments in favour of getting rid of them altogether. The main argument goes like "if a upper chamber is the same as the lower one then it is useless, and if it is different from the lower one it is pernicious". Truth is, the perfect system does not and will never exist, and radically different systems can work equally well where there is the political willingness to make them work. I am afraid that in Italy we can reform the Senate as much as we want, but as long as the political culture remains unchanged, the country will not benefit at all. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

“Europe selfie would show face of boredom”- Renzi opens Italian presidency of the EU

On Wednesday, Italy took over the presidency of the EU, taken up in turn every six months by a member state. PM Matteo Renzi opened the Italian semester with a speech in Brussels.
Renzi’s speech did not focus on the programmatic issues that Italy wants to work on during its presidency. The programme, he said, was printed and he would offer it to the council so that he wouldn’t have to go through it during his speech. Instead, Renzi gave a speech meant to be inspirational, because, while financial and economic issues mattered a lot to Italy, he wants this semester to be about more than finance.

Renzi addressing the European Parliament

Renzi opened by stating that “If Europe took a selfie today, it would show a face of tiredness, of resignation. In one word, a face of boredom”.
He continued by stating that when we think of the EU, all that comes to mind is the spread and the financial crisis. Because of this, “the real challenge our continent is facing today is the need to find again Europe’s soul, the deep meaning of being together”. He added that there is no point in unifying only our bureaucracies, because in that case “we Italians have enough of our own bureaucracy”.
He then mentioned the “Stability and Growth Pact” in the most controversial passage of his speech, claiming that on top of stability there must be growth as that is fundamental for the EU as a whole.
In his speech, Renzi also urged the UK not to leave the EU because “Europe without the UK would be less rich, less Europe, less itself”.
He also said that Europe is physically a frontier, and he reminded the problem of migrants from North Africa, a real challenge for Italy these days. He added that he hopes that the EU will be seen not only as a place of investments and wealth, but in light of its human dimension, because Europe represents “a lighthouse of civilization” and we should be proud of this.
Renzi closed his speech by stating that we are a “Telemachus Generation”, referring to Ulysses’s son who spent years trying to find out where his father was and looking for him before he went back to Ithaca. Renzi said that we need to deserve the legacy of our fathers, seen not as gift but as a conquest to renew every day.  

Inspirational as it was, Renzi’s speech has attracted various, legitimate criticisms claiming that he was just speaking empty words rather than focusing on facts, for his choice of not discussing the programme. Also, his insistence on the importance of growth caused the German Bundesbank to state that accumulating debt does not create growth. This point is likely to lead to huge disagreements between Italy and Germany, and while today the Italian Minister of Economy Padoan stated that “Everything is ok with Germany”, new arguments are certainly ahead of us.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Electoral reform: Renzi meets with M5S- Italicum vs Democratellum

Last Wednesday, PM Matteo Renzi and three delegates of his Partito Democratico met with delegates from Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) in order to discuss the M5S proposals for a new electoral law.
This was the first meeting the two delegations had which resulted in a productive discussion. Whether or not other tangible results will follow is yet unclear, but this meeting itself was a novelty, and it showed a new attitude from M5S.
Until now, and mostly as a result of Beppe Grillo’s intransigent policy, M5S always refused to discuss any possible form of collaboration with traditional political parties, seen as corrupted and out of touch with ordinary citizens.
In fact, when Renzi was appointed PM in February he asked right away to meet with M5S to find some convergence on institutional reforms. Beppe Grillo thought that the movement should not have agreed to such meeting. In the end, following an online consultation with the activists, such meeting took place. Beppe Grillo himself went, but he refused to listen to Renzi and just ended up making a monologue in front of the numerous journalists who had gathered there.
Months after that episode, a new willingness to meet with the Partito Democratico shows a change in mood. M5S must have realized that being always exclusively in opposition does not achieve much. This time the idea of a meeting was suggested by M5S, and Renzi agreed.

M5S delegation (on the left) from left to right: Maurizio Buccarella (upper chamber group leader), Luigi di Maio, Danilo Toninelli, Giuseppe Brescia (lower chamber group leader)
Partito Democratico delegation (on the right) from left to right: Debora Serracchiani (vice party secretary), Alessandra Moretti (MEP), Matteo Renzi (PM and party leader) and Roberto Speranza (group leader)

The meeting was held in front of live webcams, as M5S always demands transparency. All the talking was done by Renzi from the Democratic side and by Danilo Toninelli, main author of the M5S electoral reform proposal, and Luigi Di Maio, deputy speaker of the lower chamber, from the M5S front. If anything, this meeting might have shown that M5S prides some smart individuals, as both Toninelli and Di Maio were highly prepared and articulate. Renzi, on the other hand, showed his habitual confidence in front of the camera and seemed to have really studied the draft proposed by M5S.
I will now briefly compared the main points of the electoral reform Renzi previously discussed with Berlusconi, and that he is still advocating, currently baptized “Italicum” and the main points of M5S proposal, drafted mainly by Toninelli after a series of online consultations with members, named “Democratellum”.

Italicum (Renzi- Berlusconi)
-Majoritarian nature: plurality bonus which would automatically give to the first party or coalition above a threshold of 37% a majority of seats. This should ensure “governability”
-If the 37% threshold is not met by any list, the first two coalitions or parties go to a run-off vote
-Closed lists: candidates are selected by parties, no preferences
-125 constituencies, but seats allocated only on a national basis
-Threshold at 4.5% for parties in coalitions, 8% for parties running individually and 12% for coalitions
-To be used only for the lower chamber, as Renzi is also pushing through a reform to make the upper chamber, the Senate, non-elected

Democratellum (M5S)
-Proportional nature: 42 constituencies (some really large ones, likely to have too many candidates), seats to be allocated following an amended divisor for the D’Hondt method which would over-represent big parties and under-represent small parties, according to the principle “more votes, more seats and viceversa” (for the geeky ones like me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D'Hondt_method)
-Open lists: voters to be able to cast a preference for a candidate, not necessarily from the party they are voting for ("disjointed preference")
-“Negative preference”: voters to be allowed to erase the name of a candidate from the party list. This should encourage parties to candidate appropriate people (eg without a criminal record)
-Coalition formations do not have to be agreed before the election, to avoid pre-electoral compromises

Renzi made it very clear that while he thought that it had a lot of “interesting points”, in his view the Democratellum still did not ensure “governability”, meaning a clear mandate allowing the winner to govern the country, because such a proportional system would always lead to a big coalition government. The main question that Renzi asked the M5S delegation was: “Would you be open to consider the introduction of a run-off vote?”. If M5S said yes, future talks might be possibile. M5S, on the other hand, pressed for the introduction of preferences.
Di Maio today announced that they are ready for a second meeting with Renzi. We'll see.

For those of you who speak Italian, here is the video of the meeting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yt45PtmBO7A&feature=youtu.be

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beppe Grillo meets Nigel Farage to discuss possible alliance

If Italy is celebrating Renzi’s victory, the UK is dealing with UKIP’s feared triumph in the European election. The Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party came first with 24 MEPs, beating both Labour and the Conservatives, not to mention the Liberal Democrats who only have one MEP now.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage has claimed several times that UKIP would never go into any sort of alliance with Le Pen’s Front National, accusing the French party of being “racist”. While more than a few people would argue that UKIP is quite racist itself, Farage is playing clever politics by trying to keep his distance.

                                                    Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farage

The same cannot be said of Beppe Grillo. UKIP is openly a right-wing party, but Grillo’s M5S has always prided itself of being super partes, belonging neither to the left or the right. And because of this, Grillo has, in my view, made a very silly move by meeting Farage. The two leaders met yesterday for lunch in Brussels, and it looks like they really hit it off.
I mentioned this in my previous post: in Italy nobody seemed to care if this was a European election and not a general one. They merely portrayed it as a battle “Renzi vs Grillo”, since it is quite evident that now Renzi and Grillo are the two main players and Berlusconi is far less influent than he used to be. Even now everyone is trying to figure out where Grillo went wrong in terms of electoral campaign. They mention things such as using tones that sounded too harsh (his swearing, his referring to himself as being “beyond Hitler”, his joke about vivisecting Berlusconi’s dog…). But again, nobody is focusing on his positions about the EU. In a European election, are we sure that those really mattered so little…?
Actually, the fact that M5S lost some of its electors could also be linked to its refusal to decide which parliamentary group to join. M5S activists kept claiming that they would gain enough MEP to create their own group, but since this hypothesis was quite unlikely, I think some people feared that they would end up not joining a group and therefore being in a very weak position, incapable of influencing any decision. By joining forces with UKIP, M5S might certainly be more likely to carry some weight in Brussels. However, this move is not looking too popular in Italy, and it raises questions about the lack of internal democracy in Grillo’s movement.
Grillo claimed that if the movement were to join any group, it would do so following an online consultation with its members. But this did not happen. Grillo flew to Brussels to meet Farage without consulting anyone, and actually he wanted to keep their meeting a secret. In Italy people found out about it because Grillo ran into the Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, at the airport, and Salvini tweeted that Grillo was on his plane. Today some M5S activists are complaining about the meeting, claiming that UKIP is not dissimilar from Front National and that M5S should stay away from such parties. This doesn’t change the fact that the meeting already happened, and that Farage and Grillo certainly liked each other.
Grillo claims he has no influence over M5S members, and indeed he is not even a member of parliament. Yet he has, on several occasions, expelled members, sometimes for trivial reasons such as going on TV without the movement’s consent. And now, Grillo can meet other European leaders and discuss possible alliances without anyone’s permission.

For now, one thing is quite clear. It’s true that M5S is not left-wing and is not right-wing. It’s Beppe Grillo’s.