Italy celebrates150 years while the world falls apart...

Grinzane Cavour - Castle - 04 - 03.08.07Cavour's castle at Grinzane Image by mastino70 via Flickr
In the face of war waged by Qaddafi in Libya, just across the sea, at perhaps 15 or 20 minutes by military jet, Italy tried yesterday to celebrate its 150 years of unification.

Why 17 March?

Because that's the date - 17 March 1861 - when the newly assembled Italian Parliament voted to turn Italy into a monarchy with the King of Sardegna, Piedmont and Savoia, served so well by Cavour (in the role of Prime Minister since 1852) as King of Italy.

The coronation of Vittorio Emmanuele II marked the final point of Cavour's efforts to unify Italy against numerous contrary winds, not least blowing from the South with the Bourbons of Naples who viewed Giuseppe Garibaldi's famous expedition in Southern Italy as a bunch of bandits causing havoc.  Three months later, on 6 June 1861, Cavour was dead, apparently of malaria, a disease he had contracted in his youth.

The celebration comes at such a difficult time for Italy that all the hesitations, ditherings and refusals, particularly from the separatist Lega Nord party, got ample coverage in both the national and international press. The Lega sent only two of its 85 parliamentaries to participate in the official celebrations in Rome. Bolzano (the capital of South Tyrol) feeling very Austrian for the occasion, refused to participate altogether. Then, of course, Berlusconi managed to receive catcalls when he appeared in the streets.

And there was the usual bureaucratic mess: 17 March was declared a national holiday - something many felt Italy did not need in these dire recession times - and shopkeepers were told that closing shop was optional...but that they needed a permission from the Comune to do so! Result: rather than queue up at the Comune to get permission to stay open, most opted to close down.

There is one fundamental problem haunting Italy and that hasn't been resolved in 150 years: the Mezzogiorno disaster - or if you prefer a more ascetic term: the north-south divide. Southern Italy - a market of some 20 million people - is still suffering from acute under-development, with average income almost half that of the North. Recent income statistics (2007) show that Northern Italy's average per cap income was some 25% higher than the European Union average, while Southern Italy's stood more than 30% lower! That means real, acute poverty in the South.

And yet...Back in 1861, at the time of unification, Southern Italy was richer than the North. It had two central banks (out of the 5 Italy had at the time) with huge gold reserves (in Palermo and Naples). Those reserves were entirely drained out to pay for the Kingdom of Piedmont's debts caused by, inter alia, the very wars of unification.  In other words, the South was made to pay for the unification.

But it doesn't end there. Serious historians (among them famous Francesco Saverio Nitti) have calculated that the amount of gold available in the South at the time added up to the formidable figure of 443 million of gold Lire on a grand total of 664 million for the whole of Italy. In other words, some 70 percent of the country's wealth was in the South at the time of unification. Today, the proportions are reversed. The historian Dennis Mack Smith reports in his remarkable book, Modern Italy A Political History (1997 - U. of Michigan Press), that a tax study published in 1910 found that Northern Italy at the time had 48 % of the nation's wealth and paid 40% of the nation's taxes, while the South with 27% of the wealth paid a whopping 32% of the nation's taxes. So the depredation was on-going still, some fifty years after the so-called "unification". Talk of fiscal justice...

Are you surprised? I must confess I am not (being married to a Sicilian, I am well aware of how Southern Italians harbour this burning feeling of having been depredated). But the facts are incontrovertible. The Northern Italians acted in the South as conquerors, not as "unifiers". And when I use that word "unifier", I mean people who try their best to merge a country's different regions and create a national identity. The conquering Northern Italians never attempted to unify the country economically, the way Western Germany has just done with its Eastern part, transferring funds, supporting education, opening up jobs etc. Sure, the merger hasn't been perfect, there have been hiccups, and Eastern Germany still has to catch up with Western Germany. But most of the job is done. In Italy the job hasn't been started - not really: it is sufficient to see there are no solid results from the (now defunct) Cassa per il Mezzogiorno and all the other half-baked attempts that have followed.

But now the situation has become truly dire: the Lega wants "federalism" at all costs, which means the transfer of tax returns from Rome (the centralized government) to the regions and comunes. At first glance, decentralized taxation may even sound good: every region gets to keep its own money and do with it what it wants. The North will no longer see its money go to the South. That means however one thing:  prodded by the Lega (and Berlusconi who doesn't care about the South - all he sees is that the Lega is the one political ally he still has), the North will never pay back for the historic depredation of the South, when it acted as a winner-take-all, carrying all the gold home and never turning back to try and rebuild what it had brought down...So Italy's "unification", after 150 years, is still a far goal, and receding fast into the distance...

Then, to all this mess, add the fact that Libya is a major supplier of oil and gas to Italy, and you get quite an infernal brew. Little to be happy about...

Still, let's hope Italy, with its proverbial know-how, optimism and arte di arrangiarsi will solve its problems and live another happy, spensierati 150 years!

I really wish that with all my heart: it's such a beautiful country, the cradle (or at least one of the major cradles) of our civilization, and I'm very happy to live here. It would be so nice to see Italy pull itself and become finally One!
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