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Italy and the EU at the Crossroads?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] s announced in my last piece on the issue of Italy’s potential exit from the EU, the omens are not very encouraging and the results of the referendum conducted Sunday the 4th of December confirms it. The PM Matteo Renzi, having lost the referendum he himself called on financial and legislative reforms, has just announced his resignation.

In effect he has lost the confidence of the majority of the Italian people. The populist right wing parties such as Five Stars are of course jubilant. They already won the mayoralty of Rome and now smell victory and power and the eventual withdraw of Italy from the EU. So do the right wing Lega party which would like to eventually dissolve even the Italian national union. They feel that Southern Italian are not real Italians.

Mr. Putin too must be jubilant in as much as the results of the referendum further incentivizes his policy of divide and conquer in Europe and among the Western allies (the so called NATO countries, the Baltics first and foremost). One can safely predict political turmoil in both Italy and the EU in the next year or so, before general elections are held. Given that Italy is the fourth largest economy of the EU, this is a significant event for the whole EU polity.

The question arises: how did we get to this sad state of affairs? To even begin to understand them, as I have reiterated time and again, one needs to go back to the times of Italian unification in 1860 to Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily, wonderfully described in the famous classical novel The Leopard, already examined in another piece. There we have the prince of Salina’s nephew Tancredi make this insightful comment: “uncle, we need to change everything so that nothing changes.” In other words, it was a matter of changing the king from a Southern Italian Bourbon kind, Francis II, to a Northern Italian Savoy kind, Victor Emanuel II. This is redolent of another famous statement made by an Italian patriot who had fought with Garibaldi, Massimo d’Azeglio: “And now that we have made Italy, we need to make the Italians.” That statement too was prophetic: it resembles what is said today about European unification: “And now that we have made Europe, we need to make the Europeans.”

How about this one: “the Italians thought they were joining a civilization and an ideal union of democratic nations in the 1950s, but soon found out that they were joining a bureaucracy interested only in economic issues of wealth and ‘progress’ (especially banks’ progress), and unconcerned with the real economic needs of the poor and the middle class. These people are now very angry and are lashing out in an emotional rather than rational mode.” Such a statement explains a lot of what is going on. It has less to do with ideological fanaticism and more to do with rampant disappointment and delusion. We have seen a similar phenomenon in the Brexit event and here in America with the unexpected election of Donald Trump to the presidency. When people feel that they have nothing to lose, whey will gamble on a sociopath simply to thwart the hated bureaucracy. Perhaps Dostoyevsky said it best: “put man in a completely determinist universe, and he will blow it up, and himself with it, simply to prove that he is free.”

But let us proceed with the brief suvey of the historical narrative. Italian unification created the illusion that things would now get better, but as Tancredi astutely predicted it was just an illusion; things got worse and one million Italians had to emigrate to North America, South America, Australia and other places. Some scholars have argued that at least the monarchy was constitutional and there was a modicum of democracy in place. That democracy, such as it was, came to an end after the end of World War I when a brutal dictator, Benito Mussolini, rose to power. He managed to destroy whatever progress had been initiated in this latest of European unified nations.

After an hyaturs of twenty five years of authoritarian anti-democratic years, at the end of World War II, a democratic republic was set up in 1946, and once again the Italians were fed the illusion that now, with Democracy restored, things could only get better. Moreover, Italy became one of the six founding member nations of the European Union. Economic progress soon followed with the so called “Italian economic miracle” of the 60s. But the progress in democratic ways and means did not follow suit. What the people experienced was a party, Christian and Democratic, so called, that took over the reins of power, not relinquishing them since. The party, which has dropped the designation “Christian” proved to be neither very Christian nor very democratic, except for its founding fathers who held genuine Christian values. But who listens to them now?

Neither did Mussolini’s nostalgic look back to past Roman glories prove to be a panacea. He should have remembered Guicciardini answer to Machiavelli’s throw back to the Romans: “to compare the present Italians to the ancient Romans is like comparing a noble horse to a donkey.” By which Guicciardini did not mean to disparage the Italians, of which he was one, but to remind them that the new modern Italians (who had universal experiences of the Catholic (universal) Church and universal Renaissance, were not exactly Romans but were good at other things besides military prowess; that military prowess by itself did not make a nation great; that artistic prowess was far superior.

Be that as it may, once again the people felt cheated and between the 60 and the end of the century began to cast ballots as a vote of protest. That explains why the Communist party was and remains the largest outside Russia. The people have seen the rich and powerful tripling and quadrupling their wealth while the poor and the middle class have stagnated economically. Sometimes they misguidedly think that the rich are incapable of stealing and avoiding taxes since they are already rich. So they opted for a clown like Berlusconi and now may end up opting for one like Grillo. Anybody but the current bureaucracy.

Is there a political-moral lesson for the whole of the EU here? Yes, and it is this: it is a delusion wrapped in an illusion for a people to build a union based on bread and circuses, soccer games and reality shows. Failing a strong cultural indentity based on the genuine values that give Europe a genuine identity (which are not exclusively political or economic), there will remain a vacuum that will not be filled by trivialities such as circuses and shows, or vacuous nostalgia for past glories. The delusion nowadays is that the vacuum is being filled by the nationalism and the fascism of old. You see this in authoritarian governments blossoming all over Europe (one thinks of Hungary, Poland, and the myriad right wing parties functioning as Trojan horses in just about all the EU member states with the bleissing of Mr. Putin). Nationalism gives the illusion of strenght and political coherence, but eventually, having destroyed democracy and the very concept of truth, we will all lose and gather what we have sown. The omens are not very good and Cassandra has given her warning. Let those who have ears, let them hear.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Covid-19: Macron’s conflicting crisis communication

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2020 started in France with a strike from the SNCF national railway workers who were massively protesting against the ongoing reforms of their special pension system. This crisis shortly spread out to an important proportion of the french population, who rallied to this cause and challenged an executive power considered as elitist. Two months later, France is confronted to an unprecedented health crisis of a virus, the covid-19, that originated in china and quickly affected the whole world. Macron is therefore facing a major challenge : bring out of a crisis a country already in crisis, which no longer believes in its president.

First it is to be noted that the government was clearly walking on eggshells since the beginning of the crisis. The 4th march, the government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye , wrongly stated that drastic measures such as closing schools in France was not necessary and that “French citizens should continue to live normally”.  A few days later, Emmanuel Macron went with his wife to the theatre, in order to encourage the French ” to continue to go out despite the coronavirus pandemic”. He even claimed : “Life goes on. There is no reason, except for the vulnerable populations, to change our habits of going out.”

One week later, the 12th march, the Head of State, spoke to the French for the first time since the beginning of the health crisis, in a completely different tone. “France is facing the most serious health crisis in a century”. It is with these words that Emmanuel Macron positioned himself as the leader of a war of another kind. Among other things, he announced the closure of schools (which was in complete contradiction with the most recent government communication). He also praised the welfare state, words that have hardly been heard in his voice since his election. Then the 14th march Edouard Philippe, the Prime Minister, faced with the accelerated spread of the virus and the number of people hospitalized in intensive care units, announced a reinforcement of the barrier measures of “social distancing”, with the  closure  at  midnight  of all places receiving non-essential public: restaurants, cafés, cinemas, nightclubs. The strict travel restriction for at least 15 days was announced by Macron the 16th march. A fortnight postponed by a fortnight, a concept french citizens quickly understood.

In this context, how can the French population not criticize the executive for not having anticipated this crisis? How can one feel safe when the government itself seems to be lost? In fact, quickly the public opinion stressed that public expectations during this period focused more on “masks, tests and post-crisis concerns” than on any need to see a Head of State play “Georges Clemenceau visiting the trenches”. Regarding the masks, the stocks were soon  empty  and  adding  to  the  government’s  mistake,  the French were lied to at the beginning of the crisis by saying that the masks were useless if we were not sick. Another political absurdity, is the fact that the government has allowed the first round of municipal elections, even though it has repeatedly ordered french people to “stay home.” An executive branch weakened by the former Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn, who claimed to have warned Édouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron as early as January of the impossibility of holding municipal elections because of the epidemic.

Today, the Head of State undertook to draw “all the consequences” of the crisis. Consequences that will probably be heavy considering all of the above. A crisis that calls into  question  globalisation,  the  European  Union,  the  welfare  state,  public  services, production chains and much more. It is clear that some things are going to change, that the president is going to have to govern as an economic crisis will severely hit the world.

That being said, if the government will manage to transform a crisis into an opportunity it is probably too early to tell. What’s certain is that he’s going to be held accountable for a faltering communication at a time where the population needs to know precisely what is going on and where are we going.

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Coronavirus Reveals Cracks in European Unity

Christian Wollny

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The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

The EU has long not stepped forward during the ongoing Corona Crisis. While the EU usually maintains supremacy on virtually every other issue, in the case of the Corona Crisis it has been shamefully silent. Surely, health is a national issue; however, one can expect more from the entity that regulates the shape of cucumbers and the lamination of light bulbs.

Yet, in the event of a global pandemic, the EU relegates responsibility to local or regional administrations. While federal states such as Germany have been just as slow to react, leaving the organizational responsibility with local governments (and only recently nationalizing the purchase of medical equipment), other more unitary states such as France have been quicker to react.

Even the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted that the coronavirus has been underestimated by politicians. Besides appeals to member states to not shut down their borders and calls for solidarity, the EU leadership has once again showed its powerlessness during a crisis.

The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), founded in 2013 precisely for managing a situation like the ongoing pandemic, has failed to provide Italy the help and supplies it urgently requested. European member states can utilize the ERCC to request assistance from other members, but Italy’s latest call in this crisis has remained largely unanswered by its neighbours.

It’s a free-for-all out there. Yet before we conclude the loss of European unity, let’s examine some examples of cracks in the said unity.

Everyone for Themselves?

On March 17, 2020, the EU leadership finally decided to shut down borders, effectively banning entry into the EU for foreigners — a half eternity after nine individual member states had already unilaterally decided to shut down their respective national borders. Among these member states are the Visegrád States (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), as well as Austria. These states previously had taken unilateral action during the Migrant Crisis of 2015. In reality, this directive facilitates the reintroduction of border controls with ID checks, but implications are far more severe. The free movement of people in Europe is one of the four tenets of the EU, and it has been rendered moot during the Corona Crisis, all under the pretense of fighting the viral epidemic.

The next concern has been how member states interact with each other in handling the crisis, or rather the lack of interaction thereof. France has unilaterally announced an export ban on medical equipment, such as masks and respirators, with Germany following suit. The rationale behind these decisions was to keep medical equipment in the country and prevent opportunists from selling them abroad at unethical prices. For smaller and severely impacted countries, though, this spells a death sentence. While Italy has called upon its European allies for aid in this dark hour, the response has been meager. China, on the other hand, answered the call by sending medical equipment via shipping to Rotterdam, to be transported to Italy through Germany. Germany initially blocked the export of these masks under the guise of its new emergency law, and only after the immense pressure from the European community did it relax the law and let the shipment pass. At the same time, Austria banned entry for Italian nationals unless they prove they are corona-free with a doctor’s note.

Italy is feeling left alone, but Italians have learned to get used to this already during the Migrant Crisis of 2015 and the Financial Crisis of 2009. Yet the Chinese gesture of supplying crucial equipment has left the EU stand in the rain, and it continues to compound this feeling, with ECB’s Christine Lagarde implying that it isn’t the ECB’s responsibility to help Italy. Her comment on how it was not her job to “close the spreads” between 10-year German and Italian bonds caused the largest daily increase on record. The FTSE MIB, the Milanese stock index, dropped significantly. Solidarity may be many things, but not that. In times of crisis, Europe’s bureaucratic machinery is painfully slow.

These three examples are only the latest to prove that the European Union does not stand as united as it likes to believe. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice,” when he announced the Czech Republic would effectively shut down public life. These cracks in unity are really showing now during a global pandemic, but, truthfully, they have been there from the start and have been widening since then.

A History of Discord

A more historic example of discrepancy in unity was the preferential treatment of the United Kingdom in terms of their financial contributions to the EU budget. The so-called “UK Rebate,” active from 1985 to 2020, ensured that the UK retained the majority of its financial contributions. Many EU member states have repeatedly sought to right this wrong, but to no avail. While certainly not the first injustice to sow discord among the member states, it was a particularly significant issue, showing the duality of treatment between larger and smaller economies in the EU.

The Greek government debt crisis demonstrated that the reversal of the previous example could be true. Greece, with seemingly criminal energy, forged its financial data to gain entry to the EU and its unlimited coffers. Only the impact of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis revealed the scam. The EU with Germany and Merkel at its helm fought tooth and nail to keep Greece solvent and in the union, much to the chagrin of hard-working Northern and Eastern members. When the UK would later declare its desire to leave the EU, it at least seemed like the EU (and again, Germany) felt personally insulted and could not wait for the UK to leave, as a form of punishment or vindication. The result is, however, a higher financial burden for the net paying members as the EU would not be expected to decrease its budget after all.

In 2015, another crisis would once again show the failure of the EU to stand united. As a myriad of migrants entered Greece and Italy illegally, unequivocally claiming asylum and short-circuiting the Dublin II Treaty, the EU remained silent for too long until Germany unilaterally decided to issue an “invitation” and really kick off the crisis. While indeed most of these migrants would (illegally) continue their paths on to Germany and Sweden, Italy and Greece had to deal with the impact of their arrival on their shores. As Germany took in more and more migrants, calls for Eastern European member states to take in their “fair” shares became louder from the very same German officials claiming this Willkommenskultur.

Even in the current time, the strife is evident. The ongoing Turkey-Greece 2020 Refugee Crisis showcases this yet again. Greece is expected to uphold the European law and protect the EU-borders, whilst German commentators decry her actions as “racist” and fascist.” Instead of shaming Erdogan, who unilaterally broke the EU-Turkey refugee deal, the European public hounds Greece. Against what next? Greeks have been very tolerant and welcoming over the years, but the situation on the Greek Isles has reached a tipping point, and again a member state is left alone. The ongoing crisis has been pushed back from the spotlight.

The Breaking of the Fellowship?

These historic examples, combined with the previously mentioned failures to aid during the ongoing epidemic, paint a less than favourable picture of the European Unity. There will be a time after Corona. But what will it look like? How can the EU turn from such distrust and egoism? Surely, national governments own primary allegiance to their electorates, their own citizens, and most governments are steering through this crisis by heavily relying on virologists and immunologists, who often quarrel with differentiating viewpoints. This explanation would work for other alliances, but the EU aims to be more than just an alliance, more than just a union of states. With everyone on the lookout only for themselves, it’s easy to forget these European ideals. Nevertheless, the appeal must now be made: Don’t Forget Europe!

The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

From our partner RIAC

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Russian army lends a helping hand to Italy

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For the past three days, Russian military transport planes with medical specialists and aid on board have been landing at an air base near Rome to help Italy in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Critics immediately started looking for some ulterior motives behind Moscow’s move, describing it as just a political PR stunt, a demonstration to Europe of the Kremlin’s capabilities and its immunity to a global pandemic, completely oblivious of the fact that this unselfish gesture of goodwill is not the first in the history of Russia’s relations with the West. Suffice it to recall how, 75 years ago, the Soviet people selflessly saved the world from the Nazi plague without asking for anything in return.

Russians like to joke about there being no such a thing as an ex-doctor, soldier or police officer, but it looks like in Russia there are no former emergency specialists either. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu spent many years at the head of this country’s Emergency Situations Ministry, and is the one who dispatched Russian rescuers to Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake there. Russians have a predilection for saving everyone; it’s a sort of a national trait here. Are they doing this to win kudos abroad? Hardly so…The first thing Japan did after recovering from the consequences of that devastating natural disaster was to reiterate its claim to Russia’s South Kuril islands, so Moscow is hardly expecting Italy to make any decisive calls for lifting the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions.

Russia was still very quick to send out 14 planes with 100 military virologists  and professional nurses, special equipment and instruments to Italy in keeping with an earlier agreement between President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Russia even sent in its most experienced medics – military doctors, who had earlier experience of tending to potential COVID-19 carriers from China, who had fought the Ebola epidemic in Africa, and who have a long history of participation in humanitarian missions. Whether these few dozen people are able to turn the tide in the fight against the pandemic is another question, but in any case, their contribution will be extremely important.

Meanwhile, as a brief interview with one of the Army nurses, staff sergeant Natalya Krivosheyeva, aired on Russia’s Channel One television showed, the Russian military doctors arrived in Italy to “help the country out of trouble,” and this is exactly what they are all set to do. In any case, 100 professional doctors with vast experience and military discipline are providing urgent vital assistance to Italy, which is struggling with a shortage of medical staff. This assistance is all the more valuable now that the NATO countries have all refused to line up similar support, the Western defense alliance’s mobile hospital has moved to Luxembourg, closer to the center of European decision-making, and there is virtually no support coming from Italy’s EU partners.

Why is Putin lending a helping hand to Italy? Does he really expect any gratitude from Rome? He is a realist. The news about dozens of professional Russian medics being sent overseas will hardly contribute to his popularity back home. Moreover, on April 22, or later Moscow will hold a referendum that would allow Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036. Russians are way more concerned about the situation with the coronavirus pandemic in their own country than in faraway Italy.

And still, Beijing and Moscow have so far been the only ones to provide real assistance to Rome. From the standpoint of national mentality, Russia’s actions are fairly understandable. A popular Russian joke says that “if you want to do something well, call the military.” Russian military medicine is one of the best around, and Russian doctors are going to Italy to gain experience and hone their skills. They are going because such missions are part and parcel of the algorithm of the Russian military. They do not expect anything in return, all they want is expertise. Some critics were sure to be like “Why ask for help from the Russians?” “What will the Kremlin want in exchange for helping us out?” The thing is, however, that Putin and Shoigu have created a system, which initially implies emergency assistance even for countries that are not Russia’s best friends. Moreover, if an epidemic of such magnitude flared up in Poland, which reportedly closed its airspace to Russian planes carrying aid to Italy, Putin would still offer similar help to Warsaw. This is how the Russian Defense Ministry works, for the good of the whole world.

The Russian military specialists are at work now and are sure to save lives. What is more precious than human life? Certainly not politics, and this is exactly what European leaders need to realize.

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