What’s up in Italy this summer

Flash floods, flashy politicians, ‘Il Pape’ in shirtsleeves and the future of football: these are just some of the issues on citizens’ minds this summer, as change – or the appearance of it – sweeps through a nation unaccustomed to such a deluge

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 09:30

Around here, the times they are a changin’ . . . or are they? From Pope Francis through to current Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, there is certainly a lot of talk of radical change at the moment. Time will tell just how “radical” those changes will be (and in the case of Renzi, we have serious doubts) but, for now, there is one arguably much more important change in Italy that no one can deny.

Until last Saturday night, the small rural village of Refrontolo in the province of Treviso in the northeast of Italy was best known for two things – its excellent Prosecco and its much visited, handsome, 400-year-old mill, “Il Molinetto della Croda”. Last weekend, however, Refrontolo made headlines when four people were drowned in a flash flood which saw a torrent of mud and water sweep away a tent where a Saturday night village festa was being held.

Summer storms, heavy downpours and consequent serious damage or even loss of life are nothing new. However, such events usually occur infrequently and towards the end of the summer. This year has been different because, frankly, there has been no “beginning” to the Italian summer. It has rained so consistently and heavily that many of those unfortunate people who run summer beach “stabilimenti” (deck chairs and umbrellas for hire) have thus far experienced an 80 per cent drop-off in trade.

Surveying the havoc wreaked by the “bomba d’acqua” at Refrontolo, puzzled Veneto regional president Luca Zaia pointed out that 2km down the road, it had not rained at all. Certainly, building speculation allied to an often total lack of forest husbandry contributes greatly to tragedies like this. However, you do begin to suspect that we are looking either at the onset of a new Ice Age or at something suspiciously similar to climate change.

On the political front 
While we can swear that some sort of climatic change is ongoing in Italy, we are less convinced that any meaningful change is happening on the political front. When he addressed the opening of the European Parliament in Strasbourg early last month, Matteo Renzi understandably generated a very positive reaction from those many non-Italian commentators and politicians who were watching him in action for the first time.

The appearance of an energetic, highly articulate, seemingly motivated 39-year-old in the role of Italian prime minister came as something of a culture shock. For years, the European Union has learnt to deal with sophisticated, elegant and usually aging Italian leaders, of the “men with black suits and no faces” variety. If it was not one of them, then it was media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. Either way, there was never any question of meaningful change.

So Renzi is different, is he? On the face of things, he appeared to effect a change of earth-shaking proportions when he took office last February. Half his cabinet are women while the average age is 47. In a country where no woman has ever served as either prime minister or president and where current president Giorgio Napolitano is 89 and centre-right opposition leader Berlusconi is 77, this is radical stuff.

Furthermore, women ministers such as Maria Elena Boschi (33), Marianna Madia (34), Federica Mogherini (41) and Roberta Pinotti (53) hold the important portfolios of Constitutional Reform, Public Administration, Foreign Affairs and Defence respectively.

On top of that Renzi’s Obama-style, social network-friendly rise to power was based on a “Yes We Can” commitment to constitutional change and electoral reform, both badly needed. The key catchphrase marking his rise and rise from little-known Mayor of Florence to government house was his call to dump a whole older generation of politicians (especially those in his own centre-left Democratic Party) on the “scrapheap”.

All of this seems breathtakingly innovative. Yet, and there’s the rub, all is not quite what it seems. For a start, Renzi came to power not via the ballot box but via a palace coup of the most deceitful nature. One moment he was tweeting that party colleague, prime minister Enrico Letta, had nothing to fear from him; within days he had pulled the PM’s seat from under him.

More worryingly, within days of taking control of the PD party, Renzi formed a secret pact regarding his constitutional and electoral reform plans with Berlusconi. So, here we had a local politician, unelected at national level (Renzi is still not a deputy of the lower house), making a secret deal of potentially monumental proportions with a politician who just weeks previously had been expelled from the Senate due to a conviction for tax fraud.

If your intention was to effect meaningful change, surely you would start anywhere other than with the convicted, much investigated and much discredited Berlusconi. In 20 years of political life, Berlusconi has shown a remarkable ability to win elections and to look after his own business interests while in office – but he has almost never governed well, in terms of contributing to the common good and economic well being.

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