As Italy prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its unification, its coalition government is fraying at the edges
May 13th 2010 | ROME | From The Economist print edition
“I AM a Florentine,” declares an acquaintance of your correspondent. “A Tuscan? With difficulty. An Italian? Never!”
As Italy approaches the 150th anniversary of its unification next year, it appears that quite a few of his compatriots harbour similar feelings. Two polls published this week found 10-11% of Italians thought the unification of their country was a mistake. In one, conducted for Corriere della Sera, over half of respondents said Italians were not a “single people”. The other poll, for La Repubblica, found that 15% of Italians, including 10% of southerners, would be happy for the rich north to break away.
On the positive side of the ledger, 88% said they were proud of their country. But the reasons most cited were Italy’s physical beauty, cultural heritage and cuisine. Only 14% regarded Italy’s economy and entrepreneurs as sources of pride.
Against this background it is perhaps not surprising that the arrangements for next year’s festivities have encountered difficulties. The chairman of the oversight committee, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former president of Italy, has resigned (ostensibly for health reasons), and two ministers in Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative coalition—both of them from the Northern League, including the party’s leader, Umberto Bossi—say they may boycott the celebrations.
The League, which appeals to northern resentment of the south’s alleged profligacy and indolence, is the minority partner in Mr Berlusconi’s coalition. In March, a sparkling performance in regional elections enhanced its influence. That may help explain why Mr Berlusconi’s party, the People of Freedom (PdL), which rarely misses an opportunity to wrap itself in the national flag, has struggled to put forward proposals for the 2011 events: the federalists of the League look sceptically upon celebrations of pan-Italian unity.
On April 22nd, at a meeting of the PdL’s governing assembly, the party’s failure to plan for next year was one cause of a public airing of the tensions inside Italy’s governing coalition. Gianfranco Fini, the lower-house speaker who helped create the PdL in 2008 by merging his own, formerly neo-fascist, National Alliance with Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, publicly berated the party’s laxity. The event soon degenerated into a shouting match between Mr Fini and the prime minister.
The awkward relationship between Mr Fini and the Northern League is also starting to take its toll. With his power base in Italy’s centre and south, Mr Fini has never found it easy to rub along with the members of a northern regionalist party. But now they have ideological differences too. The League is reactionary, particularly on immigration. Mr Fini, by contrast, has moved ever farther towards the centre in an attempt to create a new brand of Italian conservatism. He supports votes for immigrants, a bigger role for parliament and more democracy within the PdL.
So far, Mr Fini’s modernisation project is looking forlorn. In April he announced plans to create an organised faction within the PdL. His associates claim he has the support of about 50 MPs. But when the PdL assembly came to vote he failed to attract that level of support, and his plans are now on ice.
Some believe Mr Fini’s maverick stance might prompt Mr Berlusconi to call a snap election. But that could lead to the League repeating its regional success on a national scale. As it is, Mr Bossi’s party seems likely to shape the agenda for the rest of the current legislature, which expires in 2013. Top of its list is “fiscal federalism”, the transfer of further financial power to the regions. This could be parliament’s main task in the year of Italy’s 150th birthday; paradoxical for some, but appropriate in the eyes of Mr Bossi, who argues that federalism was central to the ideas of Italy’s first prime minister, the Count of Cavour.
Supporters of fiscal decentralisation argue it will boost regional performance, in both north and south. But it also poses dangers. Now that the euro has been saved from the immediate danger of implosion (see article), Brussels (and Berlin) will be pressing the euro zone’s Mediterranean member states to introduce structural economic reforms, while making the cuts needed to contain their deficits and reduce their public debts. Drawing up plans for fiscal federalism could distract government attention from the need for such reform. And if countries like Spain are anything to go by, the immediate effect of any decentralisation will not be to reduce public spending, but to increase it.