Revamping Italy
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Revamping Italy

For many of us, Italy is a country of beautiful architecture, beautiful food and wine, and beautiful lifestyles. However, although people in other Western nations have been emulating Italian style for centuries, this fine country is in a period of stagnation, even downturn. Italians and global critics alike believe that

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Thu 26 Jun 2008 12:00 AM

For
many of us, Italy
is a country of beautiful architecture, beautiful food and wine, and beautiful
lifestyles. However, although people in other Western nations have been
emulating Italian style for centuries, this fine country is in a period of
stagnation, even downturn. Italians and global critics alike believe that Italy
is in the economic, political and social doldrums: 

 

Italy’s
prosperity has been plagued by a variety of troubles for decades.

 

The
mafia has significant influence on the country’s southern regions.

 

GDP
growth, already very low, is forecasted to decrease.

 

The
country has an enormous debt of €1.9 trillion, with
no reduction in sight.

 

Of
course, not everyone shares this gloomy outlook. Dr. Simon Hix, one of the
foremost scholars on the European Union (EU), maintains that ‘It’s a myth that Italy
is way off. It’s not,’ he said. ‘Italy
has been quite a core player [within the EU].’ Also, Italy
is not the only EU member state to experience such problems. Portugal,
Hungary
and Greece
are having trouble reducing their high public debts as well. However, in spite
of Hix’s assurance, there is no denying that Italy
is indeed lagging in certain policy areas.

 

There
is, however, an opportunity to reverse the trend. Berlusconi, back in power as
president of the Council of Ministers, has the political backing of a strong
majority coalition, which means that things can get done. At the same time, the
European Union is pressuring the government to make changes the country will
need to regain its social and economic well-being. With European Union coaxing
and direction, the Berlusconi government could lead the country to a better
future.

 

EU
law supersedes national laws of the member states. Thus, when a member state
violates an EU law, it receives warnings and is subject to eventual action that
can force compliance. Dr. Caterina Paolucci, academic coordinator of the James
Madison
University
in Florence,
describes the EU as an external watchdog, ‘promoting countries to be virtuous
by its mere existence and by its constant pressure.’

 

The
EU is pressuring the new Italian government to make policy improvements in
three key areas: the garbage crisis in Naples,
immigration and debt. If Italy
does not respond, it could face the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which has
the power to rule against member states and levy heavy fines and other
penalties.        

 

GARBAGE

 

The
garbage crisis undoubtedly gives Italy
a negative image, but the potential of the mounting garbage in Naples
to affect the health of EU citizens is what attracts attention from Brussels.
The executive branch of the EU, the Commission, has warned the Italian
government that if it does not resolve the crisis, it will be tried before the
ECJ, which would lead to global humiliation for Italy.

 

Action
has already been taken. In a symbolic gesture, Berlusconi held the first
meeting of the new Italian cabinet in Naples,
where the executives voted to label previously closed dumps as areas of
strategic interest to be re-opened and controlled by the interior and defense
departments, thwarting mafia-sponsored protest. However, it is impossible to
determine whether these changes are the result of pressure from Brussels
or pressure from Italians.

 

IMMIGRATION

 

Immigration
is a very sensitive issue in Italian politics. With an estimated
600,000-700,000 illegal immigrants in Italy,
the current Italian government is receiving intense demands from its population
to deal with this perceived problem.

 

The
EU has long considered Italy’s
immigration policies to be lax. Once a person enters Italy,
he or she may pass freely to most other Western European member states. While member
states such as Germany
and France
also experience immigration problems, Italy’s
position is unique. Its geographic location makes it attractive for illegal
immigration from the Balkans and North
Africa, and its extensive coastline
makes it difficult for officials to stop undocumented people from crossing the
borders.

 

The
Roma or ‘Gypsy’ population is another issue. Because this population tends to
remain on the fringes of Italian society and workforce, the Roma are not easily
integrated or kept track of. As Hix claims, ‘If the Roma came in large numbers
to any other EU member state, [that state] would be having the same issues.’

 

Because
of Italy’s
unique position, the EU considers it important to appropriately control
immigration to the country. Italy
has started to yield to EU pressure on immigration legislation. The new Italian
government has joined the EU’s Prüm Treaty, which promotes cross-border
cooperation in combating terrorism and crime. Also, in its first session, the
government proposed a tougher bill that could make illegal immigration a
punishable crime.

 

DEBT

 

At
105.6 percent of its GDP, Italy’s
debt is at a far greater level than allowed by the EU. As a user of
the euro, Italy
must maintain public debt at or below 60 percent of its GDP. The EU Commission
is currently warning Italy
that it must comply with its debt requirements or face trial in front of the
ECJ. Hix is not confident that the EU can successfully pressure Italy
to comply in this case. He thinks Italy
will side with other EU member states that advocate looser debt regulations.
But EU monetary laws have already benefited Italy
financially. For example, by forcing Italy
to observe certain rules, the EU promoted increased control over budgetary
spending. ‘The euro saved us,’ says Dr. Alessandro Gentili, the director of James
Madison
University
in Italy.
‘Without the euro, Italy
would have ended up in a mess.’    

 

Does
Italy
stand a chance of turning the tide on these and other issues? Italy’s
membership in the EU has helped give it increased stability and an ultimatum to
upgrade in the past. With the EU acting as a watchdog and Italy
beginning to make some advised improvements, there is a chance that the new
Italian government will make the changes it needs to regain Italy’s
former prominence. The question remains whether or not the EU can help the new
Italian government as well.

 

 

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