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Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Drawings and paintings by child migrants from an exhibition opening this week at Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art
    Op-Eds

    Standoff on Migrants Splinters the EU

    ROME -- When 629 migrants, mostly from sub-Sahara Africa, were en route to Italy in a ship June 10, Matteo Salvini, who as Interior Minister is chief of all police here, declared that no Italian port could accept them. "Saving lives is a duty, but turning Italy into Europe's refugee camp, no," he stated. "The EU countries have left us alone too long," he added, speaking on nationwide TV. "And among the migrants there are terrorists." Salvini won, and at this writing, weighed under by its load of  migrants, the ship run by the SOS Mediterranee NGO was heading off toward Valencia in Spain, albeit plagued by the considerable distance (750 nautical miles), rough seas and strong winds. 

    Among the migrants were 123 unaccompanied minors, among them a dozen young children. Of the  seven pregnant women on board, the Italian coast guard removed four, plus a child suffering convulsions, to the isle of Lampedusa, from where they were flown to hospitals in Palermo and Agrigento. Sicilian press reports suggest that at least some of these pregnant women, who had spent months crossing the desert to reach the Libyan coast and the boat traffickers there, were rape victims.

    Salvini's popularity is on the rise, and he appears notably heartened by his triumph  in local elections held June 10 that involved 6 million voters in 760 towns scattered throughout Italy. These were the most important elections held since the national vote March 4, and the 61% turnout was 6 points below that of the previous local elections, held in 2013. His governing partner Luigi Di Maio's  Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) lost votes and hence is weaker vis à vis Salvini in their shared government. 

    In Rome's two districts, fewer than one-third of those who could vote bothered to do so. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi of the M5S appeared in obvious difficulty. So did Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, which dropped some 200,000 votes while the Partito Democratico -- slashed in half March 4 -- made small advances. For a full analysis, see here>>>

    Countering the ever more popular Minister Salvini's harsh words and actions on immigration were the mayors of a number of Southern Italian towns, who defiantly said they would accept the migrants. Minister Salvini rejected their offers -- just as word arrived that another ship, the Dutch-German Sea Watch 3,  is trying to deliver onto Italian shores over 1,000 more migrant refugees. At this news Salvini tweeted, "Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying, and THIS TIME SAYS NO.  #chiudiamoiporti."

    To his tweet almost 4,000 tweeters responded emotionally. "Finally we have a state that protects its borders and orders a halt to the deportation of slaves," said one. The reply: "And lets the slaves die. Finally, right?" The dialogue continued: "Well, there are other ports." "Pontius Pilate was decidedly a favorite of yours." "Until now there have been lots of Pontius Pilates." "Think only of your own people and tell the others to f&*! off. Very nice." "Same to you." "Germany, France, Malta turn the [migrants] away? And they call us racist!" 

    Although  the EU has just agreed to triple spending to over $5 billion a year to deal with illegal migration, these turbulent seas washed all across Europe. The EU last week sought to establish refugee quotas and a common system for member states to share responsibility for asylum seekers, but failed utterly. Although Angela Merkel warned of the consequences of failure to find an agreement, that debate  deadlocked, "with ministers pessimistic that any agreement can be reached by their self-imposed deadline at the next Brussels summit at the end of this month," writes the Guardian. 

    The fallout of ill feeling was particularly strong between Italy and France. "Bravo Salvini," was the reaction from Nicola Dupont-Aignan, rival and ex-ally of the French rightist Marine Le Pen. "Proud that a front is opened in Europe on the migrants, a shame that Spain has decided to take them when they can enter France whenever they want" (this, obviously, was sarcasm). France called the position dictated by Salvini "nauseating" while Spain suggested that Italy, in denying a port to the migrants, was in violation of the law. To this Salvini retorted, "To the French President I say, if you have the big heart you say you have, tomorrow I will send you the details of 9,000 migrants you had agreed to take in." As a result, Salvini, Di Maio, and their premier Professor Giuseppe Conte are now considering cancelling that EU migration summit.

    The drawings and paintings by child migrants are from an exhibition opening this week at Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art, organized by actress Simona Marchini and sponsorship by UNICEF. 

  • Matteo Salvini and No Sanctions
    Op-Eds

    Foreign Affairs Upstage Policy, Stir Up a Hornet's Nest

    ROME -- In a globalized world it is hardly surprising that foreign affairs occupy more political space than ever before. Forget the new government "contract," with its policy bullet points. The brave new government is headed by a relatively inexperienced Prof-Premier Giuseppe Conte, who misplaced his notes for his debut in Parliament Wednesday. For Conte, flanked by powerhouse Matteo Salvini of the Lega and, to lesser extent, by Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle, the enormous challenges weigh in from all sides: NATO, the European Union, the US, and, regarding immigration, North Africa.

     

    In particular, addressing Parliament Wednesday, neo-Premier Conte stirred up a hornet's nest when he declared, "The government wants to promote an opening toward Russia, and a revision of the system of sanctions." Speaking in favor of the government's proposal to lift the sanctions was Guido Crosetto of the rightwing party Fratelli d'Italia, second-in-command to Giorgia Meloni. "We must abolish the sanctions because strategically we cannot just leave Russia in the arms of China. On NATO's part it is a strategic error to insist upon antagonizing Moscow," he told reporters Wednesday in Parliament.

     

    These economic sanctions were invoked by Angela Merkel in July 2014 as an alternative to military action after Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian Crimea. They were applied against Russia by the EU, Canada, the US and other nations and are, to quote the US magazine "Foreign Policy", "a response to Russia's behavior in violation of international law and its own commitments."

    After four years the consequences for Russia include capital flight, a drop in value of the ruble, lost access to foreign financing and hence a draining of Russian foreign exchange reserves, and a decline in the country's GDP. And last March 12, just six days after the Italian general elections which propelled Salvini and Di Maio into government for the first time, the EU announced that those sanctions are extended for another six months, or until Sept. 15.

     

    Among other things, the sanctions -- which include travel restrictions and asset freezes against 38 companies and 150 individuals in Russia -- suspend credit financing for exports to Russia, financing of its economic development projects, and the "sharing of technology for shale projects that can produce oil in the Russian Federation," in the words the U.S. State Department.

     

    Will a lifting of the sanctions actually happen? It is too soon to know, at least not until the European Council (the institution in Brussels that defines EU political priorities) meets June 28-29 in Brussels. For NATO, "We must maintain a political dialogue with Russia, but the economic sanctions are important," said Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, secretary-general. And speaking for the US was ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson: "On Russia I think that the sanctions must be maintained until Moscow changes its behavior -- otherwise we will be giving a bad signal to the Kremlin."

     

    The debate took a nasty turn, when Hungarian-American financial mogul George Soros, 87, speaking at the 13th annual Economics Festival at Trento June 3, declared that, "I am very concerned at the new government's moving closer to Russia.... There is a close relationship between Matteo Salvini and Putin. I don't know if in effect Putin finances Salvini's party, [but] the Italian public has the right to investigate the question, the right to know if Salvini is on Putin's pay roll," Soros said. To this a shocked former Interior Minister Marco Minnitti said, "I surely hope that no one ever took a single ruble for financing from the Russians."

     

    Salvini flatly denies having accepted Russian funding for his party. "Shameful! I never took a lira, a euro or a rouble from Russia. I consider Putin one of the foremost statesmen, and I am ashamed of the fact that in Italy they invite to speak a speculator without scruples like Signor Soros."

     

    How does the public feel about this? In a nationwide survey of the popularity of a trio of international leaders -- Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump --  conducted by Demos & Pi, with almost 6,000 interviewed, Putin was favored by only 39% nationwide. Supporters of Forza Italia were Italy's most enthusiastic about Putin (61%), notoriously a friend of Berlusconi. Voters from Meloni's tiny Fratelli d'Italia (54%) and Salvini's Lega were next (53%) in admiration for Putin, decidedly less popular among voters for Di Maio's M5S (39%).

     

    Nationwide, at 51% Angela Merkel was the most popular of all, and Donald Trump, the least, at 23%. On the other hand, rightist party respondents who said they admire Trump were Fratelli di'Italia (49%), Salvini's Lega (41%) and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (38%).

     

    Needless to say, Russian sanctions are not the only Italian situation that troubles Europe. Moving closer to home, the Italian economy had a GDP surplus before interest payments of 1.7%, and so "Italy is not particularly vulnerable to a run on its bonds by foreign investors," according to the "Economist". However, the magazine's editorial writer went on to say, Italy has "one of Europe's worst-performing economies," and the new government's proposals for a flat tax and for a universal basic income provision are risky: "Italy's real problem is the debilitating combination of chronically low growth and high public debt."

  • Op-Eds

    In the Eye of a Hurricane: Political Italy

    ROME - Bari is one of Southern Italy's most beautiful port cities, the capital of the Apulia Region on the Adriatic Sea, with a population of over 325,000 and, in its immediate surroundings, twice that number. Its famous Norman-Hohenstaufen Castle has stood guard over the town for over eight centuries. At the same time, the city's handsome, gigantic Palace of Justice, built in the late 20th Century, has developed cracks to the point that it risks collapse. The footnote: the dangerous cracks have been reported for 15 years. As a result, this week trials take place inside three tents made of cloth set up in the parking lot; for how many years this procedure will continue no one knows. Meantime, consider the prosecutors' problems of keeping files. 

    Can it therefore surprise anyone that in the national general elections last March, in Bari almost half (46.51%) the voters for the Senate chose the anti-system, angry Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S)? Only a miniscule few, 14.15%, preferred the Partito Democratico, which has run the country for the previous three years. New administrative elections take place on June 10, which will be a test of things to come. Put another way, Bari is a metaphor for the rest of Italy these days, a threatening world of beauty and the beast. 

    The current Italian political plight is front-paged worldwide as the most important media turn their attention to what many fear might become a constitutional crisis. To synthesize, to form a government the Big Two populist parties (M5S and the rightist League), with 50.1% of the March 6 nationwide vote, insisted that their joint cabinet include the anti-EU economist Paolo Savona. President Sergio Mattarella rejected this. Although more moderate solutions, which included Savona in government, were proposed, the Big Two rejected any compromise. 

    Both the Big Two reacted viciously, with M5S current boss Luigi Di Maio calling for the president to be impeached. Di Maio is obliged to battle against Salvini, his purported ally (but rival in any future vote), by being even more aggressive. "Why don't we just say that, in our country, there is no point in voting since the ratings agencies and the financial lobbies decide the governments?" he declared on Facebook.

    The result of their holding a line in support of the anti-EU Savona: Mattarella has now had to appoint a temporary cabinet to tend the store until new elections are held, probably as early as September. Premier designate is Carlo Cottarelli, formerly executive director of the International Monetary Fund, who may also hold down the crucial Ministry of Economics. 

    This September date offers a slight glimmer of hope because League boss Matteo Salvini had demanded they take place within weeks. The problems go well beyond the frontiers of Italy, the fourth largest economy in Europe, for the Italian situation, with its risk of quitting the Euro, is destablizing for all of Europe. At risk is also the NATO alliance, some here believe.

    In the most recent polls support for Salvini's League (in Italian, the Lega, formerly the Northern League) continues to grow, including vis à vis the M5S as well as Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Both these two show weakness. As a result, the opinion is widespread that all along Salvini had never intended to participate in government with the M5S, but opted for new elections that would strengthen his party. Salvini continues to denounce Germany for running Italian affairs. In political science terms, the Lega's anti-immigrant, anti-EU stance puts it in the historical company of negative coalitions -- that is, of political parties that boost their popularity by focusing on the dislike of an outsider rather than on shared goals.

    The current political, fiscal and constitutional crisis in Rome, the most serious since the murder of Aldo Moro forty years ago, can only gather steam with the calling of new elections. In the meantime the two leading populist parties are calling voters to demonstrate out in the streets this June 2, a public holiday honoring the Republic, to show their discontent at the way that President Mattarella has been managing events. Clashes are feared. In addition, some political observers believe that Mattarella may have miscalculated in vetoing the appointment of a Eurosceptic Finance Minister. A September vote may only increase support for the populist parties in the absence of any clear national plan to correct the errors of free spending previous administrations.

  • Giuseppe Conte
    Op-Eds

    Awaiting That Final Decision: Approval of a New Government

    ROME -- Italy's final decision that would ratify a new government requires the  formal approval of President Sergio Mattarella and then a vote in Parliament. In the meantime, rarely have so many studied the Italian Constitution. The reason: Article 95, which spells out the responsibilities and duties  of the premier, in this case the nominee Giuseppe Conte. Conte is a bright, well prepared professor, but devoid of any political or administrative experience whatsoever.

    On Monday Luigi Di Maio, who heads the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), and Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega (the League), each separately gave Professor Conte's name to President Sergio Mattarella as their choice to head an anomalous biparty coalition. Normally a politician would head the executive government, but in this unique situation, both political leaders -- despite agreeing after 45 days to form a governing alliance -- refused to agree for the other to be premier of their joint government. Conte is therefore a de facto technical head of government even though neither Di Maio nor Salvini would accept this definition.

    As president of the Council of Ministers, specifies Article 95 of the Constitution, Conte must "direct the general policies of the Government, and is responsible for them. He maintains the unity of police and administrative direction, promoting and coordinating the activities of the Ministers."  What policies? Albeit quarreling noisily in the past, Di Mario and Salvini have jointly elaborated what they call a "contract" for governing. The "contract," however, if in respect to the Constitution, is not supposed to allow Italy to ignore its European obligations nor to ignore or change its international alliances, beginning with NATO. However, Salvini has called for greater links with Putin's Russia and for Italy to quit the Euro. 

    "Well," Di Maio admitted on exiting from his meeting with the president, "the criticisms are fair, but at least let us get started." Salvini was no less open after his meeting with Mattarella. "There's no reason for fear," he said. "Within the limits of the possible, the constraints [i.e., NATO, the EU] are not up for discussion. But thanks to those constraints our public debt has grown by 300 billion euros during the past five years." The EU is openly concerned at the size of Italy's public debt, as Salvini knows well -- but nevertheless his potential future governing partner, Di Maio, has promised a relaxed monthly contribution to the less affluent. How this, if realized, is to be paid remains a mystery, but the promise appealed to many in Southern Italy, whose votes last March were significant in boosting the M5S votes up to 32,7% of the national electorate. (In the attached map, the blue area represents a preponderance of League votes and the yellow, votes for M5S.)

    And herein lies another problem: the North-South divide. In the past it has been the result of geography, education, labor (industry vs. agriculture) and -- dare I say? -- the historic culture of the pre-drug Mafia-type organizations. In the last national general election Di Maio's M5S was massively voted in the South, but not the North, while Salvini's message, with its anti-immigrant bias, was massively voted in the North but not in the South. As some here have warned, if and when it comes to new elections, there is a risk of increasing the already existing North-South divide.  Conte is "a hostage of the parties," trumpeted one headline. 

    Conte's background is interesting. Born at Volturara Appula, near Foggia in the Apulia Region of Southern Italy, Conte, 54, received a strong Catholic education before graduating in law from Rome University. He is  described as a devotee of Padre Pio, whose shrine is in San Giovanni Rotondo. An expert in civil law, Conte has spent periods of study at Yale and Duquesne in the U.S, in Vienna, at the Sorbonne, at Cambridge in the UK and at New York University.  In Italy he has taught at Rome's Luiss University and now teaches at Florence University, where one of his students said he is noted for a real dislike of Italy's over-bearing bureaucracy. He is a member of the cultural commission of Confindustria, the national association of industrialists, and is described as an expert in the "management of large businesses in crisis."

    He became a spokesperson for the M5S -- "a marvelous, incredible political laboratory" -- while recently admitting on national TV that in the past he had tended to prefer the politics of the left. "Despite his having no political nor administrative experience whatsoever, he is quoted as saying that he is an excellent listener, and long accustomed to negotiating between individuals who stand at a distance from each other.  

    Significantly, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, 81, plans for his Forza Italia party to vote against the government, which means voting against his ex-partner Salvini. Giorgio Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia, the third component of their rightist electoral coalition, was invited to join with the Big Two but has turned them down. Meloni's party contributed 4.3% to that alliance, Berlusconi's Forza Italia 14% and Salvini's Lega 17.4%. In respect to Di Maio's 32.7%, their defection leaves Salvini on his own and decidedly weakened vis à vis Di Maio. At the same time, polls show that both Di Maio and Salvini dropped in popularity by 1% in just one week.

  • Op-Eds

    Populist Government may Save Italy From Hasty new Elections

    ROME -- Until lunchtime Wednesday, Italy was plunging into the year's second round of national general elections, probably slated for July, even as commentators warned that scorching July temperatures would send voters to the seashore instead to polling booths. But at one o'clock May 9 former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, staunchly allied with Matteo Salvini of the Lega, said he would drop his opposition to a proposed government of the Lega and the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). Together these two populist parties control just under half of the Parliament elected March 6, sufficient to marshal votes for a government. 

    Luigi Di Maio, who has replaced Beppe Grillo as head of the Five Stars, commands 32% of Parliament, making this the largest single political force. Lega boss Salvini is the strong man in a three-party rightist coalition, which together commands  35%. As a result, neither has been able to oust his rival. On his own Salvini has only 17%, but this boosted by Berlusconi's 14%. 

    Reactions are flooding in. Columnist Stefano Folli remarked on the irony that "what couldn't be done in two months was done in a couple of hours." Another authoritative columnist, Claudio Tito, suggested that, in offering his outside support, Berlusconi was also saying that if they fail, it is not his fault. Will they fail? Under their care, warns Tito, the Italian cabinet becomes an outsider in the EU political world, and  Italy, a "laboratory of populism that may scare neighbors and allies." At the same time, it is not yet a done deal, and on Thursday morning a cautious Salvini warned that this turnabout is only "a first step"  and that his MPs are not to make vacation reservations just yet in case elections do take place in July, according to the AGI press agency.

    For nine weeks now any possibility to form a government was stalemated, with President Sergio Mattarella conducting three rounds of endless but futile all-party negotiations. A crucial reason: Berlusconi flatly refused the Five Star-Lega request he give the proposed joint government a benign but external go-ahead; to do so would "offend my dignity," he reportedly said. What made Berlusconi change his mind? First, polls show a decline in support for several parties, including Berlusconi's own Forza Italia; a new vote might worsen their relative positions. Secondly, many fear a negative public reaction because of the high cost to the country of holding new elections. Thirdly, say observers here, the parties themselves are too short of funds to be able to finance campaigns. 

    The alternative is for President Mattarella to appoint a caretaker government that might last through early 2019. With Berlusconi's backing down, this becomes less likely. The country needs a government able to tackle urgent problems, such as passage of the national budget, measures to govern immigration and revision of the previously untried election law, blamed for some of the present mayhem, "in order not to go back to the vote with the real danger of another inconclusive result," writes Roberto Mostarda, columnist for Wall Street International.

    Back in 2011 Berlusconi, 81, was forced to resign from his third term as premier over "claims he had paid for sex with an underage sex worker" (to quote the Guardian). In 2012 Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Instead he performed four hours weekly in a home for dementia sufferers, for whom he sometimes played the piano, as he had on cruise ships as a youth. This conviction barred him from public office (albeit not from politics), but his multiple judicial trials (and a new one beginning this week) meant that the Five Stars declined to join any government in which Berlusconi would play a part. 

    Until this week Salvini had flatly refused to turn his back on Berlusconi, to the point that Di Maio intimated that behind their solidarity was Berlusconi financing Salvini's Lega. Now, under pressure from Mattarella, from business and financial circles and from the general public, this week the two finally agreed to form a cabinet supported only by Di Maio's 5 Stars and Salvini's Lega while formally asking Berlusconi's outside support for it. The point was to avoid Salvini's outright break with the man whom many here consider his mentor in one way or another. The compromise should avoid the costly new elections, which risk thrusting the same leaders back into the same inconclusive negotiations. Who would be premier? For the moment this remains a mystery, but in the cafes this morning there was gossip that it would be a "puppet" while Salvini and Di Maio would take over the interior and foreign ministries. 

    Unless it be forgotten, just before the elections Salvini called for the demise of the Euro, "a failed experiment," in his words, "the principle cause of our economic decline.... If I go into government I will have top experts keep Italians from being damaged in case the Europe crumbles." Only a few days later however, he said in a press conference in Strasburg March 12 that it would be "impossible to leave the Euro behind us just now." 

     

     

     

  • Italian Tv Host Fabio Fazio (L), Matteo Renzi
    Op-Eds

    No Government in Sight 60 Days After Elections

    ROME -- Sixty days after national general elections were held in Italy, no government is in sight. Despite rumors of secret deals, the long and tense negotiations among the parties brought no solution while, in the meantime, tempers flared. Now the ball is in the hands of the long-suffering Italian president Sergio Mattarella, whose job it is to find a way out of the impasse. This is not the first time that Italy has had a long wait before a government is formed. Back in 1992, 82 days passed before Giuliano Amato was made Premier.

    Still, raising the tension level are the results of regional elections held in both the North and the South over the past two weeks, and widely viewed as harbingers of things to come. They show that Matteo Salvini's Lega is forging ahead relentlessly, at the cost of a perhaps surprisingly weakened M5S. Friuli-Venezia Giulia had over one million potential electors. There, on Sunday, April 29, the Lega coalition, with over 62%, trumped the M5S, which won barely 7%, by comparison with its almost 25% in the same area on of March 4. This placed the M5S in an even worse position than Berlusconi's FI, with over 12% on its own. The rudderless Partito Democratico, which had almost a third of the vote three years ago, is today splintered into a half dozen often antagonistic mini-parties, and is still identified with former Premier Matteo Renzi, actually made a decent showing by on its own winning 18% and, with coalition partners, over 26%.

    The previous week regional elections were also held in the Molise Region in the Italian South, shown in the March 4 election as a bulwark of M5S votes. The turnout was decidedly law, and here too Salvini's center-rightists triumphed, winning half the votes, or 49.3%. By comparison, the M5S slumped to under 32%, significantly less than the Lega coalition. Now, with the Lega sweeping the North, and the M5S appearing diminished even in the South, the situation appears more tense than ever. This setback may explain why Di Maio is demanding a new round of national general elections be held in June -- that is, before the M5S loses more of its appeal. Already, some M5Sers are demanding that the 32-year-old Di Maio be replaced by another and more accomplished leader.

    Not surprisingly, Salvini was crowing. The Molise elections, he said, "confirm that the Italians have clear ideas: the PD and the left have been canceled from the face of the earth. They've been kicked out and cannot return to government. Our hope is that an executive between the two political powers of this country will be born. I am ready now." This was the offer Salvini made to Di Maio, who however continued to insist that the Salvini coalition would have to dump Berlusconi, an unworthy candidate and a "crook...who blocked the country for 20 years." 

    When Salvini continued to refuse to break with Berlusconi, the deadlock grew serious. Briefly Di Maio flirted with the PD, but Renzi not only refused to enter government with the M5S, but, on a popular TV program with Fabio Fazio, attacked the M5S. "Let's let them do what they promised," he said, "if they are capable... we will not be the caretakers for Grillo's adventurers." As for Berlusconi, he boasted that the two regional elections "redimension the 5 Star amateur hour," compared with the protest vote expressed in the national general elections in March. "The Grillini have shown they are incapable of achieving a consensus for their guiding the regions and the country," said a gleeful Berlusconi. 

    The cause of the current stall is well known: on its own comedian Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), now headed by Luigi Di Maio, had bested all the others in the March 4 vote, winning 32% under a new and untried election law. But the three-party rightist coalition, composed of Matteo Salvini's Lega (formerly the Lega Nord), former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (FI) and Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia, outfoxed the M5S by copping, together, 37%. Although President Mattarella appointed the heads of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate to mediate, the two groups have flat out refused any compromise to work together. 

    This leaves President Mattarella a limited number of choices.  The first is to hold new elections in the autumn; Mattarella has already ruled out holding new elections immediately. If this is his choice, the current acting Premier Paolo Gentiloni, whom new polls show as the single most popular politician in Italy, may be asked to continue.  Second alternative is to create a minority rightist government backed by Salvini, Berlusconi, and Meloni, who together command 216 votes in the Chamber (out of the 316 required for a majority), and, in the Senate, 127 out of 161 for a majority.  

    A third option is what is called here a "Governo del Presidente" or grand coalition, in which all parties chip in votes for a distinguished candidate chosen by Mattarella. An advantage of this would be to postpone early elections for as much as a year while the dust settles. An important looming deadline, requiring the existence of a government, is to enact the Italian national budget.

  • Art & Culture

    Happy Birthday, Rome! Celebrating 2,771 Years

    ROME -- On April 21 Rome celebrates its official birthday, ever known as the Natale di Roma, 2,771 years after the city's legendary founding by Romulus in 753 BC. For the occasion a parade of 2,000 in costume -- gladiators, politicians, priestesses -- will take place by the Colosseum.

     

    The celebrations record the founding of Rome from tiny settlement on the Palatine Hill to what became Caput Mundi, the capital of the world, so-called for the vast extension of the Roman cultural, military and economic empire that lasted 1,000 years.

     

    The celebratory date of April 21 itself derives from Roman history. In antiquity cattle were driven through bonfires on that day in honor of Pales, the goddess who protected flocks and livestock. Recording this, in a ceremony April 20 in the Colosseum, young ladies in Roman-looking frocks will dance, while historical charades of gladiatorial combat will take place for the entertainment of children.

     

    In addition, the Colosseum will host a photo exhibition, plus lectures and demonstrative exhibits on Roman schooling in antiquity, on medicine, food, religion, women's fashions and makeup, idem for men, the fames children played and the lives of the military (legionaries and pretorians). Sponsors are the city of Rome plus, organizing the events for the 15th year, is the Gruppo Storico Romano, an historical drama society.

     

    Other events include a visit to the Tiber Island, originally the Temple of Esclupius. Ending the weekend celebrations at the Colosseum are fireworks. (For details of the program in English see >>  and, for this and other Italian travel site updates, also see >> )  

     

    In a novelty which will interest the many unable to be here this weekend, the new administration of the Colosseum has just announced that a single new ticket, called S.U.P.E.R., will allow visitors entry for two days into not only the Colosseum itself, but also the Roman Forum, Nero's covered passageway called the Cryptoportico, and the Palatine Museum, plus access to see new virtual reality narratives of Ancient Rome.

     

     

     

  • Street Art. With Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini
    Op-Eds

    One Artist's Opinion: The Politicos as Cardsharps

    ROME -- Seeking a way out after a second round of all-party negotiations foundered, President Mattarella on April 18 called for "explorative" consultations to be conducted by Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, 71-year-old attorney born in Rovigo and resident in Padua. Casellati, who represents Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia in Parliament and is his staunch supporter, is the first woman to become Senate President in Italy. Her special field had long been canon law. "This opens a new political season," says the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.

     

    Despite there being no sign of an end to the crisis that began six weeks ago with national general elections, there has also been a bit of light relief. Back in 1594 the young Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, depicted three men playing the card game "primero," an early form of poker. In this extraordinarily famous painting, "The Cardsharps," now owned by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas, a man hovering between and above the two young players slyly signals to the youth on the right the cards held by his opponent on the left. Last week a satirical version of this Caravaggio painting suddenly appeared on the wall of a building on Via de' Lucchesi a stone's threw from the presidential Quirinal Palace.

     

    In this street art version,  three of today's top politicians dressed in 16th century garb -- former premier Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia (FI); Luigi Di Maio, head of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S); and Matteo Salvini, head of the rightist Lega -- are depicted playing cards. To the left is Berlusconi, in the center the sly and double-crossing Salvini and, on the right, Di Maio. As one Italian commentator put it, the painting showed "double crossing in action." Under the painting a caption declared, "An ingenuous old man [Berlusconi] is playing cards with his opponent, who, plotting with the adversary, cheats in the game of politics. This descriptive and realistic theatrical scene contains a moral warning: it condemns immorality [malcostume] and especially the strategies cooked up by the politicians." Needless to say, Carabinieri police immediately snatched the painting from the wall and presumably destroyed it, but not before the media pounced upon it, rebroadcasting its message, which was that Salvini and Di Maio were conniving against Berlusconi, supposedly Salvini's partner.

     

    Among the multiple reasons for the failure of these six weeks of all-party negotiations was Salvini's support of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the tempest over responsibility for the alleged gassing of Syrian citizens, which left 40 dead. "The attack on Syria was a tremendous error," declared Salvini, who made one of his several visits to Putin in Russia last March. In a twitter Salvini added, "They are still hunting for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, we are still paying for the crazy war in Libya, and the trigger-happy insist with intelligent missiles, helping among others the Islamic terrorists, who'd almost been defeated. It is crazy, stop it." Among those critical of Salvini's views was his coalition partner Berlusconi, quoted as saying, "In a situation like this it would be better to say nothing. The attack had precise objectives against sites linked to the production of chemical weapons."

     

    Most importantly, according to the conservative daily Il Giornale, Salvini, treading on the dangerous terrain of international relations, left President Mattarella "perplexed over whether he can entrust a leading role to Salvini, in a field that requires the gifts of prudence and diplomacy." At the same time some in the M5S sympathize with Putin's Russia; Manlio Di Stefano, in charge of the movement's foreign affairs, has criticized NATO for being too "aggressive" in East Europe.

     

    The challenge for Casellati is enormous, for she must again try to persuade Salvini's and Berlusconi's center-right to form a government together with the M5S. She has served six terms in the Senate, winning in Venice, where she won 42% of the votes. "I like politics and I hope to continue," she told reporters almost 25 years ago. "In my house everyone votes for Forza Italia, including my mother," she once said.

     

    Will she succeed? For the moment The M5S and the coalition now dominated by Salvini remain split over whether or not to include Berlusconi in a new government. Speaking for the left, Marco Travaglio, editor in chief of the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, warns that Salvini should be careful of a breach with Berlusconi, as Di Maio is demanding. "It is very difficult and very dangerous for his allies to break with Berlusconi. He is used to slamming, with his TV stations and newspapers, everything that gets in his way." And at any rate Italian politics remain a waiting game until the results are known for regional elections, being held in Molise in the South on April 22 and, in the North, in Friuli Venezia Giulia on April 29. At that time the relative strengths of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, the Lega and Berlusconi's Forza italia will be tested.

     

    At any rate, said Travaglia, "Casellati will go to the parties to ask questions whose answers she already knows. She knows that the M5S will never go into government with Forza Italia and hence, with due respect, she will go into an exploratory period that can lead nowhere at all. And in this way we shall finally rid ourselves of that swindle that is called center-right. It is a fake coalition."

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    Battle over US - China Tariffs May Have Fallout for Italy

    ROME -- Experts here disagree over whether the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China will have an effect on Italy and its economy, and to what extent. In particular, if U.S. wine exports to China decline because of higher tariffs, Italian wine sales just may rise further, at a time when Chinese consumption is on the rise. At $86 million annually, U.S. wine sales to China are only half of Italy's, whose wine exports to China soared to $160 million in 2017, at least 29% higher than the previous year. Following wine are exports of olive oil, worth over $35 million. Italian pasta is also a favorite of Chinese dollars, with exports earning Italy $27 million.

    "For Italian vinters, [China] is a strategic market," according to the nationwide Federazione Coltivatori Diretti (Coldiretti), which represents 1.6 million farm owners in Italy. In an analysis based upon a report by the official statistics-gatherer Istat, Coldiretti reported that, as a market for wine, China is already fifth worldwide and first of all for acquisition of red wines. Besides wines, exports of fresh fruit may benefit, but not immediately; at present Italy exports to China only kiwi and citrus fruits. However, an agreement is being worked out for China to acquire Italian apples and pears plus dried alfalfa. 

    In the confrontation over tariffs, a domino effect is not excluded, however. Some here fear that President Donald Trump's next move may be to attack European Union imports, with what one expert dubbed "a return to the law of the strongest, with unpredictable consequences for world trade." Italian exports to the U.S. amounted to almost $41 million in 2017 and, to China, almost $14 million. represents the larger farm producers. Going well beyond tensions between the U.S. and China, Massimiliano Giansanti, president of the Confederazione Generale dell'Agricultura Italiana (Confagricoltura), warns that the situation could bring about a reaction on the part of the World Trade Organization (WTO), aimed at combatting an anomalous flood of products onto the European Market. "The commercial war could have a strong impact on normal international trade," says Giansanti.

    "Let's not forget that, in the battle between the two giants, U.S. and China, in terms of population Italy is about as big as just two Chinese cities," Alberto Rossi, market analyst with the Italo-China Foundation, told an interviewer this week. "But it is correct to analyze the situation as regards its impact upon Europe."  A risk seen here is that, with the markets in China and the U.S. frozen, a scantly controlled and shifting flood of destabilizing imports into European nations could result, harming the Europeans, "and in particular we Italians, who live off our prestigious exports," warns economist Angelo Baglioni of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.

    Already, Italy is not the sole European country selling wine to China; in 2016, Italy's $160 million in sales to China fell well behind the French, who sold an astonishing $965 million. In addition, "The battle over tariffs may weaken the economies of both the U.S. and China, with fallout effects," says Prof. Baglioni. "On markets of these dimensions, which no longer grow as much as before, it is inevitable that less is sold. The risk is real."

    A further complication is the scattering of production, sometimes in several countries,  of the luxury goods which are a hallmark of Italian marketing worldwide. Last Dec. 18 twenty-two of these luxury manufacturers created an association at the Milan stock market called Ptse Italia Brands. Among the Italia Brands founding fathers: Ferrari, Pirelli, Tod's, Piaggio, , De' Longhi, Brembo, Fca, and Campari. Some of these, including Geox, Merloni and Luxottica, already have some manufacturing facilities in China and elsewhere as well. Although still based in Milan, the Pirelli group of tire manufacturers was actually purchased for $10,32 billion by the Chinese firm ChemChina, and is its most ambitious overseas acquisition, according to the Financial Times.

     

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    Risk of New Elections Loom Over Quirinal Talks

    ROME -- On Thursday, the second day of formal consultations in the Quirinal Palace, the risk of new elections continued to cast a shadow over the talks guided by President Sergio Mattarella. "Italy has moved from bipolarism to bipopulism," was how one commentator synthesized today's political situation -- that is, from the decades of alternating center-left and center-right poles to the present, in which the two front-running populist parties fight tooth and nail to win control of a future government.

    The respective leaders of these two populist parties, Matteo Salvini of the Lega and Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) were Thursday's chief protagonists. Behind the scenes the two have been negotiating indirectly and, reportedly, directly as well this week, but neither is conceding his right to be premier. Salvini appears the stronger, for he dominates the center-right alliance which includes Berlusconi's Forza Italia (14% in the elections March 4) and Giorgia Meloni's tiny Fratelli d'Italia. Can and should that center-right, populist coalition, which won 35% of the vote, prevail over the most successful single party, the M5S with its 32%?

    To deal with their stalemate is Mattarella's first task, but it appears unresolved, making a second round of negotiations appear likely. With neither willing to cave in, various alternative solutions are suggested: name a respected third-party individual premier; form an all-party-backed coalition government; or create a caretaker ("technical") government to baby sit for a year or so. Even more likely are early elections. Indeed, accompanying Salvini Thursday was the Lega's Giancarlo Giorgetti, who, exiting from the Quirinal, told reporters that, unless the situation changes, new elections are the sole realistic choice.

    These may be convenient for Salvini, who can cadge votes from his coalition partner Forza Italia, while conveniently sending Berlusconi, 81, out to pasture. By the same token Di Maio may hope to continue to poach voters from the Partito Democratico, which remains in serious, visible disarray; it is no secret that many voters abandoned the PD for the Movimento 5 Stelle.

    Some suggest that, before any such decision be made, they watch the results of regional elections due April 22 in Molise in the South, where the M5S prevails, and April 29 in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a stronghold of the Lega. Others, including Berlusconi's associate Antonio Tajani of Forza Italia, who is president of the European Parliament, would gain time by waiting until after EU elections set for May 2019.

    Will Parliament go along with these leaders? Not necessarily, for the traditional party loyalty is now a thing of the past. In the election for Senate president, 40 M5S senators bolted their own party to back the Salvini coalition candidate Elisabetta Alberti Casellati of Forza Italia. With that loss of automatic devotion comes limited experience in government: for three out of every four MPs this is their first time in national office.  With a median age that has dropped to 44.3, this is the youngest Parliament in history.

    Of the parties, the very youngest is the M5S, with 21 MPs under 30 while another four are from the Lega and two from Forza Italia. Among the other newcomers: Angela Raffa, 25, of the M5S, elected from Messina in Sicily and trained in business, and Flavio Gastaldi, 26, electrician, from Cuneo, elected by the Lega. One youth from Naples, 25, is still studying law at university.  Their concerns differ from those of the old guard, like immigration, taxes, and EU obligations. "My goal," says Rebecca Frassini of Bergamo, 26, elected by the M5S, "is to fight against the brain drain and youth unemployment." Significantly, for it suggests that the Partito Democratico is a bit left behind, not one of its parliamentary group is under 30.

    But even as the parliament rejuvenates, the country itself is aging. The Italians are producing fewer children, and so are the immigrants who have settled here permanently. In the 1980s the  migrant population stood at 200,000 but is today over 5 million, for 8.4% of the population. Their declining birth rate, together with that of the Italians, means that the total population will decline and with it, the Gross Domestic Product [in Italian PIL]. "From 2041 their contributions to the work force will not be sufficient to raise the FGP, said a new study by the Bank of Italy.

    Already, the population decline is visible in the shuttering of a number of schools. The scholastic population in Italy is expected to drop from today's 9 million to 8 million by 2028. Already, "there are schools where the bells no longer ring, and rooms where the desks are empty," said a report in the weekly L'Espresso. "Today one school out of five of the 42,000 scattered throughout the country is no longer technically in use, but is inactive." In the North alone 6% of the school buildings have already been abandoned, and the situation is worse in the South.

               

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