Jul 7th 2012 | from the print edition
Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future. By Bill Emmott. Yale University Press; 288 pages; £18.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk. To be published in America in August. Pre-order from Amazon.com
EVEN after the latest euro rescue in Brussels, Italy remains a time bomb. Its public debt of close to €2 trillion ($2.5 trillion) is the world’s third biggest, making it too big to bail out. It has lost competitiveness. And its economy is stagnant: between 2001 and 2012 GDP shrank, a worse performance than any other rich country. Fortunately, as Bill Emmott notes in this book, Italy has since last November had a technocratic cabinet led by Mario Monti that is the country’s first reforming government in years.
- Mr Emmott, who was editor-in-chief of this newspaper from 1993 to 2006, has made Italy one of his specialist subjects, inspired partly by libel battles with Mr Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi. His excellent book is an updated English version of one published in Italian in 2010 under the title “Forza, Italia” (a pun on Mr Berlusconi’s party and a football slogan, meaning “Go! Italy”). His thesis is better described by the new title: there are in reality two Italys.
This is often said of the north and south. Last year’s 150th anniversary of Italian unification saw acid remarks about its having divided Africa, not united Italy. But Mr Emmott’s division is not this one. Rather, he finds good and bad all over the country. On the good side he cites cases such as Mr Monti, young entrepreneurs, strong manufacturing (Italy is second only to Germany in Europe), a revitalised Fiat and Turin. On the bad, he offers Mr Berlusconi, organised crime and corruption, the public sector, red tape and Naples.
His story is supported by lively anecdotes of the people and firms he meets on his travels, many of them in the course of making a documentary film. It is refreshing to read so much that is positive about Italy amid the pervasive gloom: the fight against organised crime in the south, the exporting power of family firms in the north, the impact of Mr Monti’s reforms. The author finds plenty of reasons for hope.
Yet overall his book seems a touch too optimistic. Mr Monti is being as bold as he can, but he has lost popularity, some of his reforms have been watered down and his ability to do things is waning as next spring’s election approaches. The anti-mafia movement in Sicily is heartening, but organised crime has spread to the north as well. Many young Italians are talented and hard-working, but too many deploy their talents abroad rather than at home.
Above all, the deep structural failings of Italy—an inefficient public sector, a poor demographic outlook, lousy universities, a calamitously slow judicial system—will take years to put right. The euro crisis has shown the urgent need for reforms, but by stunting growth it has also made them harder. And Italy has few liberals who genuinely believe in reform.
Early on Mr Emmott notes the spooky parallels between now and the early 1990s, when Italy’s economic problems first became apparent. A promising start then turned into 20 wasted years, largely because of Mr Berlusconi’s entry on to the political stage. The media mogul’s era may be over (even that is not certain). But new populists are rising up, and the next election could be messy. Italy has yet to find its next saviour.
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