Power in Italy

Three days after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, as news of a possible nuclear leakage in Fukushima was capturing the headlines, the Italian secretary for the environment, Stefania Prestigiacomo, went on record announcing that, despite growing widespread concern, Italy’s nuclear policy would “obviously” remain unchanged. That policy, recently implemented, had terminated a national nuclear moratorium put in place by popular referendum in the aftermath of the Chernobyl incident of 1986, and mandated the construction of four new nuclear power plants by 2020. And because the devil is in the details, it was that little word, “obviously,” which signaled once again the explosive stuff of which Berlusconi’s hold over the destiny of his own country is made.

As much of Europe was calling for caution in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima incident, and some were quickly planning to downscale their nuclear programs (Germany immediately committed to shutting down its first-generation reactors), Berlusconi issued a macho call for “full (nuclear) throttle ahead.” Why would a political leader in his right mind choose such a course of action at such an emotional time? Because the Fukushima disaster “obviously” presented a twofold opportunity: 1) to reassure all parties involved in the imminent nuclear plant construction bonanza that there was nothing to worry about; 2) to win consensus at home in the way he knows how to do best: through the impact of boisterous press announcements (this one rooted in the subtext of his brave leadership vis-à-vis Europe’s ineffective conformity) in which rhetoric is disguised — with the complicity of a friendly or sloppy press as well as a mostly anesthetized public opinion — as concrete cabinet action.[1]

In the months prior to the recent earthquake, Italy’s government had been hard at work promoting a new energy policy based on a return to nuclear production. In order to carry out the plan, the government announced the withdrawal of public subsidies to the renewable energy industry at the beginning of 2011 — a move which led, in the weeks prior to Fukushima, to very vocal demonstrations in front of the Italian parliament by entrepreneurs and workers of that industry, who expressed concern that massive private investments and thousands of jobs would be lost as a consequence of Italy’s neglect of its renewable energy policy. The protesters charged that behind Italy’s shunning of the green economy lurked the interests of the big public works contractors (often in bed with organized crime and pro-active in political corruption),[2] which were heavily lobbying for major undertakings after the recent economic downturn had significantly slowed down their business (a case in point being Berlusconi’s now defunct pet project of a mammoth bridge connecting Sicily to the mainland).[3] As a result of the protests, on March 2nd the Italian government decided to delay all decisions on subsidies to the green economy by six months — in a habit of procrastination which, as I will later point out, is the signature of Italy’s current government in all policies but one.

As the Fukushima crisis did not diffuse, but in fact escalated to a fully declared nuclear disaster, Berlusconi had to change his course of action quickly. Gone was the chance to win more points on the consensus front, and damage control was now in order. Italians appeared genuinely concerned with the incessant stream of bad news from Japan, and a stubborn government might jeopardize the outcome of some upcoming key mayoral elections (in Torino and Milan, among other major cities), as well as encourage its citizens to turn out en masse to vote for a referendum challenging, among other things, Italy’s new nuclear power policy and, above all, the legitimacy of a new law allowing Berlusconi to use his office as prime minister as a viable excuse not to appear in court, thus stalling all the trials in which he is involved. (Under the Italian Constitution, referendums require a 51% quorum, and the government had already safely scheduled the upcoming vote to take place in mid-June, when Italians are loathe to go to the polls. A post-Fukushima stir over nuclear energy, the government feared, might persuade Italians to leave the beach and head for the polls even in the heat of summer, repealing not only nuclear policy but, more importantly, Berlusconi’s recently crafted virtual immunity from prosecution).

Thus, on March 23, Berlusconi sent another member of his cabinet, secretary for economic development Paolo Romani, to publicly announce a one-year freeze on nuclear deployment. And for anyone still persuaded of the government’s genuine concern for the good of the nation, a casual conversation captured a few days earlier by an open microphone in the lower house confirmed that the one-year procrastination was a mere political tactic, and no change of heart indeed: “we can’t jeopardize elections because of the nukes,” secretary Prestigiacomo had confided to treasury secretary Tremonti, unknowingly also speaking on the record of a media organization.

In line with other similar circumstances, the Fukushima incident has proven for Italy’s leadership to be, first and foremost, a test of its own ambiguity. More than policy, the Italian government’s reaction to Fukushima has resulted in pure comedy, albeit of the most tragic kind, demonstrating once again that the Berlusconi government is proceeding on the fly, its sole concern being to remain standing on its feet, no matter how. Fukushima has shown how quickly in this country policies come and go, with nothing actually getting done in terms of the public good: Italy’s nuclear policy — although questionable, a policy in its own right — has been scrapped or delayed (which ultimately amounts to the same thing: Berlusconi may not be in office 12 months from now) for mere political expediency, and stands as yet more evidence of the prime minister’s inability to take the country anywhere.

Also on the international front, and contrary to what the man publicly claims at home and the many stunts he pulls in order to prove otherwise, Italy’s reputation (never a stellar one) has been further tarnished as a result of almost 15 years of Berlusconi’s political tenure. A few, significant examples will help clarify. The Italian candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the European Central Bank next October, Mario Draghi, who is acclaimed in the international financial press as the best man for the job, is likely to be passed up for some back-runner from Northern Europe, on the sole grounds of Germany’s veto over Draghi’s national credentials.[4] And when, in late March, NATO resolved to support rebel guerrillas in Libya in a bid to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi’s despotic regime, Berlusconi was nowhere near the table where decisions were made and strategies planned out, despite Italy’s high stakes in that conflict. But the icing on the cake of Berlusconi’s embarrassing international record is summed up in an ad — circulated in Sweden first, and now towering in huge billboards all across Germany — to promote payment of the state television licence fee. In the ad, a gigantic half bust picture of Italy’s prime minister is accompanied by a caption that reads: “a democracy is (only) as strong as its media are.” And although the Berlusconi-owned media empire ignored the incident altogether, it stands as an undisputable testimony to Europe’s widespread uneasiness with the recent turns of Italian democracy.

And they have a point. Berlusconi has used his office to pursue two very simple goals: to strengthen his business empire, and to bend the law so as to stay out of jail. Plagued by prosecutions — the ones currently being heard by the courts range from corruption of judges and violations in the sale of television rights to child prostitution — Berlusconi has chosen to pawn the current and future state of the country to the cause of his personal immunity from the law. And the huge political machine he controls with his deep pockets and an ever-growing number of ministerial and sub-ministerial posts (so much for a free-market friendly “lean” government) has always obliged. As I write, the Italian parliament is at work sabotaging Berlusconi’s child prostitution trials on technicalities which have already been overruled by Italy’s Supreme Court; it is also getting ready to pass a bill which, by shortening the statute of limitation on trials whose defendants have no prior convictions (which is, technically, Berlusconi’s case), will annul all ongoing proceedings on Berlusconi’s corruption of judges.

Berlusconi’s ultimate withdrawal from the national spotlight (no one is eternal, after all) will leave major ruins to be re-built at a huge cost. Part of the ruins will be in Italy’s energy policy, which currently no longer exists. Like many in Europe, Italy negotiates its energy supply with the liberal and (mostly) illiberal foreign governments from which it purchases virtually all the power it needs: France for (nuclear-produced) electricity, Russia, Algeria, Libya, Norway and the Netherlands for gas, the Gulf States for oil. An effective energy policy is desperately needed, in a country blessed by the sun and “obviously” incapable of reaping any practical benefit from it.

Full disclosure: I am one of the 55% of Italians who believe Silvio Berlusconi should not run the country.  I am also among the 40% of citizens who believe that Berlusconi’s mix of business, politics and media ownership has built — as The Economist has well pointed out recently —  “a conflict of interest in the heart of Italian life” which is a danger to democracy and is eroding the level of civilization that this country has reached since the end of World War II. End of disclosure.

Andrea CAROSSO teaches American Literature and Culture at the University of Torino, where he also directs the Master Program in American Studies and the Centro di Studi Americani ed Euro-Americani “Piero Bairati.” Among his publications: Decostruzione eè America. Un reader critico (ed., Tirrenia 1994), T.S. Eliot e i miti del moderno. Prassi, teoria e ideologia negli scritti critici e filosofici (Orso 1995), Invito alla lettura di Vladimir Nabokov (Mursia 1999); Urban Cultures of/in the United States (ed., Peter Lang 2010).

Andrea Carosso