Demonstrators hold balloons portraying Italian premier Matteo Renzi with a long nose as Pinocchio, during a protest in Rome, 12 Dec 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
By Barry Moody
As the Greek crisis reached its worrying climax, nobody watched with more anxiety than Italy, a few hundred miles away across the Adriatic.
This country would be one of the most vulnerable to contagion from “Grexit” despite being the euro zone’s third largest economy.
With youth employment at 40 percent and public debt second only to Greece in the currency union, Italy is making only a stuttering recovery from six years of recession and stagnation.
It boasts warm people, glorious scenery, art treasures and superb food. But Italy is held back by corruption, choking bureaucracy, labyrinthine politics, organised crime and a sclerotic legal system, which discourage investment.
As a lifelong Italophile, I am as frustrated as Italians. I visit the country for several months each year and feel an alarming air of déjà vu every time I open a newspaper.
The locals respond in ways that seem fatally Italian.
I was vividly reminded of these problems during our latest visit to the beautiful eastern region of Le Marche, where we have a house.
Rubbish, old cars, dead domestic appliances and around 80 pigs scar a hillside near our village.
The owner, who purportedly has mental problems, went bankrupt long ago. He refuses to sell the pigs and, without money to feed them, encourages them to run wild.
They breed with wild boars, dig up his neighbors’ gardens, damage their fruit and other crops and leave excrement on their properties.
This has been going on for a decade, and local police have a 6-inch thick file of complaints about it.
Asked how this could go on so long, the locals respond in ways that seem fatally Italian: the previous mayor was in cahoots with the pig owner, he has friends in the public health authority, people are scared of his threats and, above all, he seems immune from sanction because he has no money.
On the broader canvas, things seem just as depressing.
Although the new mayor and the Carabinieri police commander told me they are determined to end the farce, so many overlapping authorities and laws are involved that it seems impossible to take action.
A meeting at the prefect’s office in the provincial capital was attended by two different police forces, the local mayor, the public prosecutor — but not the health authority whose go-ahead is essential to close down the unsanitary pig farm.
A local farmer ruefully told me they need to bring in some Calabrians from the crime-ridden south rather than law-abiding locals. “They would solve the problem in two weeks,” he said darkly.
On the broader canvas things seem just as depressing.
Last year it looked as if Italy might finally turn a corner. The nation’s youngest prime minister, Matteo Renzi, assumed power after winning leadership of his center-left Democratic Party in an internal coup at the age of 39, only five years after becoming mayor of Florence.
An outsider to Rome’s establishment, he vowed to demolish a system rooted in myriad interest groups.
Eclipsing the long dominance of scandal-plagued media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi with slick communications savvy, Renzi raised hopes of transforming Italy’s political narrative.
In a Blair-style revolution, he won 41 percent of the votes in European Parliament elections in 2014 — the largest majority in more than half a century. He promised to end electoral instability, streamline the judicial and educational systems and challenge corruption.
Those who love Italy must accept its deepest problems.
Then came the reaction.
Renzi has been besieged by trade unions opposed to labor reforms, by the former communist left wing of his own party and by populist forces on right and left. Corruption scandals in Rome, Milan and Venice have tainted his government’s popularity.
In local elections in May, support for his party slumped to around 24 percent. Although he has pushed through some major reforms, especially to the electoral system, Renzi’s personal appeal has plunged — down by 33 percentage points according to one poll.
Last weekend he announced plans for sweeping tax cuts in an attempt to boost the economy and revive his approval ratings.
Renzi’s brash manner and reliance on a coterie of Tuscan advisers have alienated other politicians.
Above all, a flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa — nearly 60,000 already this year — who come to Italy in rickety boats has boosted the anti-immigrant Northern League, which now dominates the right.
So those who love Italy must, I guess, accept that some of its deepest problems won’t be solved any time soon.
This is a country where the reminders of history and of how things never really change are everywhere.
Just sip the wine, eat the ice cream and try desperately not to worry. That’s how Italians do it.