Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Italy’s Not-So-Happy Birthday

On the occasion of their country's 150th anniversary, Italians realize that national unity is easier said than done.

Filippo Monteforte AFP
Filippo Monteforte AFP
Filippo Monteforte AFP

ROME — The Italian government had intended to stage a nationwide birthday celebration on the occasion of the country's 150th anniversary, but increasingly the proceedings resemble those of an acrimonious divorce. What was supposed to be a celebration of unity has descended into a chance for opportunistic politicians to stoke the regional pride-bordering-on-chauvinism that has always marked the modern Italian state.

Two months ago, on Jan. 20, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government announced its plan to organize a weeklong celebration beginning March 17. It wasn't long before that intention was undermined.

ROME — The Italian government had intended to stage a nationwide birthday celebration on the occasion of the country’s 150th anniversary, but increasingly the proceedings resemble those of an acrimonious divorce. What was supposed to be a celebration of unity has descended into a chance for opportunistic politicians to stoke the regional pride-bordering-on-chauvinism that has always marked the modern Italian state.

Two months ago, on Jan. 20, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government announced its plan to organize a weeklong celebration beginning March 17. It wasn’t long before that intention was undermined.

Luis Durnwalder, governor of the northern province of South Tyrol, was the first to make a show of resistance, announcing his disapproval of the March 17 holiday. The leaders of the Northern League — a pro-northern Italy party based in Milan and the country’s fastest-growing political force — also quickly realized that the central government’s announcement set the stage for a culture war, and they responded, in turn, with a show of force, announcing that their party members would be going to work on March 17 and suggesting that schools should be kept open (ultimately, children did get the day off). Next, education administrators around the country, a slew of other politicians, and even Italy’s president started bickering about the merits of the holiday.

“We can celebrate while we are at work and our kids are at school,” Northern League representative Roberto Calderoli said Feb. 8, adding that it would be a “big waste of money to declare a national holiday and close businesses that day.”

Italians, forged into one nation out of disparate kingdoms, have always interpreted their unification in different ways in different regions. “We have never celebrated this date [March 17],” said Giovanni Sabbatucci, professor of contemporary Italian history at La Sapienza University in Rome. “We just chose it now because we had to find a date to use for the anniversary.”

Some of the grievances that Italians are drawing on now trace back to the very process of unification — a contentious and ambiguous series of diplomatic and military events capped by the crowning of Vittorio Emanuele II as king by a newly-established parliament in 1861.

Many in South Tyrol, annexed after World War I, suggest that the anniversary is a painful reminder of the fact that their region was forced into a country it never wanted to join. “Italians can celebrate how they wish, but they can’t force us,” said Eva Klotz, leader of the local South Tyrol Freedom Party, a recently created secessionist party that is gaining in popularity. “Our forefathers have been tortured and killed during fascism. It would be as if the rapist would force the person raped to celebrate the violence they have suffered.”

“We still have a ways to go,” said Klotz of efforts to secede from Italy. “But we won’t stop fighting.”

Southern Italians also still nurse grievances from the unification era. Paul Ginsborg, professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence, argues that southern Italy has long considered the modern Italian state a product of northern imperial ambitions. Indeed, the process of unification involved northern Italians brutally snuffing out a southern Italian insurgency.

But the true reasons for discord in today’s Italy are the stark economic inequalities that divide the country. What is not debatable is the clear-cut disparity between north and south. The Italian provinces north of Rome constitute one of the wealthiest areas in the European Union; south of the Eternal City is one of the poorest. Nearly 23 percent of residents in the south live in poverty, compared with less than 5 percent in the north. The value added per capita (a measure of income generated per person) was more than 28,000 euros in the north in 2008; in the south it was less than 16,000 euros.

It wasn’t always this way. When Italy unified the north and the south were relatively even in terms of prosperity but stark structural differences sent the two down divergent paths. The south was largely an agricultural economy with wealth highly concentrated among a small percentage of the population and education was shoddy. In the north, wealth was more evenly distributed, the economy was already industrializing, and education was high-quality. Nearly 30 years after unification, the north began to surge ahead based on its industrial economy, which was aided by labor from the south, according to Adriano Giannola,  president of SVIMEZ, a research center focused on southern Italy.

When Italy was experiencing rapid economic growth after World War II, the government in Rome made a push to modernize the south, spending billions of dollars on industrialization efforts. By the 1980s, however, it became clear that the “great involvement,” as the transfers came to be known, wasn’t bridging the gap in a sustainable way. The money was “used to support incomes and local demand, instead of developing production and structural changes,” Giannola wrote in “The South in Italy’s Economy,” an essay for the 150th anniversary. “It increased the imports from the north to the south.” The brightest minds continued to leave southern Italy for better jobs elsewhere, leaving behind a population dependent on handouts from Rome. Organized crime regained strength as development efforts collapsed, and the south’s social collapse is now largely viewed as an endemic problem with no easy solution, Giannola wrote.

Meanwhile, the southern spending programs were spurring resentment in the north. Sabbatucci points to the creation of the Northern League in the late 1980s as a symbol of northern Italians’ intense concern for their country’s future against the specters of declining economic competitiveness, increased immigration, and the loss of local identities. The party has spent the past two decades winning elections on a populist agenda that rails against “robber Rome” for supporting lazy southerners with taxes paid by hardworking northerners, and even flirts with secession.

The Northern League’s popularity and the lure of secession waned after Italy met the requirements to join the euro currency in 1998, but the global financial crisis has brought the party roaring back. It is now the biggest coalition partner in Berlusconi’s government and an influential one: Laws are currently being crafted in the Italian Parliament that would grant some northern provinces considerably more control over their finances.

If the Northern League achieves its dream of fiscal federalism for northern regions, Italy will cease to perform one of the most basic functions of a state, writes Giannola: “Every citizen as a taxpayer holds the right to receive public services irrespective of wealth and, even more so, place of residence.”

Indeed, it seems less likely that this week’s 150th anniversary is an occasion for celebration, so much as a wistful reminder that the brief window when northern and southern Italy managed to cooperate is closing shut, perhaps for good. The country will soon have to decide whether it is worth pursuing the task that the early Italian statesman Massimo d’Azeglio laid out in 1861: “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.”

Conor Gallagher and Martina Albertazzi are freelance journalists based in Rome.

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