Its always a good idea to see what life is like in another member state of the European Union. After last week in Italy, in Florence and Pisa, I ask what hope is there for the future of Italy so long as it is chained to the EU and, in particular, to the Euro?
Florence and Pisa are sustained almost entirely, it seems, by tourism. Even in January large groups of Japanese were in town. In one week it was astonishing to us how many disasters were striking poor old Italy. There were earthquakes, avalanches, a fight between the finance minister of Italy and the European Commission over Italy’s budget deficit, continued angst about the future of the world’s oldest bank, MPS, and a scandal involving the British company BT which had, inadvisedly, opened businesses in Italy without due precautions against the long standing culture of corruption, bribery and fraud. Just as the Black Death devastated Italy in 1348 so a combination of disasters and membership of the European Union seems to be sapping at its very heart today.
Florence was as beautiful as ever and some of the attractions rather improved. Half of the Uffizi has been modernised and rehung – the other half is ‘Lavoro in Corso’ three of the most threatening words in Italian. All the wonders of Florence are the product of a civilisation that, as one commentator put it, ‘appeared like a comet, shone brightly, and disappeared’. In the 1960s Italy’s comet appeared again and it became a leader in style, engineering and film among other things. The comet has long passed. In Florence most of the owner occupied shops which once showcased Italian made products have been replaced by the ubiquitous high-end chains to be found in New York, London, Paris and Capri. Few seemed to have any customers. Many are Italian in name only.
What really amazed us were the armoured cars accompanied by soldiers in battle fatigues carrying enormous guns. They were outside Florence rail station, the Duomo, the Uffizi and even beside the leaning tower of Pisa. We were not sure what they were there for. Were their guns loaded? Were they they to show tourists that the Italian government cared about them? How would they act in case of emergency?
We got some idea of the Italian state of mind by watching TV debates in the evenings. These were unruly affairs lasting around two hours. The participants shouted at each other. The moderator wandered round with a script but seemed not to be in charge. The first night the subject was Islam and Mosques. The participants said they were not against Islam but definitely against Mosques. They are clearly unhappy about the influx from north Africa. The Italians are having to pay for all these people and their religion poses a threat in a country where there are still worshippers at a weekday Christian service. The second night the subject was the Banks. The participants were equally shouty. A former finance minister from the Berlesconi regime sat listening in considerable discomfort. We could bear no more. The next night we found another less upsetting channel.
The twin effects of uncontrolled immigration and membership of the Eurozone, on top of chronic poor domestic government and corruption, are having a depressing effect on one of Europe’s most talented countries. Unemployment hovers around 12% with youth unemployment around 40%. No wonder all the many beggars in Florence appeared to be immigrants.
None of this will put us off Italy but we long for the return of the comet to bring new life to our favourite European country.