Corruption in Italy: are things changing?

It is possible that with the passing of the post war generation who looked on corruption as cunning rather than morally wrong, Italy may begin to maximise its potential without the millstone of corruption holding it back

No longer acceptable
Tim Hedges
On 11 November 2013 21:24

The excellent Pope Francis, or Papa Bergoglio as he is known here, does his internal pontifical work quietly, which is as it should be; but in his sermons he goes out of his way to shock, which makes Vatican watching a pleasure.

In just eight months he has condemned his Church for being obsessed with sex, he has condemned the factional lobby groups, he has condemned priestly ostentation (I shudder to think of the reception he gave that German bishop who spent millions doing up his palace).

Francis has condemned our attitude to prisoners, our attitude to migrants, our attitude to the poor. And now he has condemned corruption.

From his rather austere home in the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse he criticised the well-heeled beneficiaries of graft, who live a wealthy lifestyle and give to the Church, but who in fact were ‘feeding their children dirty bread’.

When the Pope speaks, the attitude here is that he is speaking to Italians, and to a large extent he was. It comes as we hear that the Rome transport system, ATAC, has lost millions through double printing of tickets; no one knows how much has been siphoned off, tens of millions certainly, and suspicions are that the corruption goes high up.

The head of Finmeccanica, one of Italy’s largest industrial groups, has resigned over corruption in a helicopter contract with India. The Minister for Justice is accused of helping a friend to a more comfortable prison sentence (the friend was arrested for cooking the books of an insurance company). And of course Berlusconi is accused of buying the support of an opposition senator. There are cases in the press each day.

But it goes much further than that. A report from Price Waterhouse Coopers for OLAF, the ineffective European Fraud Office, says that one in ten public contracts awarded in Italy is corrupt, amounting to a total of €44 billion.

I should have thought it was more. And of course there’s the rest of it, particularly in local government: a few euros for doing the raccomandazione for a friend’s child to get a job; the bustarella envelope for easing through someone’s planning permission.

And all this without mentioning the organised crime networks. In total it has been estimated that corruption costs each family in Italy €1,500 a year, more than the hated property tax; more than the cost of fuel for the car.

Why is it tolerated, when the other items are so hotly complained of? It is because everyone, perhaps in only a small way, is at it, or knows someone who is at it, or thinks they might like to be at it some day. Why bemoan an everyday fact of life, like the weather?

Papa Bergoglio says this: “Some of you might say ’But this man only did what everyone does’ But no, not everyone... But it’s that attitude of the shortcut, of the most comfortable way to earn a living. Let us pray that the Lord may change the hearts of these people who are faithful to the goddess of bribes. Let them realise that dignity comes from dignified work, from honest work, from daily work and not from these shortcuts.”

It was a long homily, and a good one. But will it have an effect?

Many say that things can never change in Italy, that some will always get ahead by breaking the rules and some will always turn a blind eye to it for a fee. But I am not so sure.

With the nuisance of organised crime – and it affects everyone, innocent and guilty – the south is beginning to move. In Taranto, the head of the Riva family has been arrested for controlling companies which avoided regulations and polluted the environment. This was only after public pressure from citizens’ groups. Billions of euros have been recovered.

Around the town of Locri in Calabria, a notorious stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta, a fruit growing co-operative has been established by the former Bishop of Locri. It is now called NOME and has a turnover of hundreds of millions of euros, and is a big employer locally. It particularly employs the children of mafia families, to give them a different life.

In Sicily 800 shops advertise that they won’t pay the Pizzo (protection money) and their goods are stamped with a label saying ‘I don’t pay the Pizzo’.

Elsewhere crowds have been throwing coins at corrupt politicians, and Beppe Grillo leads a movement to prevent them staying on in parliament.

It is perhaps a vain hope, but it is possible that with the passing of the post war generation who looked on corruption as shrewd cunning rather than morally wrong, this clever and industrious people may begin to maximise its potential without the millstone of corruption holding it back. The Pope’s interference is timely.

Tim Hedges had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer

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