Italy kicks off another big year for Europe

In 2017 we reach the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, but the main concern is that Europe will remain in denial and stupor. But the economic difference between Europe's north and south continues to widen, as turbulent Italy so clearly demonstrates. Hold on to your seats

Fireworks with little celebrate in Rome
Tim Hedges
On 9 January 2017 09:10

The year 2016 began in Italy with the state broadcaster, RAI, doing an outside broadcast for the countdown to the year from Matera in the deep south, and getting the time wrong by 51 seconds. It was, incidentally, the first time anyone had been early for anything, anywhere south of Milan.

The Italians were outraged.

No such drama rocked the start of 2017. Perhaps enough had happened in the year just gone, with Brexit, Trump and the resignation of Prime Minister Renzi.

Italians are normally a conservative nation, but seem to have enjoyed watching the establishment getting a good kicking. They are, however, pessimists and wonder what will come of all this.

Not much that is good for Italy, I think.

2017 will bring elections in the most important parts of the EU: France, Holland, Germany and, in all probability, Italy too. The mood is increasingly fractious; we have had Trump and Brexit, so Europe can expect …. Not a lot.

Neither Fillon nor Macron are likely to make any significant changes to France, despite the rhetoric. The best that can be hoped for is that they will be less ineffective than Hollande. Geert Wilders may lead the largest party in the Netherlands but is unlikely to be able to form a government.

Italy will change its electoral law in time to keep Beppe Grillo out, but any new leader will be too emasculated to enact serious change. The Germans are far too conservative to vote for anyone except Angela Merkel.

Indeed my main preoccupation as, in the coming year, we reach the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, is that Europe fails to change at all. Isolated in Brussels, with its decent restaurants and chauffeur driven cars, and expecting their generous pensions, our ruling élite might well be under the impression that there is nothing wrong in their fiefdom.

They will tell themselves that the Americans with Trump and the British with their Brexit have always been crazy – Anglo-Sassons, vous savez - and order another pousse-café after lunch. That would be a mistake.

The economic difference between the north and south of the EU is widening. Youth unemployment in Italy, Spain and Greece is at levels normally associated with civil unrest.

Whilst the Eurozone as a whole seems to have warded off deflation, with a modest 1.1 percent rise in prices, Italy suffered falling prices last year. With the falling prices come falling investment and falling confidence. Who would start a business here, now?

Europe has shown a woeful inability to cope with immigration, and on the back of this there are disturbing signs of extreme right-wing politics in the Visegrad countries, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

There are signs, particularly in Poland and Hungary, of restrictions on the press and circumventing of the democratic process.

The 28 countries of the EU, with the exceptions of Britain, which is leaving, and France, are so complaisant on defence that America is threatening to give up on them. Europe’s eastern borders are defended by America, Canada and Britain.

So it is not just the economy, but the entire social fabric of Europe which is breaking down. A thousand cars were torched in France over New Year, and the police described it as quiet.

Amidst all the terror threats, the police in the ungovernable Molenbeek district of Brussels are working to rule. My fear is that this once great continent is losing the cultural cohesion it had before Maastricht, through lack of democracy, incompetence and smug laziness.

I am beginning to feel that Brexit was not warning enough, that Europe needs a proper revolution. Though I would not wish the Le Pen family on anyone, some such major upheaval might cause Europe to ditch its self-satisfied, unelected élite for something a bit closer to the people.

So, happy 2017, EU, and happy 60th birthday. And good luck; you’ll need it.

And a happy 2017 to The Commentator’s readers.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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