Italy's thinking on immigration

Italy is actually a great place to live, and the Italians know it. From an economic point of view they'd probably benefit from Merkel-style mass immigration. But most Italians would rather keep their own version of the dolce vita

Tuxedos at Dawn, in La Dolce Vita
Tim Hedges
On 23 October 2017 14:24

Whisper it, but there is an air of confidence in Italy which we have not seen since the days of the Lira (still much mourned by the people). Italy’s growth rate has crept up to 1.5 percent p.a., and the country can borrow 10 year money at less than 2 percent (just as well given the size of its debt).

Perhaps to celebrate this, perhaps not, the newspaper Il Giornale (proprietor S.Berlusconi) has published a study by the government statistics unit Istat of where the country is now compared to where it was sixty years ago.

In 1957 the treaty founding the European Economic Community was signed in Rome. Italy at the time was undergoing a post war renaissance. Indeed it was making the change from simple agricultural to modern industrialised economy.

People had FIAT 500s or Vespa scooters, the films of Visconti and Fellini were on at the cinema, the bars and trattorie were full. People were not rich by international standards, but the economy was growing at 5 percent as it did throughout the 1950s and 1960s. La dolce vita - and not just the film - was known all over the world.

But it was not all it seemed in the films. In those days 15 perent of the workforce was employed in agriculture, life expectancy was one of the lowest in Europe and infant mortality was high. Now infant mortality is one of the lowest on the continent, life expectancy the highest and only 1 percent or so of the workforce is engaged in agriculture.

One of the most striking figures from the Istat study is that in 1957 the average age of the workforce was 31. Now it is 45. Only one worker in ten is under thirty; in the UK it is more than double that.

With better survival at birth and better life expectancy Italy is getting older. This is compounded by the extremely low birth rate of 8.7 per 1000, below the population replacement rate, whereas that in Britain and France is above 12, enough to keep the population expanding.

And Italy is getting less skilled. In 1957 emigration was of poor manual labourers, unable to find jobs due to automation in agriculture. Now it is of the young university educated and middle managers, who feel they have no future in Italy’s closed economy. Still, many posts are filled on ’recommendation’: who you know, not what you know.

Immigration is the most constantly discussed topic in Italy, and of course the incomers tend to be unskilled, often with no knowledge of the language. What is rarely mentioned is that immigration is fairly low. The ratio of the population born outside the country is around 8 percent, two-thirds that of Germany, Britain and France.

And this affects the birth rate. Native Italians have little confidence in their future and so either emigrate or apply for public sector jobs from which it is difficult to get fired and which have wonderful pensions. Immigrants by contrast feel a new sense of security. They start up businesses, they breed; their children are educated and the second generation become doctors and engineers and businessmen.

So would immigration be the solution to Italy’s demographic problems? I am convinced that is why Angela Merkel let in a million immigrants: Germany’s birth rate is even worse than Italy’s and soon the working population will be insufficient to pay the retired.

There is currently a vigorous debate on the merits of the ius soli and the ius sanguinis: whether nationality would be determined by whether you were born in this country or whether (as at present) you inherit it from your parents. A change would increase over the years the number of Italians; their taxes would pay for the old.

It won’t happen. The economic migrants (only a tiny proportion are refugees) want to go to Germany, Britain and Scandinavia. And whilst Italians are kindly folk, they really do not want the social upheaval caused by incomers with different lifestyle habits.

The Italians have a good thing going here and don’t want it spoiled, even though the Bel Paese will be underpopulated in a few years time and there won’t be enough workers to pay the retirement benefits of the old.

The food, the wine, the coffee, the weather, the people: it’s good here.

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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