Ideas: The European limbo
29 July 2011
Europe emerged from ruins of war Europe but now finds itself struggling in the midst of the present crisis. Is this the end? wonders – not without a hint of nostalgia – Mexican writer and European resident of 60 years, Carlos Fuentes.
The streets are full of radiant young girls, and skimpily clad but resplendent blonds. Young men are busy refining their seduction routines while the members of the older generation appear eternally elegant. In the restaurants, bars and hotels, the bourgeois customers are equally well-turned out. Tourists come and go, on their way to the many extraordinary monuments to three thousand years of culture: from the Vatican to the Imperial Forums, from the Pantheon to the Piazza di Spagna, with a pause to take in the Piazza Navona which was once Domitian’s stadium.
Modern Italy bears no resemblance to the country I discovered for the first time in 1950 when I was 22 years old. Barely five years had passed since the end of the Second World War and the execution of Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, who was hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto de Milan along with his mistress, Claretta Petacci, whose skirts had been attached to her thighs by a pious passer-by. Indigent children ran barefoot in the streets. Beggars were strategically positioned in front of railway stations and restaurant exits. People visited museums because they were a heated alternative to the country’s freezing hotels. In the trains, the first and second class compartments were empty, while the third class carriages were full of passengers with ropes tied around their suitcases. These travelers were not dressed as workers, but like the gaunt representatives of a down-at-heel middle class, which was in fact what they were. The real workers, who were flocking to join the communist party, sang “Those who don’t work won’t eat. Long live communism and freedom.”For its part, the liberal bourgeoisie had placed itself under the protection of the Americans. Amid a welter of glorias and anti-communist speeches Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, who had been cleared of collaborating with the Nazis, announced the Jubilee of 1950. In towns across Italy, communist mayors rubbed shoulders with capitalist entrepreneurs, who were often the real stars of the economic development of the time.
Who were the leaders recognised by the Italian population?
Since then, the rich and powerful bourgeoisie and the aging working class, which has been undermined by new industries and the diminishing power of trade unions, along with worried and dissenting young generations have co-habited with centre-left and centre right governments with no real ideological ties – as though Italian politics was little more than a rite of passage, a mere prelude to the recognition of the economic reality of the country. Who were the leaders recognised by the Italian population? The best elements of the left proved to be unable to create sustainable political alliances, as they founded and refounded their parties under a multitude of names. At the same time, the right entrusted its fate to a crude and calculating clown, which the law of the most powerful continues to protect from the court actions that he will be called on to face when he finally leaves office. And you cannot help wondering: are we now witnessing the last days of Silvio Berlusconi? The internal workings of the Italian government are beginning to grind to a halt: to wit the clash between Minister of the Economy Giulio Tremonti and Berlusconi, who disappeared at the height of a crisis which was managed with aplomb by socialist President Giorgio Napolitano, demonstrating a political genius that Berlusconi can never hope to offer. The most interesting aspect of the affair is that all the players involved – not only Tremonti but also the future president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, and the President of the Italian Republic, Napolitano, along with large sections of the post-communist left and the post-Berlosconi right – spoke with one voice to warn against a national upheaval, which both Tremonti and Draghi blamed on a European crisis. In short, Italy was portrayed as a victim dragged down by Europe and not the cause of its own misfortune.
Europe may not be able to relive its past glories
But no, but no, the crisis is a European phenomenon: this was also the argument adopted by the one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance) and former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, in an article that has been widely commented in the international press. In “Why Europe slept,” Gordon Brown wonders about the run-up to the crisis, which was preceded by the warning signs of a shortage of capital, high unemployment and sluggish growth. Insisting that this is not only a matter for for isolated countries like Ireland, Portugal, Greece, or even Italy and Spain, Brown points out that we will be unable to respond with effective measures if we do not recognise what is in fact a pan-European crisis. The problem, Brown remarks, is European and multi-faceted. The European banking sector must realise that it is not just the European banking sector, even less so a national banking sector, but that it is part of a global system. According to the British statesman, these problems cannot be solved by loans, because the main issue is one of solvency and insolvency, and not one of liquidity. Arguing against a piecemeal approach, Brown advocates a "pan-European" strategy which will avoid "panic-driven responses and focus on long-term reconstruction.” In the absence of such a strategy, Europe will face "a lost decade of social discontent with high unemployment, anti-immigrant feeling and secessionist movements.” In short, Gordon Brown is adamant that common issues, which must be addressed as such, cannot be treated as "local" problems that do not concern the rest of Europe. I remember the ruins of Europe in 1950, and the current situation remains far removed from the tragic circumstances of the postwar years. It is certain however that Europe must adapt to a new world where emerging economies are coming to the fore in Asia and Latin America, and may soon be present in Africa. Europe may not be able to relive its past glories, but it has every hope of avoiding the tragedies of its history. And it will surely succeed if it adapts to a newly emerging plural world where eurocentrism has definitively been consigned to the past.