Tag Archives: Five Star Movement

How Austerity and Anti-immigrant Politics Left Italy Exposed

The Corona Virus & Immigration

Dispatches From the Edge

Mar. 25, 2020

 

As the viral blitzkrieg rolls across one European border after another, it seems to have a particular enmity for Italy. The country’s death toll has passed China’s, and scenes from its hospitals look like something out of Dante’s imagination.

 

Why?

 

Italy has the fourth largest economy in the European Union, and in terms of health care, it is certainly in a better place than the US. Per capita, Italy has more hospital beds—so-called “surge capacity”—more doctors and more ventilators. Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans, not to mention British, French, Germans, Swedes and Finns. The virus has had an especially fatal impact on northern Italy, the country’s richest region.

 

There are a number of reasons why Italy has been so hard-hit, but a major one can be placed at the feet of former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the xenophobic, rightwing League Party and his allies on the Italian right, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

 

Italy has the oldest population in Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. It did not get that way be accident. Right-wing parties have long targeted immigrants, even though the immigrant population—a little over 600,000—is not large by international standards. Immigrants as a “threat to European values” has been the rallying cry for the right in France, Germany, Hungry, Poland, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain as well.

 

In the last Italian election, the League and its then ally, The Five Star Movement, built their campaigns around resisting immigration. Anti-immigrant parties also did well in Spain and certainly played a major role in pulling the United Kingdom out of the EU.

 

Resistance to immigration plays a major role in “graying” the population. Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, topped only by Japan. The demographic effects of this are “an apocalypse” according to former Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years, we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year]” equal to the population of the city of Siena. “If we link this to this increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

 

According to the World Health Organization, the ideal birth-death replacement ratio in advanced countries is 2.1. Italy’s is 1.32., which means not only an older population, but also fewer working age people to pay the taxes that fund the social infrastructure, including health care.

 

As long as there is no a major health crisis, countries muddle though, but when something like the Corona virus arrives, it exposes the underlying weaknesses of the system.

 

Some 60 percent of Italians are over 40, and 23 percent are over 65. It is demographics like these that make Covid-19 so lethal. From age 10 to 39, the virus has a death rate of 0.2 percent, more deadly than influenza, but not overly so. But starting at age 40, the death rate starts to rise, reaching 8 percent for adults age 70 to 79, and then jumping to 14.8 percent over 80. The average age of Corona virus deaths in Italy is 81.

 

When the economic meltdown hit Europe in 2008, the European Union responded by instituting painful austerity measures that targeted things like health care. Over the past 10 years Italy has cut some 37 billion euros from its health system. The infrastructure that could have dealt with a health crisis like Covid-19 was hollowed out, so that when the disease hit, there simply weren’t enough troops or resources to resist it.

 

Add to that the age of Italians, and the outcome was almost foreordained.

 

The US is in a very similar position, but for somewhat different reasons. As Pulitzer Prize-winning medical writer Laurie Garrett points out, it was managed care that has derailed the ability of the American health system to respond to a crisis. “What happened with managed care is that hospitals eliminated surplus beds and surplus personnel. So, far from being ready to deal with surge capacity, we’re actually understaffed and we have massive nurse shortages across the nation. “

 

Much of that shortage can also be attributed to managed care. Nurses are overloaded with too many patients, work 10 and 12 hour shifts on a regular basis, and, while initially well paid, their compensation tends to flatten out over the long run. Burn out is a major professional risk for nursing.

 

Yet in a pandemic, nursing is the most important element in health care according to John Barry, author of the “The Great Influenza” about the 1918-19 virus that killed up to 100 million people, including 675,000 Americans. A post mortem of the pandemic found “What could help, more than doctors, were nurses. Nursing could ease the strain of a patient, keep a patient hydrated, calm, provide the best nutrition, and cool the intense fevers.” Nurses, the study showed, gave victims “the best possible chance to survive.”

 

The issues in Italy’s 2018 election were pretty straightforward: slow growth, high youth unemployment, a starving education system and a deteriorating infrastructure—Rome was literally drowning in garbage. But instead of the failed austerity strategy of the EU, the main election theme became immigration, a subject that had nothing to do with Italy’s economic crisis, troubled banking sector or burdensome national debt.

 

Berlusconi, leader of the rightwing Forza Italia Party, said “All these immigrants live off of trickery and crime.” Forza made common cause with the fascist Brothers of Italy, whose leader, Giogia Meloni, called for halting immigrants with a “naval blockade.”

 

The main voice of the xenophobic campaign, however, was Salvini and the League. Immigrants, he said, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence,” and pose a threat to the “white race.”

 

The Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Mario joined the immigrant bashing, if not with quite the vitriol of Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni. The center-left Democratic Party ducked the issue, leaving the field to the right.

 

The outcome was predictable: the Democratic Party was routed and the Five Star Movement and League swept into power. Salvini took the post of Interior Minister and actually instituted a naval blockade, a violation of International Law and the 1982 Law of the Sea.

 

Eventually the League and Five Star had a falling out, and Salvini was ousted from his post, but the damage was done. The desperately needed repairs to infrastructure and investments in health care were shelved. When Covid-19 stuck, Italy was unprepared.

 

Much the same can be said for the rest of Europe, where more than a decade of austerity policies have weakened health care systems all over the continent.

 

Nor is Italy is facing a demographic catastrophe alone. The EU-wide replacement ratio is a tepid 1.58, with only France and Ireland approaching—but not reaching—2.1.

 

If Germany does not increase the number of migrants it takes, the population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, reducing the workforce to 54 percent of the population, not enough to keep up with current levels of social spending. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimates that Germany will need 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at current levels.

 

Spain—which saw the rightwing anti-immigration party do well in the last election—is bleeding population, particularly in small towns, some 1500 of which have been abandoned. Spain has weathered a decade and a half of austerity, which damaged the country’s health care infrastructure. After Italy, Spain is the European country hardest hit by Covid-19.

 

As populations age, immigrants become a necessity. Not only is new blood needed to fill in the work needs of economies, broadening the tax base that pays for infrastructure, but, too, old people need caretaking, as the Japanese have found out. After centuries of xenophobic policies that made immigration to Japan almost impossible, the Japanese have been forced to accept large numbers of migrants to staff senior facilities.

 

The United States will face a similar crisis if the Trump administration is successful in chocking off immigration. While the US replacement ratio is higher than the EU’s, it still falls under 2.1, and that will have serious demographic consequences in the long run.

 

It may be that for-profit health care simply can’t cope with a pandemic because it finds maintaining adequate surge capacity in hospital beds, ventilators and staff reduces stockholders’ dividends. And public health care systems in Europe—which have better outcomes than the American system’s—only work if they are well funded.

 

To the biblical four horsemen—war, famine, wild beasts and plague—we can add two more: profits and austerity.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Europe’s Center-Left Keeps Losing Elections

Italy, Germany & the EU’s Future

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 19, 2018

 

More than a quarter of a century ago, much of the European center-left made a course change, edging away from its working class base, accommodating itself to the globalization of capital, and handing over the post World War II social contract to private industry. Whether it was the “New Labour” of Tony Blair in Britain or Gerhard Schroder’s “Agenda 2010” in Germany, social democracy came to terms with its traditional foe, capitalism.

 

Today, that compact is shattered, the once powerful center-left a shadow of its former self, and the European Union—the largest trading bloc on the planet—is in profound trouble.

 

In election after election over the past year, social democratic parties went down to defeat, although center-right parties also lost voters. Last year’s election in the Netherlands saw the Labor Party decimated, though its conservative coalition partner also took a hit. In France, both the Socialist Party and the traditional conservative parties didn’t even make the runoffs. September’s elections in Germany saw the Social Democrats (GPD) take a pounding, along with their conservative alliance partners, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union. And Italy’s center-left Democratic Party was decisively voted out of power.

 

It would be easy to see this as a shift to the right. The neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfG) has 92 seats in the Bundestag. The Dutch anti-Muslim Party for Freedom picked up five seats. The extreme rightist National Front made the runoffs in France. The racist, anti-immigrant Northern League took 17.5 percent of the Italian vote and is in the running to form a government.

 

But the fall of the center-left has more to do with the 1990s course change than with any rightward shift by the continent. As the center-left accommodated itself to capital, it eroded its trade union base. In the case of New Labour, Blair explicitly distanced the Party from the unions that had been its backbone since it was founded in 1906.

 

In Germany, the Social Democrats began rolling back the safety net, cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and undermining labor codes that had guaranteed workers steady jobs at decent wages.

 

The European Union—originally touted as a way to end the years of conflict that had embroiled the continent in two world wars— became a vehicle for enforcing economic discipline on its 27 members. Rigid fiscal rules favored countries like Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, while straitjacketing countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, particularly in times of economic crisis.

 

Center-left parties all over Europe bailed out banks and financial speculators, while inflicting ruinous austerity measures on their own populations to pay for it. It became difficult for most people to distinguish between the policies of the center-right and the center-left.

 

Both backed austerity as a strategy for the debt crisis. Both weakened trade unions through “reforms” that gave employers greater power. Short-term contracts—so-called “mini jobs”—with lower wages and benefits replaced long-term job security, a strategy that fell especially hard on young people.

 

The recent Italian elections are a case in point. While the center-left Democratic Party (DP) bailed out several regional banks, its Labor Minister recommended that young Italians emigrate to find jobs. It was the Five Star Movement that called for a guaranteed income for poor Italians and sharply criticized the economics of austerity.

 

In contrast, the DP called for “fiscal responsibility” and support for the EU, hardly a program that addressed inequality, economic malaise, and youth unemployment. Euro-skeptic parties took 55 percent of the vote, while the Democrats tumbled from 41 percent four years ago to 19 percent.

 

In the German elections, the SPD did raise the issue of economic justice, but since the Party had been part of the governing coalition, voters plainly did not believe it. The Party’s leader Martin Schulz, , called for a “united states of Europe,” not exactly a barnburner phrase when the EU is increasingly unpopular.

 

Breaking a pre-election promise to go into opposition, the SPD has re-joined Merkel’s “Grand Coalition.” While the SPD landed some important cabinet posts, history suggests the Party will pay for that decision. It also allows the neo-Nazi AfG to be the official opposition in the Bundestag, handing it a bully pulpit.

 

The unwillingness of Europe’s social democrats to break from the policies of accommodation has opened an economic flank for the right to attack, and the center-left’s unwillingness to come to grips with immigration makes them vulnerable to racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Both the Italian and German center-left avoided the issue during their elections, ceding the issue to the right.

 

Europe does have an immigration problem, but it is not the right’s specter of “job-stealing, Muslim rapists” overrunning the continent. EU members—most of all Italy—have a shrinking and increasingly aged population. If the continent does not turn those demographics around—and rein in “mini jobs” that discourage young workers from having children—it is in serious long-term trouble. There simply will not be enough workers to support the current level of pensions and health care.

 

In any case, many of the “immigrants” are EU members—Poles, Bulgarians, Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and Romanians—looking for work in England and Germany because their own austerity-burdened economies can’t offer them a decent living.

 

The center-left did not buy into the right’s racism, but neither did it make the point that immigrants are in the long-term interests of Europe. Nor did it do much to challenge the foreign policy of the EU and NATO that actively aids or abets wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, wars that fuel millions of those immigrants.

 

One of the most telling critiques that Five Star aimed at the DP was that the Party supported the overthrow of the Libyan government and the consequent collapse of Libya as a functioning nation. Most the immigrants headed for Italy come from, or through, Libya.

 

When center-left parties embraced socially progressive policies, voters supported them. In Portugal two left parties formed a coalition with the Social Democrats to get the economy back on track, lower the jobless rate, and roll back many of the austerity measures enforced on the country by the EU. In recent local elections, voters gave them a ringing endorsement.

 

Jeremy Corbyn took the British Labour Party to the left with a program to re-nationalize railroads, water, energy and the postal service, and Labour is now running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Polls also indicate that voters like Labour’s program of green energy, improving health care, and funding education and public works.

 

The examples of Portugal and Britain argue that voters are not turning away from left policies, but from the direction that the center left has taken over the past quarter century.

 

The formulas of the right—xenophobia and nationalism—will do little to alleviate the growing economic inequality in Europe, nor will they address some very real existential problems like climate change. The real threat to the Dutch doesn’t comes from Muslims, but the melting of the Greenland ice cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, sometime in the next few decades, will send the North Sea over the Netherland’s dikes.

 

When Europe emerged from the last world war, the left played an essential role in establishing a social contract that guaranteed decent housing, health care and employment for the continent’s people. There was still inequality, exploitation, and greed—it is, after all, capitalism—but there was also a compact that did its best to keep the playing field level. In the words of Mette Frederiksen, a leading Danish social democrat, “to save capitalism from itself.”

 

The Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan government in Washington broke that compact. Taxes were shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the working class and poor. Public services were privatized, education defunded, and the safety net shredded.

 

If the center-left is to make a comeback, it will have to re-discover its roots and lure voters away from xenophobia and narrow nationalism with a program that improves peoples’ lives and begins the difficult task of facing up to what capitalism has wrought on the planet.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middlempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

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Italian Elections and Immigration

Italy’s Election

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb.22, 2018

 

Italian elections are always complex affairs, but the upcoming Mar. 4 vote is one of the most bewildering in several decades: the right is resurgent, the left embattled, and the issue drawing the greatest fire and fury has little to do with the economic malaise that has gripped the country since the great economic crash of 2008.

 

These days predicting election outcomes in Europe is a fool’s game because the electorate is so volatile, a state one hardly can blame it for given the beating it has taken from the almost decade-long policies of the European Union (EU). The organization’s rigid economic strictures for dealing with the debts incurred from the 2008 crisis—social service cutbacks, tax hikes, massive layoffs, and privatization—have sharply increased economic inequality throughout the continent and created a “lost generation” of young people: poorly educated, unemployed, and locked into low paying part-time jobs (if they manage to find one).

 

There has been a surge of right-wing parties throughout the EU, but the analysis that voters are turning right is too simplistic. Voters in Germany did put the Nazi Alternative for Germany in the Bundestag, but mostly because they were fed up with the “stay-the-course” mainstream parties that offered them little more than austerity and more austerity. Dutch voters demolished their social democratic Labor Party, not because it was left, but because it was timidly centrist. Much the same was true for the French Socialist Party.

 

When center-left and left parties challenge austerity, voters reward them, as they did in Britain and Portugal. It is not so much that the compass is swinging right, but rather that it is spinning.

 

The Italian elections are a case in point. Italy has one of the highest debt ratio in the EU, distressing unemployment figures—11.4 percent nationally, and up to 36 percent among the young—a troubled banking sector, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Garbage—quite literally—is overwhelming Rome. But instead of seeking solutions, most parties are talking about African and Middle East immigrants, a focus that is revealing an ugly side of the peninsula.

 

Hate crimes have risen 10-fold since 2012, and 20 percent of Italians admit to being anti-Semitic. The anti-fascist organization Infoasntifa Ecn has recorded more than 140 neo-fascist attacks since 2014.

 

Italy currently plays host to some 620,000 immigrants, and since France, Austria and Switzerland tightened their borders, Italy is stuck with them. The EU has been little help. While Brussels was willing to shell out over $6 billion to Turkey to deal with the flood of immigrants generated by the wars in Syria and Yemen, Italy has been left to deal with the problem by itself.

 

Immigrants not only have virtually nothing to do with the crisis in banking, the slow growth of the economy, or the persistently high numbers of unemployed, they are a solution to a looming “apocalypse”: Italy’s extremely low birth rate, the lowest in the world after Japan.

 

Italian women give birth to 1.39 children on average, but the replacement ratio for the developed world is 2.1. “If we carry on as we are and fail to reverse the trend, there will be fewer than 350,000 births in 10 year’s time, 30 percent less than in 2010—an apocalypse,” says Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin. “In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births [per year]”Lorenzin told La Republica, or a city the size of Siena. “If we link this to the increasingly old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”

 

A major obstacle to increased birth rate is that Italy has the second lowest percentage of women in the workforce in the EU, only 37 percent. The EU average is between 67 percent and 70 percent. An 80-euro a month baby bonus has flopped because many schools let out at noon and childcare is expensive.

 

The problem is EU-wide, where the average replacement ratio is only 1.58. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development estimated that Germany would need at least 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years to keep pensions and social services at their current levels.

 

But Lorenzin’s warning is a cry in the wilderness.

 

Immigrants are a “social bomb that is ready to explode,” says former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose rightwing Forza Italia Party is in coalition with the xenophobic Northern League and the fascist Brothers of Italy. The coalition is currently running in first place, with about 36 percent of the vote. “All these migrants live off of trickery and crime,” he told Canale 5, a station he owns.

 

Not to be outdone by Berlusconi, Giogia Meloni of the Brothers calls for a “naval blockade” and “trenches.” Meloni launched her campaign for prime minister in Benito Mussolini’s city of Latina, and the late dictator’s granddaughter is a party candidate.

 

Matteo Salvini, the Northern League’s candidate for prime minister, kicks it up a notch: immigrants, he says, bring “chaos, anger, drug dealing, thefts, rape and violence,” and pose a threat to “the white race.”

 

Nationwide, crime rates are falling in Italy.

 

The Five Star Movement—polling at 28 percent—is less bombastic, but it has taken to immigrant bashing as well. Its candidate for prime minister, Luigi Di Mario, also calls immigrants a “social bomb,” and the party was conspicuously silent when a neo-fascist recently gunned down six African migrants in the town of Macerata.

 

The Democratic Party was initially open armed to immigrants, but it has since pulled up the welcome mat and started returning refugees to Libya.
Italy is very much a country of regions, a prosperous north, a generally well-to-do center, and an impoverished south.

 

Five Star is doing well in the south, but so is Berlusconi’s coalition. Five Star’s call for a minimum wage is popular in Calabria, Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily—the so-called Mezzogiorno, but Berlusconi won last spring’s elections in Sicily, just edging out Five Star.

 

The Northern League—which is polling at around 15 percent—has dropped “Northern” in an effort to appeal to voters in central and south Italy, but the latter are not likely to cast ballots for Salvini. Up until recently Salvini routinely referred to southerners as “terroni,” a derogatory. Southern Italians have long memories.

 

It is the left and center-left that is in trouble. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s wing of the PD moved to the center, and is now paying the price for that maneuver. While critical of the EU’s austerity policies, the PD nevertheless implemented them, bailed out banks, and did little about joblessness. The PD’s Minister of Labor, Giuliano Poletti, encouraged unemployed young Italians to immigrate “rather than get under our feet,” not a comment likely to endear the Party to the young.

 

The PD is not xenophobic like Five Star and Berlusconi’s coalition, but neither is it willing to directly challenge the myths around immigration. The PD is allied with Free and Equal, representing the left of the PD, but the party is brand new and it is not clear how well it will poll.

 

There is, as well, a center to center-left coalition of eight parties built around Popular Civic and its candidate, Health Minister Lorenzin. But Popular Civic is also a new party, and how it will do Mar. 4 is uncertain.

 

There is also a new electoral law that combines proportional representation with first-past-the-post results, and it is not clear how that will translate into seats in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies and 315-seat Senate. A party needs 3 percent to be represented in the parliament.

 

It is doubtful that anyone will “win” outright. Five Star may get the most votes, but it will have to ally itself with another party to form a government. In the past it has rejected doing so but recently has moderated its opposition to joining with another party, possibly the Northern League.

 

Berlusconi’s coalition might take the largest number of votes, but enough to win a majority? If the South goes Forza Italia rather than Five Star, maybe. There is a caveat here: rightwing parties tend to do better at the ballot box than they poll.

 

Forza Italia has positioned itself as the defender of the EU against the “populists” of Five Star, but most of the anti-EU parties—Five Star included—have trimmed back their threats to withdraw from the Union or abandon the euro currency.

 

In the end it might be a hung government, and “fractious” would be an understatement. Whoever comes out on top will still have to tackle the underlying crisis, on which immigration has no bearing. The central problem is the economic policies of the EU, whose austerity-driven solutions are losing the organization support. Only 36 percent of Italians have a favorable opinion of the EU, and that viewpoint is not restricted to Italy. Faith in the EU has fallen from 38 percent to 32 percent in France.

 

As for the immigrants: not only are they not the problem, they are a long-term solution to Italy’s –and the EU’s—looming demographic crisis

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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