We Europeans

It’s no secret that Italy’s economia sommersa is one of the biggest in Europe. Traditional estimates of no less than 15 per cent of GDP have now been topped by an independent study which puts the Italian black economy at nearly 25 per cent, one-third of which is not surprisingly attributed to creative minds in the Mezzogiorno – Italy has always produced great artists.

As Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti said in a moment of blinding candidness, speaking of ‘raccomandazione’, the custom of seeking special treatment from people in power or close to it (a practice dating back to Cicero): “Essentially the judges are saying what everybody in Italy believes. When a favour works successfully, it ceases to be a crime and becomes a work of art.”

All the more surprising, then, that in early September, the Italian Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, defended the country’s approach to tackling the Roma problem with the words: “We aren’t xenophobic, but serious people who want laws to be respected.”

OK, maybe he was speaking in defence of the government and not the country…

The country has a long record of sidestepping legality, in fact it is something Italians are proud of when they say their minds are tangenziale. They are indeed exceptionally creative. They are also very realistic. As the head of Italy’s Carabinieri force in Afghanistan said recently about Afghan recruits, “it’s better to join the Taliban; they pay more money!”

One example of the Italian creativity/realism factor is the ceramics factory near Rome which was mounted on wheels to evade local tax collectors. Another was the survival, until the late-1960s, of a government department for ‘the regularisation of fascist affairs’, some 15-people strong, which the government itself did not know existed.

A late-1995 medical check in Naples of 100 postal employees with disability pensions (in addition to their wages) found 94 of them to be perfectly healthy. As the Financial Times commented at the time: “Many had done military service, some were key players in local football teams and most were in their mid-thirties. One fit person even claimed he had been cured at Lourdes but had kept quiet about his altered status.”

“Italians”, says Robert Graham of the Financial Time, talking about the ‘great mamma state’, “are still greedily sucking this gigantic breast in thousands of legal ways: jobs for life, indexed wages, discounts, subsidies and generous pensions. The system is ever more abused: from illicit tapping into electricity supplies to the 16 civil servants found receiving overtime – on the basis that they were working 29 hours a day.”

Obviously something needs to change – but, even if it does, Italians will probably be sufficiently creative to get around it. So the question may be: is Italy destined to go the same way as Greece? But, then, we have to remember that the SMEs in the area around the town of Treviso north of Venice have, on their own, an output that exceeds Greek GNP…

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