2015 09 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


The traditional August silly season in the press was as absent in Italy as it was in the UK. There were stories about strong sea currents sadly drowning two swimmers in the same place on separate occasions. There were pictures of women wading in floods in Pisa caused by an unusual August spell of bad weather. And predictably, Silvio Berlusconi was still agonising about his successor.

Also as predictable were the repeated reports about the continuing influx of migrants and the inability of other European countries to act on the seriousness of the situation. There were reports of a 27 year old unemployed Senegalese man who lives in Italy making a sexual attack on a woman on a beach in Rimini. This provided a wonderful opportunity for Matteo Salvini, the Secretary of the Lega Nord, to stir up anti-migrant feelings on his Facebook site. “Papa Francesco (the Pope) asks for compassion for the migrants and a welcome for strangers….Once again it was a migrant, a stranger – for him there isn’t any compassion. Amen”.

There is one under-reported subject, and August could be blamed for its lack of prominence. Such important news possibly has to wait until everyone gets back to work and the mainstream media wakes up again. The internet is already reporting and discussing it. The topic is the harsh effects of the Russian sanctions on the Italian economy.

As a brief background, sanctions on Russia were imposed on the financial sector and on certain individuals’ financial interests and also on all energy-related equipment and technology. Also on the import and export of arms and related material. But this, as Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russian Analyst at IHS, says, is symbolic because such trade is “limited in volume”. 

La Repubblica ran a short article on 8 August and that seemed to be it. The EU’s own website (31.01.15) explains the origins of the sanctions thus: they “were introduced in response to Russia’s destabilising role in Eastern Ukraine”. The retaliatory Russian sanctions must be seen, as Paolo De Castro, Italian MEP, says, to be “bad news for European agriculture….this ping pong of sanctions between Russia and Europe does more damage to the Europeans than the Russians.”  He asks for some serious consideration to be given to the struggling agri-industry by increasing efforts to make a diplomatic settlement, instead of hitting producers. (agronotizie.imagelinenetwork, 26.06.15) Others would agree with De Castro. For example, The Guardian commentisfree website on 22 July reproduced a piece by Conservative MP Daniel Kawcsyynski. He questioned the effectiveness of the anti-Russian campaign, noting that Russian cooperation should be seen as useful, rather than the opposite, and that the West needs its help to combat terrorism.

The UK could be seen to be shooting itself in the foot. The value of wealthy Russians’ property in the UK is rising against the rouble, which is devaluing because of the sanctions. This has the unwanted effect of making this a lucrative long-term investment for them. It could also be wise for Russian investors to move their financial dealings from the UK and Europe to the Far East. This would be to their and not the UK’s advantage.

The Russian sanctions were imposed on Europe, the US, Australia and Canada. Looking at 2013 figures, Russia’s largest imports by far were fruit and vegetables. Italy is being hit particularly hard by not being able to export fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and milk products including cheese – think of Parmigiano and Grana Padano Parmesan cheeses and Mozzarella cheeses. Also meat and meat products – the salamis and other meat derivatives such as Parma Ham. A piece in The International Business Times (07.08.15) quoted a Professor of Modern Russian History at the University of Chicago saying that these foods were a symbol of sophistication for the new Russian middle classes. They see the West as “the centre of civilization: good food, good wine (and) sensual pleasures”. Actually wine (and baby foods) are not included in the list of embargoed goods.

The La Repubblica article of 8 August gives the costs of sanctions to the Italian agri-industry at €240m for the last twelve months. The full cost including indirect and other affected sectors was estimated by Banca Intesa to be €700m. However the story is more complicated. A spokesperson for the EU Commission dryly said that European exports to other countries are now increasing and so are compensating for such losses and that the solution was in Russian hands, awaiting their compliance with the Treaty of Minsk. This complacent statement masks the reality and doesn’t help Italy. For example there is now a glut of milk in Italy, which has resulted in a fall of 20% in the price given to producers. This fall also applies to other areas and is penalising large and small producers alike.

In mid-August there was a real silly-season event when the Russians bulldozed 20 tons of smuggled European cheese. Jean-Michelle Javel of a French Milk Coop threw up his hands in a gallic way and called it fromagicide. Il Sole 24 ORE (11.08.15) reported that the ordinary Russians, who were already feeling the weight of sanctions, were unhappy about the waste of good food. Someone suggested that people would try to dig it up when the winter comes. Apparently the historical periods of starvation and endemic under-supplies of food have left behind what the International Business Times calls “a food neurosis”.

But behind the scenes and very significantly for Italy, Russian producers (and those in allied countries) have not been slow in noticing the gaps in the market, and facsimile products are appearing. The trade mark, “Made in Italy”, is now suffering the same fate as counterfeited Gucci watches. Il Fatto Quotidiano (18.10.14) says that in Moscow it is possible to find ”Casa Italia” mozzarella, “Italia” salami, or “Sono Bello Quattro formaggi” pizzas, among increasing numbers of fakes.

Underpinning this counterfeit “Italian” food is Russian investment in the production of the raw materials used to manufacture these products. By last October it was reported that milk production had already risen by 20% in the Central Urals. The article also noted the investment of 2 million roubles in a plant to manufacture “parmesan” and “mozzarella” cheeses. Not good news for the Italian economy.

Jacopo Berti puts the blame on Premier Matteo Renzi in an article in bellunopress on 24 July. This is a man needing to make a political point. He is from the M5S (Beppe Grillo’s party) and was an unsuccessful challenger to incumbent Luca Zaia (Lega Nord) for the Presidency of The Veneto. Renzi, he says, is putting the interests of Merkel and Obama before that of the Italians. He sees The Veneto as being a major loser in the sanctions war. He operates in a politically tense area. This is one that has resisted, indeed refused, Renzi’s request to take more migrants. Zaia’s refusal said that this was an “exodus on a biblical scale”. and no more.

The migrant situation is and has been the really pressing problem for Italy. The Italians are conflicted. Their culture suggests they should be welcoming and, as already mentioned, The Pope confirms this. Corriere della Sera (11 .06.15) ran an editorial saying that the far poorer south, with its under-invested services and infrastructure, is more willing to be accommodating to the migrants, many of whom stay there. This contrasts with the rejectionism of the North. Treviso, a Lega Nord stronghold, had protests from residents who objected to 101 migrants being housed near them; they were removed elsewhere. The Mayor of Vicenza was reported as saying that there is now no Land of Milk and Honey, although to be fair to him he does denounce the excessively extreme anti-migrant screams of the Lega Nord.

To conclude, two stories with different flavours:

On 23 August around two hundred or so migrants protested in Milan by pouring onto the street and stopping the traffic. They were angry that the official documents giving them legal status were not being processed swiftly enough. They also wanted to be integrated. Plus they needed to demonstrate to the press that the conditions of their camp were very poor. They were sleeping eight to a tent and they had leaked in the recent heavy rain. “We want our documents” said the headline in La Repubblica. The response by the Lega Nord was so totally predictable as to almost be unnecessary to reproduce. However, Roberto Calderoli (Lega Nord), already infamous for saying that when he looked at Cecile Kyenge, a black MP, he “can’t help but think of an orangutan”, was outraged. They should be grateful for what they had been given. Others said that if they were unhappy they should go back home. Calmer voices condemned the EU for lacking the leadership to help Italy deal with its influx in a humane way.

Finally, a touching story, surprisingly from The Veneto’s town of Portogruaro. Their local group of migrants had worked with volunteers from the community to renovate a disused and severely run-down football and basketball pitch. The locals were grateful and the migrants were obviously pleased and also thrilled to be accepted. Two hundred or so locals and migrants marched together to the Town Hall and then on to The Oratory of Sant’Antonio to celebrate. The march was called The Half-caste March, the migrants held a banner saying: Thank you Portogruaro and they all sang the national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy), together as they processed. Makes you weep, doesn’t it?