Yes gentle readers, les jeux sont faits. Italy has entered the election season, and this time the game is for real. The outcome of this election, and the decisions which are subsequently taken will be important not just for Italy, but for the whole EU, and the stakes are not small ones: the whole European process is in play. (This post needs to be read in conjunction with the last one from Alex, and contsitutes the start of our campaign: Italian elections 2006. Incidentally, since none of us are in Italy, and since I for one tend to see everything Italian through a Spanish filter, if there is anyone out there in Italy reading this, and who fancies their hand at some guest blogging during the Italian campaign, then please consider yourself invited to contact us directly to talk about this.)
The starting point for getting a handle on Italian Elections 2006 is undoubtedly a blog post from the US economist Nouriel Roubini following an amazing outburst at the recent Davos forum by Italian economy minister Guilio Tremont (also see here).
Wolfgang Munchau takes up the issue in an FT article today.
There was a revealing incident at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. Nouriel Roubini, the New York-based international economist, took part in a panel discussion during which he raised questions about Italy’s future in the eurozone. A fellow panellist was Giulio Tremonti, the Italian finance minister. Professor Roubini wrote in his web log* that his presentation “caused a stir with Minister Tremonti who interrupted me in the middle of my remarks, went into a temper tantrum and shouted: ‘Go back to Turkey!’ I happen to have been born in Istanbul.”
Perhaps one should not conclude too much from this incident, but it does show one thing: European officials are getting nervous about the future of the euro. A few years ago, no one would have raised an eyebrow.
Now Munchau’s focus is Spain, but Spain and Italy here are but two sides of the same coin, the existence of low, and thoroughly inappropriate, interest rates. In the one case it is the private individual who is hopelessly in debt, in the other it is the state. Now as Munchau states:
“Italy is often mentioned as the country most likely to leave the euro. I disagree. Leaving the euro would not solve any of Italy’s problems. Since Italy’s debt is mostly euro-denominated, Italy would be facing an Argentinian-style debt crisis.”
This is undoubtedly true. Leaving the euro would clearly leave Italy facing a horrible mess, of gigantic proportions, but it ducks one key question: will Italy be able to stay inside? It may well be that Italy would never ‘choose’ to leave, but can Italy find a sustainable path to maintain its membership? That is the real question, and I, for one, have serious doubts on this, doubts which I have never really tried to hide. In the face of Italy’s inability or unwillingness to correct its course, the issue is, as Roubini himself asked in an earlier post, in the game of chicken which is now being played between the Italian state and the EU institutions who will be the first to blink? Certainly no-one here has a very viable exit strategy to hand. The latest news on the current attempts to reign in the debt is certainly far from reassuring.
So, to start the ball rolling, here are a number of the key issues as I see them:
1/. The existence of a huge and unsustainable public debt, no clear evidence that anything is going to be done about this, and the accompanying serious policy headache both for the EU Commission and the ECB.
2/. The presence of a high level of private saving, coupled with a far from dynamic internal economy.
3/. The fact that Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe which make the population pyramid unsustainable in the long term together with a lack of the real resources needed to introduce a programme of public policy to address this problem.
4/ The presence of strong xenophobic attitudes among leading members of the Berlusconi government (and here) which makes recourse to serious immigration as a paliative to the demographic problems extraordinarily complicated while at the same time making the conduct of EU foreign policy even more of a headache.
6/. The presence of a heavily ‘familiaristic’ approach to public policy which prevents realism and objective debate in looking for solutions to Italy’s long term structural difficulties.
7/. The existence of a strong sense of denial inside Italy itself about the scale of the problems and a real and present willingness to blame the euro itself for all the problems.
This list of headaches is undoubtedly long enough already, and undoubtedly more topics could quickly be added, they do howvere form a starting point for a full and frank dicussion of the problem. Let the games commence!