BARI, Italy – Walking the dog in the deep south of Italy turns out to be a good way to cover the European Union.
At least that has been my experience vacation. One recent afternoon, walking our dog in Bari, a port city in southern Italy, we ran into the EU ambassador to Rwanda, Nicola Bellomo, who was having dinner with family and friends.
Then again, he’s from Bari, so maybe it’s not a surprise. But the next day, I went out again and met Roy Kenkel, spokesman for the Dutch diplomatic mission in the EU, also with his family. He was on vacation in a nearby town and had come to town to shop for his children and stock up on coffee for a new espresso machine.
And he told me that he had also seen David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, in the area. Sassoli is Italian, of course, but from Florence, somewhat north of this region of Puglia, the heel of the Italian “boot”. Who knows how many other EU officials and diplomats there are around that I have not met? With the pandemic, I’ve gotten used to working remotely in Brussels, but maybe you don’t even need to be there to cover the EU, just go for a dog walk in Bari.
Puglia has much to offer visiting diplomats, officials and reporters, from the EU or other countries, especially as a meeting point for the West and the East.
“Puglia is our region where the East feels the most,” wrote writer and journalist Guido Piovene in the 1950s as part of a national tour for RAI radio that was turned into a book (“Viaggio in Italy”) And since then it has become a classic reading to help understand Italy.
Those oriental ties are worn down by time. A thousand years ago, the merchants of Bari returned home from Turkey with some of the supposed remains of Saint Nicholas, a figure deeply revered in Russia, and more widely as Santa Claus. He is also the protector of Bari.
Plus, the Balkans are close by, with Albania just an overnight ferry crossing away. Thirty Years ago, the Vlora freighter entered Bari with some 20,000 Albanian refugees fleeing the unrest over the collapse of communism.
In earlier times, Bari attracted a richer Balkan clientele, offering more cosmopolitan shopping and good food. Even now, the city’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele has a statue of Nicola I Petrović, the first and only king of Montenegro, and it is not uncommon to hear locals, dining on the specialty of raw fish, refer to Albania as if it were a Italian region. It is not surprising that Italy supports the enlargement of the EU through the Adriatic Sea.
And those who return to Italy this summer, be it from Brussels, Kigali or Tirana, will be impressed by a more optimistic atmosphere, especially in terms of the self-esteem of Italians.
On the way to Bari, I spent two weeks in Marche, an eastern coastal region whose landscape and artistic heritage are no different from Tuscany, but which is cheaper and has fewer tourists. Famous sons and daughters include Renaissance painter Raphael, opera composer Gioachino Rossini, and educator Maria Montessori (both Google’s Larry Page and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos studied in Montessori schools).
Everywhere, Italian flags were raised high, proudly proclaiming the victory of the national soccer team at the European Championship in July. That enthusiasm was also fueled by the fact that the Italian team’s coach, Roberto Mancini, was born in Marche.
And the flags kept waving as the Italy team ran, jumped, biked, rowed and more for a record 40 medals at the Tokyo Olympics.
One of the gold medals was won in the 100-meter sprint by Marcell Jacobs, an American-born sprinter who now runs for Italy, one of many Italian athletes with foreign origins whose exploits have relaunched a national debate on immigration law. and citizenship.
Oh, and an Italian rock band won the Eurovision Song Contest in May, and last month tennis player Matteo Berrettini was the first Italian to reach a singles final at Wimbledon.
On social media, much of this sporting and cultural renaissance has been jokingly attributed to Mario Draghi, Prime Minister of Italy and former President of the European Central Bank.
The opera critic Alberto Mattioli took Facebook to gleefully list Draghi’s next accomplishments, from getting Mattioli’s hair to start growing again to convincing French President Emmanuel Macron to return the Picture of the Mona Lisa, by Italian Leonardo da Vinci, which hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris.
But back to the sport, and many commentators pointed out that Italy’s soccer triumph at the Euro was due to teamwork, rather than the outstanding qualities of just one or two star players.
For Italians, that is unusual. The figure of the Renaissance Francesco Guicciardini, who wrote a “History of Italy”, a fundamental work on Italian culture, highlighted the importance of self-interest as a motor to explain the history of Italy. And very often, Italian success is due to strong individual personalities, rather than the ability to work as a team. So much so that former Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, when he was president of the Confindustria business lobby group some 15 years ago, used to urge the country to “team up.”
In fact, even my father, an opera historian, was prone to point out that while Italy had many great conductors, the best orchestras were most often German, American, or Austrian.
Talking about Draghi
The ironic effect of Draghi-walks on water is also influencing the economy, which is advancing with growth of almost five percent. Of course, that is part of a recovery from the pandemic, but for young people in their 30s, and also for those a little older like me, it is unheard of.
And all this euphoria comes as Italy prepares for its next presidential election in February. In the six months leading up to that vote, the incumbent, Sergio Mattarella, loses the only key power he has: the ability to call parliamentary elections. This means that political tensions are likely to escalate as the risk of MPs losing their seats in any early election decreases.
For now, Draghi, a non-party technocrat, heads a broad coalition ranging from the center-left Democratic Party to Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist League. This mix, which also includes the 5 populist stars, makes Italy something of a pioneer with a techno-populist government.
In theory, Draghi could be a candidate for the presidency, which would most likely trigger a parliamentary election if he wins. Some officials say the country faces a dilemma: If Draghi continues to do well, why replace him as prime minister? If it starts badly, why make him president of the republic? At this stage, it is impossible to predict what will happen.
Italian politics at the moment is a kind of cacophony: only the current parliament has voted for a government that flirted with “Italexit”, then for a government that wanted to bring Rome back to the European table, and finally for a government, under Draghi. , which aspires to have a leading role in Brussels.
In this context, Draghi and Mattarella have become the two figures that Italians seem to trust, a kind of dream team that led political scientist Ilvo Diamanti to call Italy a “bipresidential republic”.
Many commentators think that Draghi, whose popularity is very high in about 80 percent – will be able to continue as prime minister, especially since he will have around 200 billion euros of EU recovery funds to help Italy emerge from the pandemic to invest.
But no matter the commentators, what do Italians think who don’t make a living watching politics?
I remember that the British historian Paul Ginsborg, author of a more recent history of Italy, said that the political debate in Italy involves all social classes and is not the exclusive domain of the intellectuals or the establishment. He argued that a proper political debate could be had, for example, with a barber in his shop.
That has also been my experience. But I decided to put the theory to the test once more. I went into a downtown hair salon near the Petruzzelli theater to shave.
Foaming and cutting, the barber, Agostino, predicted that “after the summer the [COVID] the situation will get worse ”, affecting the economy again. He said he has “high hopes” for Draghi, but has also returned to the political cynicism so common among Italians.
“Draghi says one thing, but then Salvini says the opposite. It’s been like that all the time… I’m not sure it’s going to change, ”he said, referring to all the times that Salvini has distanced himself from the government so as not to lose votes to the Italian Brothers of Giorgia Meloni, his great rival in law. .
So can Draghi, the respected elder statesman, use EU funds to push through reforms and help Italy recover from being the sick man of the eurozone? Or will Italy’s famously unstable politics, with 67 governments since the end of World War II, ruin those reforms?
A victory for Draghi in this race would be the gold medal that the Italians and Brussels were really waiting for.