Reportage. As Sardinia votes, few political leaders have offered specific solutions to the economic stagnation in the region. ‘At the origin of the problem is a very significant population outflow.’

Sardinians are leaving the island amid economic crisis

The economic data in Sardinia, the Italian island today voting in regional elections, is the chronicle of a disaster.

Heavy industry is now in its death throes. The mining and metallurgical center of Sulcis has shrunk to only one-third of the companies that used to be active in this territory until a decade ago, when the great economic crisis started. The two production sites for petroleum derivatives, Ottana in the Nuoro region and Porto Torres in the Sassari region, have been reduced to a great heap of rusted metal (Ottana) and to a single plant that is producing energy using coal, the dirtiest energy source of all, in defiance of the international guidelines that are trying to discourage its use. Even agriculture and animal husbandry, with a few exceptions, are struggling to keep up, not only on international markets but also on Italian ones, and the balance of trade in agricultural products is clearly negative.

The tourism sector operates only in the summer months, and the income produced by this sector becomes virtually irrelevant during the rest of the year. In this situation, the Sardinians have again begun to emigrate to find jobs the island can no longer provide.

The situation is dramatic. However, in recent weeks of campaigning, none of the candidates for the leadership of the region have come up with anything better than generic solutions in rough outline. Instead, the issues that monopolized the debate were the rejection of non-EU migrants, the disruption of transport, the lack of a territorial link with the mainland and the controversy over the healthcare reform of the outgoing local administration. The economy and jobs, depopulation and the return of emigration faded into the background. Only the revolt of the shepherds managed, to a limited extent, to break through the shroud of indifference.

And yet, the situation could not be more serious. The research office of the National Confederation of Artisans and Small and Medium Enterprises (CNA) published a data-rich overview of the disappointing economic situation on the island. Particularly disheartening are the data concerning the regional GDP. The last official measurement dates from 2016, when the total income produced by companies and individuals in Sardinia was €31.4 billion (at 2010 values), only 90.6 percent of the 2008 GDP (€34.7 billion).

“This number,” the study by CNA Sardinia points out, “places the Sardinian economy well below the national average, which in 2016 went back up to 94.2 percent of the pre-crisis level, but still above six other regions: Umbria, which is last with just 85 percent of the 2008 level, Molise, Sicily and Calabria, but also Liguria (87.9 percent) and Valle d’Aosta (89 percent).”

The number of active companies has also suffered a drop. At the end of 2017, the number of companies registered on the island was 142,951, or 94.7 percent of the number for 2008 (around 8,000 fewer companies). Here as well, Sardinia is below the national average (which has 96.8 percent of the number of active companies compared to 2008). Things look even worse when one looks at the employment data. In 2017, the official number of jobs on the island was around 562,000, compared with almost 602,000 in 2008 (40,000 fewer): 93.4 percent of the pre-crisis level, compared to the national figure of 98.6 percent. And, if one looks at the volume of trade with foreign countries, i.e. the sum total of imports and exports, the situation in 2017 is also below the pre-crisis level, at 94.8 percent, a figure that must be viewed in the context of the national one for Italy, which has already recovered to above 2008 levels (103.4 percent).

In such a difficult situation, it is not surprising that the old scourge of emigration has returned. According to another survey by CNA, conducted according to the latest ISTAT data on the changes in the resident population of the island, in 2018, 3,288 Sardinians, especially young people, left the region in search of work. “The migratory flow more than doubled compared to the levels in 2017,” the CNA study points out. “For Sardinia, this represents a historical record for the last two decades, and contributes to accelerating the inexorable demographic decline of the region.”

The latest statistics from ISTAT are pointing to a continuation of the negative trend of the last five years: at the end of 2018, the population recorded for Sardinia was 1,639,000, almost 9,000 fewer inhabitants than in the previous year. With a net decrease of -0.55 percent, the island has a population decline well above the national average (-0.15 percent), which also exceeds the average population decline in the regions of Southern Italy (-0.42 percent).

The only regions faring worse than Sardinia in this regard are Basilicata (-0.6 percent) and Molise (-0.78 percent). “At the origin of the problem,” says the CNA Sardinia study, “is a very significant population outflow, estimated for 2018 at almost 3,300 individuals, mainly young people, who emigrated from the island to other Italian regions. This flow more than doubled compared to last year (which had 1,251 residents who migrated), and, viewed at a broader time scale, is a historical record for Sardinia for the last two decades—even though it should be mentioned that the increase in migratory flows (of mostly young people) towards the northern-central regions of Italy (and the accompanying demographic and social impoverishment) is a generalized phenomenon. This phenomenon is affecting all the southern regions, and is one that the country will have to contend with throughout the next two decades.”

The sharp increase in emigration from Sardinia to the other regions is further compounded by a net reduction in the population of foreigners coming to the island, with the difference between resident registrations and de-registrations estimated at 2,466 for 2018, which is 32 percent less compared to the one recorded last year. Thus, the inflow of people coming to the island (made up mostly of foreigners) remains significantly lower than the outflow towards other parts of Italy (made up mostly of Italians), resulting in an overall migration balance of minus 822 residents. “If the island doesn’t manage to reverse course,” concluded the leaders of CNA Sardinia, Pierpaolo Piras and Francesco Porcu, “the consequences will be devastating.”

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