Perhaps Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni exaggerated when he said that, after the adoption of the euro, this was the most important decision in the history of the European community. But it is certainly the case that Prime Minister Conte, who landed in Rome on Tuesday morning and was received at the Quirinale by President Mattarella, has won the first victory on the battlefield, if not the war itself. He did so by showing himself to be an expert mediator, a quality that has been greatly tested in his role as chief tightrope walker for the unprecedented government majority that supports him.
Politically, if we look at the Italian situation, the mission accomplished at the European negotiating table has strengthened the government and divided the center-right opposition.
The agreement reached in Brussels between the 27 member countries is a historic one in the sense that it overturns the philosophy of austerity, because, for the first time since Maastricht, it approves the issue of common European debt, with the deficits of the countries swelling to levels that even old Lord Keynes would not have imagined.
It was historical for no other reason than that this is the case with the current phase of the world, with a war—a great war—that has left 600,000 dead and the collapse of global economies, already devastated by the great crisis of 2008.
Italy was the epicenter in Europe, with its tens of thousands of victims and the economy on a cliff’s edge. Precisely for this reason, it will be the largest beneficiary of the Next Generation EU plan, getting €36 billion to €38 billion more than the funding that had been announced (practically the same amount it intended to request as an ESM loan—which might or might not be a coincidence).
The intensity of the clash between Northern and Southern Europe only highlights the achievement reached at the end the long Brussels marathon, where the liberal-popular leaders led the way: from Merkel to Macron, from Von der Leyen to Michel, while the Social Democrats were absent (apart from the Spanish Sanchez and the young Finnish prime minister, who, however, lined up on the other side in support of the “frugals”). They were absent because they have long been non-existent on the upheaval-torn political scene of the Old Continent.
Thus, the money is coming, and, in consequence, the excuses have run out. Starting today, a unified system at the national level (which doesn’t exist yet) will have to be responsible for enacting profound changes in Italian society—even in the face of the contingent pitfalls (the “brake” on funding that can be invoked at the request of another government) and strategic traps (the sword of Damocles of the fiscal compact).
What is now being brought into play once more is politics, with projects, visions, choices, priorities.
Will children and young people be able to have a present and a future, in the schools and in society? Will the social mobility elevator start moving again, working against the inequalities that have put Italy at the bottom of the rankings? Will the taxes still be paid only by those who are always paying them? Will neoliberalism end up confined to a museum of modernism? Will favors become rights? Will women be able to work and have children, or not do so, as they prefer? Will the elderly be able to hope to have good and free medical care without ending their lives in a dilapidated chronic disease hospital? Will the seriously ill be able to hope to get a diagnostic consultation without being left to die on a waiting list of the forgotten? And how are we going to shake off the image of a country who never even managed to spend the structural funds?
The time for answers has come.
Of course, this avalanche of billions is not the magic wand that will revolutionize a country that has been running in place for more than 20 years, but it does offer the real possibility of making investments in the essential areas of reconstruction, which are, moreover, set out—and fortunately so—by the European Commission itself.
Those economists are probably right who judge the agreement reached as important more for its symbolic value than for the size of the Recovery Fund (because of the slowness of the process, the small steps that will accompany it, the more or less light “brakes,” the cuts planned to the other items of the European budget).
But never have symbols—the strongest way to communicate an idea—been so important, perhaps, as in this post-pandemic era, in this year 2020 full of suffering and precarious balances everywhere.