Monday, 6 April 2020

Coronavirus: Is Europe losing Italy?

Furious at their plight being ignored and over resistance to coronabonds, Italians’ sense of betrayal deepens writes   Miles Johnson, Sam Fleming and Guy Chazan in The FT  

A year ago Carlo Calenda ran in European parliamentary elections in Italy under the slogan “We are Europeans”, a rallying cry to defend his country’s place in the EU at a time of rising nationalism. 

Now even Mr Calenda, a 46-year-old former minister and Italian permanent representative to the EU, is experiencing a crisis of faith in an idea he has spent a lifetime fighting for.  

“This is an existential threat, I am not sure if we are going to make it,” he says. “You have to consider my party is one of the most pro-European parties in Italy and I now have members writing to me saying: ‘Why do we want to stay in the EU? It is useless.’”  

As Italy faces its most severe crisis since the second world war, with more than 15,000 deaths from coronavirus and its economy on course to suffer the deepest recession in its modern history, there is a rising feeling among even its pro-European elite that the country is being abandoned by its neighbours.  

A massive, massive shift is happening in Italy. You have thousands of pro-Europeans moving to this position,” says Mr Calenda, who leads the recently formed liberal Action party. 

Last month Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s softly-spoken 78-year-old president, and the man its establishment has relied on to safeguard its constitution and international alliances, warned the future of Europe was at stake if its institutions did not show solidarity with their country.  

“I hope that everyone fully understands, before it is too late, the seriousness of the threat to Europe,” he said in an evening television address beamed into the homes of millions of Italians. 

Many in Rome now feel that unless bold action is taken by northern European countries, they risk Italy turning its back on the European project forever.  

There are already signs that Italian faith in the EU has been damaged. In a survey conducted last month by Tecnè, 67 per cent of respondents said they believed being part of the union was a disadvantage for their country, up from 47 per cent in November 2018. 

Donald Tusk, the former European Council president, told the FT the situation today was much more worrying than during the euro crisis — both politically and economically.   

Southern European expectations of a rapid demonstration of solidarity from the rest of the EU early in the pandemic were not met, even if the bloc has subsequently ramped up its assistance including financial aid and equipment.  

“I hope everything can be fixed, but the loss of reputation is huge,” says Mr Tusk, who is now president of the European People’s party, the centre-right political alliance. “We must save Italy, Spain and the whole of Europe and not be afraid of extraordinary measures. This is a state of emergency.”  

Mr Tusk says the EU’s assistance for Italy and other hard-hit countries is vastly more substantial than that from China and Russia, but he warns that “in politics perception can be more important than fact”.  

In 2018 Italy became the first founding member to elect a government hostile to the EU, with Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigration League leader and then deputy prime minister of the coalition government, raging against “the Brussels bunker”.  

The following year that government fell, and Mr Salvini was banished to opposition, giving pro-Europeans hope that the nationalist threat had faded. But many believe bitterness felt from events over the past month could permanently alter the country’s politics in Mr Salvini’s favour. 

“There was a feeling before that the political system had marginalised the anti-EU forces,” says Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster at YouTrend. “Now if pro-European party activists and politicians are no longer so sure how they feel, imagine what the voters think.” 

At the core of the argument is a bitter divide over the extent to which euro area countries should be pursuing a far more unified economic response to the crisis. Finance ministers will meet on Tuesday to attempt to agree a package of measures aimed at marshalling greater Europe-wide fiscal firepower. 

Italy is among the member states that are pushing for the euro area to be far more ambitious by collectively selling bonds to help fund the massive economic rebuilding efforts that lie ahead.  

The discussions mark just the latest iteration of a longstanding dispute over collective fiscal action that economists call debt mutualisation — and which many see as the biggest missing element of the single currency.  

The EU does have a rescue fund called the European Stability Mechanism which countries can use. But despite assurances to the contrary from the ESM’s managing director, Klaus Regling, many Italians still fear lending from the institution would come with tough conditions attached and would stigmatise the country. It would feel to many that their country was being punished for a disaster that was outside of its control. 

Roberto Gualtieri, Italy’s finance minister, has said that Italian gross domestic product is likely to fall by 6 per cent this year. Other economists believe this may be a conservative estimate. With the country entering the crisis with a debt-to-GDP ratio already at 136 per cent, there is a real threat that Italy’s debt reaches a level that brings into question its sustainability.  

In March, with the virus already ripping through southern Europe, nine euro members led by France, Italy and Spain signed a joint letter pushing for so-called coronabonds — jointly issued debt backed by all euro countries including deep-pocketed Germany — to help pay for the recovery effort.  

The depth of divisions over the topic was exposed at a tough EU leaders’ video conference call in late March in which the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte and his allies pushed hard for the door to be opened to coronabonds.  

Mr Conte said the euro area’s bailout instruments had been developed for the last crisis and were ill-suited to the current symmetric shock hitting the entire continent. “What will we tell our citizens if Europe does not prove capable of a united, strong and cohesive reaction in the face of a symmetrical, unpredictable shock of this historical magnitude?” he asked.  

Leaders eventually struck a compromise and issued a statement using vague language that effectively kicked deliberations in to Tuesday’s eurogroup meeting of finance ministers.  

But the truce did not last long. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president and a former German defence minister, appeared to use dismissive language in an interview, describing coronabonds as a slogan and appearing to express sympathy with Germany’s concerns about the idea.  

The language provoked immediate rebukes from Mr Conte and Mr Gualtieri, forcing the commission to issue a late-night statement that vowed to leave open all options that are compatible with the EU treaty.  

Ms Von der Leyen’s shifting positions reflected in part sharp divisions among her commissioners as well as the EU as a whole over the idea of coronabonds.  

While the discussion over which financial instruments can be used to help Italy is technical, the tone of the debate has become emotionally charged in both southern Europe and in the north, where the Netherlands has sided with Germany in opposing coronabonds. 

Mr Calenda last week took out a full-page advert in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, signed by himself and a number of leftwing mayors and governors from the regions worst-hit by the outbreak.  

In it they attacked the Dutch position as “an example of a lack of ethics and solidarity”, called the country a tax haven and compared German reluctance to support joint European debt with the partial cancellation of Nazi war debts by European countries including Italy after the second world war. 

“Germany could never have paid it,” the letter said. “Your place is with the Europe of institutions, of values of freedom and solidarity. Not following small national egoisms.” 

“They shouldn’t be using such emotional arguments,” says Eckhardt Rehberg, a German MP in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “Every country should ask itself whether it bears some responsibility for the situation it is in. Look at Italy’s health system. You cannot blame all your difficulties on Europe and Germany. As a German politician, I find that unfair.”  

The current German-Italian tensions are part of a much longer dispute, stretching back to the eurozone sovereign debt crisis of 2010-12.  

Even back then, many in southern Europe saw eurobonds as a potential solution. But Ms Merkel was always opposed, saying in 2012 that there would be no such instruments “as long as I live”. For the chancellor and her CDU party, the EU treaties were sacrosanct: and they expressly forbade the mutualisation of debt. The rule was clear: states cannot finance each other. 

Yet in the eurozone more broadly, her reputation suffered. Southerners increasingly saw her as Europe’s great disciplinarian. Posters appeared in Greece showing her with a Hitler moustache. She was depicted as a witch, a dominatrix or a wicked stepmother, and accused of trying to subjugate the whole continent. 

In Italy the hostility to her was fanned by the media empire of then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Records of bugged phone calls emerged in which he referred to the chancellor in extremely disparaging terms. In August 2012 the newspaper Il Giornale, owned by Mr Berlusconi’s brother, had a front-page picture of Ms Merkel raising her hand in a vaguely fascist salute, accompanied by an article claiming Italy was “no longer in Europe, it is in the Fourth Reich”.  

The crisis has emboldened politicians on Italy’s right who sense the mood in the country is shifting against Brussels, as well as becoming more anti-German.  

“The EU has gone from doing absolutely nothing to some trying to profit from the difficulties we are facing,” says Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, which has made significant gains in opinion polls to become the second most popular rightwing party after Mr Salvini’s League. 

“There are people who are trying to use the virus to speculate. There is a game to weaken Italy and buy its strategic assets,” she told the FT. “While we are counting our dead, they are counting the risk of losing interest on their bonds.” 

Claudio Borghi, a League MP who has led a ferocious campaign against Italy accepting money from the ESM — arguing it would be tantamount to a surrender of sovereignty — this week posted an Italian Fascist era poster with a smiling German soldier extending his hand. The text reads “Germany is truly your friend”. Mr Borghi wrote: “Time goes on, but the tactics are always the same.”

Franziska Brantner, a German Green MP, says the Italians she has spoken to see themselves as “a laboratory for corona”, adding: “[They feel] Germany is just watching them and trying to learn from their experience. There is real bitterness among my pro-European friends in Italy. They’re saying what have we done to the Germans to make them treat us like this?” 

Italy’s pro-Europeans are hoping that the mounting shock from the Covid-19 crisis will jolt recalcitrant northern European countries into making a large enough gesture of solidarity to repair the damage that has been done.  

In recent days opponents of collective fiscal action have been on the defensive as the sheer scale of the economic slump has become clearer. In the Netherlands, the government of prime minister Mark Rutte last Wednesday proposed a solidarity fund worth €20bn, with cash transfers set to go straight to the coffers of Rome and Madrid to fund emergency medical spending.  

His finance minister Wopke Hoekstra had been criticised in the south after he called on Brussels to investigate why some economies did not have fiscal buffers to see them through a crisis. Portugal’s prime minister António Costa called the remarks “repulsive”.  

Mr Rutte’s proposal would only fill a small part of the gap given the vertiginous public finance challenges facing Italy and Spain, but the very fact that a country that has traditionally been a vociferous opponent of any fiscal transfers between euro area members should make such a suggestion is indicative of the changing public mood.  

Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, on Thursday laid out plans for an “exceptional and temporary” joint fund that would help countries kick-start their recoveries. This would issue bonds with the joint guarantee of all EU member states and be operated by the European Commission.  

“Solidarity means to be able to pull together our resources to cope with the aftermath of the crisis,” he said. “Let’s avoid any ideological debates on eurobonds or coronabonds. There is one single political question: shall we stand together or not?” 

For Mr Tusk there is now little time left for the EU’s richest nations to come forward with bold and positive initiatives and avoid instilling any sense of humiliation in countries that needed help. “People are suffering now — it is not a political game,” he says. “People have to feel that we are a real community and a real family in such a time.”

We're not all in coronavirus together

‘The virus does not discriminate,” suggested Michael Gove after both Boris Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, were struck down by Covid-19. But societies do. And in so doing, they ensure that the devastation wreaked by the virus is not equally shared writes Kenan Malik in The Guardian

We can see this in the way that the low paid both disproportionately have to continue to work and are more likely to be laid off; in the sacking of an Amazon worker for leading a protest against unsafe conditions; in the rich having access to coronavirus tests denied to even most NHS workers.

But to see most clearly how societies allow the virus to discriminate, look not at London or Rome or New York but at Delhi and Johannesburg and Lagos. Here, “social distancing” means something very different than it does to Europeans or Americans. It is less about the physical space between people than the social space between the rich and poor that means only the privileged can maintain any kind of social isolation.

In the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, somewhere between 180,000 and 750,000 people live in an estimated 20,000 shacks. Through it runs South Africa’s most polluted river, the Jukskei, whose water has tested positive for cholera and has run black from sewage. Makoko is often called Lagos’s “floating slum” because a third of the shacks are built on stilts over a fetid lagoon. No one is sure how many people live there, but it could be up to 300,000. Dharavi, in Mumbai, is the word’s largest slum. Like Makoko and Alexandra, it nestles next to fabulously rich areas, but the million people estimated to live there are squashed into less than a square mile of land that was once a rubbish tip.

In such neighbourhoods, what can social distancing mean? Extended families often live in one- or two-room shacks. The houses may be scrubbed and well kept but many don’t have lavatories, electricity or running water. Communal latrines and water points are often shared by thousands. Diseases from diarrhoea to typhoid stalked such neighbourhoods well before coronavirus.

FacebookTwitterPinterest People in their shanties at Dharavi during the coronavirus lockdown in Mumbai. Photograph: Rajanish Kakade/AP

South Africa, Nigeria and India have all imposed lockdowns. Alexandra and Dharavi have both reported their first cases of coronavirus. But in these neighbourhoods, the idea of protecting oneself from coronavirus must seem as miraculous as clean water.

Last week, tens of thousands of Indian workers, suddenly deprived of the possibility of pay, and with most public transport having been shut down, decided to walk back to their home villages, often hundreds of miles away, in the greatest mass exodus since partition. Four out of five Indians work in the informal sector. Almost 140 million, more than a quarter of India’s working population, are migrants from elsewhere in the country. Yet their needs had barely figured in the thinking of policymakers, who seemed shocked by the actions of the workers.

India’s great exodus shows that “migration” is not, as we imagine in the west, merely external migration, but internal migration, too. Internal migrants, whether in India, Nigeria or South Africa, are often treated as poorly as external ones and often for the same reason – they are not seen as “one of us” and so denied basic rights and dignities. In one particularly shocking incident, hundreds of migrants returning to the town of Bareilly, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, were sprayed by officials with chemicals usually used to sanitise buses. They might as well have been vermin, not just metaphorically but physically, too.

All this should make us think harder about what we mean by “community”. In Britain, the pandemic has led to a flowering of social-mindedness and community solidarity. Where I live in south London, a mutual aid group has sprung up to help self-isolating older people. The food bank has gained a new throng of volunteers. Such welcome developments have been replicated in hundreds of places around the country.

FacebookTwitterPinterest South African National Defence Force soldiers enforce lockdown in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township on 28 March 2020. Photograph: Luca Sola/AFP via Getty Images
But the idea of a community is neither as straightforward nor as straightforwardly good as we might imagine. When Donald Trump reportedly offers billions of dollars to a German company to create a vaccine to be used exclusively for Americans, when Germany blocks the export of medical equipment to Italy, when Britain, unlike Portugal, refuses to extend to asylum seekers the right to access benefits and healthcare during the coronavirus crisis, each does so in the name of protecting a particular community or nation.
The rhetoric of community and nation can become a means not just to discount those deemed not to belong but also to obscure divisions within. In India, Narendra Modi’s BJP government constantly plays to nationalist themes, eulogising Mother India, or Bhārat Mata. But it’s a nationalism that excludes many groups, from Muslims to the poor. In Dharavi and Alexandra and Makoko, and many similar places, it will not simply be coronavirus but also the willingness of the rich, both in poor countries and in wealthier nations, to ignore gross inequalities that will kill.

In Britain in recent weeks, there has been a welcome, belated recognition of the importance of low-paid workers. Yet in the decade before that, their needs were sacrificed to the demands of austerity, under the mantra of “we’re all in it together”. We need to beware of the same happening after the pandemic, too, of the rhetoric of community and nation being deployed to protect the interests of privileged groups. We need to beware, too, that in a world that many insist will be more nationalist, and less global, we don’t simply ignore what exists in places such as Alexandra and Makoko and Dharavi.

“We’re all at risk from the virus,” observed Gove. That’s true. It is also true that societies, both nationally and globally, are structured in ways that ensure that some face far more risk than others – and not just from coronavirus.

Friday, 3 April 2020

On Tablighi Jamaat, Modi's brilliance. Governance in Pakistan. Shahid Afridi by Arif Ajakia

Tabligi Jamat & Law on the Spread of Coronavirus : Faizan Mustafa

Religion is, indeed the self consciousness and self esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again.

'Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the masses.'     ---Karl Marx