Brussels moves to Bari, and finds a different Italy

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’s been my experience on holiday. Out walking our dog in Bari, a southern Italian port city, one recent evening, we bumped into the EU’s ambassador to Rwanda, Nicola Bellomo, who was dining out with family and friends.

Then again, he’s from Bari, so perhaps no surprise there. But the next day, I was out and about again and came across Roy Kenkel, spokesman for the Dutch diplomatic mission to the EU, also with his family. He was holidaying in a nearby village and had come into town to shop for his kids and stock up on coffee for a new espresso machine.

And he told me he’d seen David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, in the area too. Sassoli is Italian, of course, but from Florence — some way north from this region of Puglia, the heel of the Italian “boot.” Who knows how many other EU officials and diplomats are around that I haven’t met? With the pandemic, I’ve got used to working remotely in Brussels, but maybe you don’t even need to be there at all to cover the EU — just go walk the dog in Bari.

Puglia has much to offer visiting diplomats, officials and reporters — EU or otherwise — not least as a meeting point for West and East.

“Puglia is our region where the East is felt the most,” writer and journalist Guido Piovene wrote in the 1950s as part of a nationwide tour for RAI radio that was turned into a book (“Viaggio in Italia”) and has since become a classic read to help understand Italy. 

Those Eastern links are timeworn. A thousand years ago, merchants from Bari returned home from Turkey bearing some of the alleged remains of Saint Nicholas, a figure deeply venerated in Russia — and more broadly as Santa Claus. He is also the protector of Bari.

Also, the Balkans are close by, with Albania just a night ferry crossing away. Thirty years ago, the Vlora cargo ship struggled into Bari bearing some 20,000 Albanian refugees fleeing unrest as communism collapsed. 

In earlier times, Bari attracted a wealthier clientele from the Balkans, offering more cosmopolitan shopping and good food. Even now, the city’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele has a statue of Nicola I Petrović, Montenegro’s first and only king, and it’s not uncommon to hear locals, dining on the specialty raw fish, refer to Albania as if it were an Italian region. Little wonder that Italy backs EU enlargement across the Adriatic Sea.  

And those returning to Italy this summer — whether from Brussels, Kigali or Tirana — will be struck by a more upbeat vibe, especially in terms of Italians’ self-esteem.

Team talk

En route to Bari, I spent two weeks in the Marche, an eastern coastal region whose landscape and artistic heritage are not unlike Tuscany’s, 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 at Montessori schools).

Everywhere, Italian flags were hoisted high, proudly proclaiming the national football team’s victory at the European Championship in July. That enthusiasm was also fueled by the fact that the coach of the Italian team, Roberto Mancini, was born in the Marche.

And the flags kept flying as Team Italy ran, jumped, cycled, rowed and much more to a record haul of 40 medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

One of the gold medals was won in the showcase 100-meter sprint by Marcell Jacobs, a U.S.-born sprinter who now races for Italy — one of many Italian athletes with foreign origins whose exploits have relaunched a national debate on migration and citizenship laws. 

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 attributed, jokingly, to Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister and former president of the European Central Bank.

Opera critic Alberto Mattioli took to Facebook to lightheartedly list Draghi’s possible next achievements — from getting Mattioli’s hair to start growing again to convincing French President Emmanuel Macron to hand back the Mona Lisa painting, by Italian Leonardo da Vinci, that hangs in the Paris Louvre museum.

But back to the sport, and many commentators remarked how Italy’s footballing triumph at the Euros was down to teamwork, rather than the outstanding qualities of just one or two star players.

For Italians, that’s unusual. Renaissance figure Francesco Guicciardini, who wrote a “History of Italy,” a seminal work on Italian culture, stressed the importance of self-interest as a driver to explain Italy’s history. And so often, Italian success has been due to strong individual personalities, rather than an ability to work as a team. So much so that former Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, when he was president of the entrepreneurs’ lobbying group Confindustria, some 15 years ago, used to urge the country “to team up.”

Indeed, even my father, an opera historian, was prone to note that while Italy had many great conductors, the best orchestras were more often German, American or Austrian.

Discussing Draghi

The tongue-in-cheek Draghi-walks-on-water effect is also at work on the economy, which is motoring along at nearly five percent growth. Of course, that’s part of a bounce back from the pandemic, but for young thirtysomethings, and also for those a bit older like me, it’s unheard of.

And all this euphoria comes as Italy gears up for its next presidential election in February. In the six-month run-up to that vote, the incumbent, Sergio Mattarella, loses the one key power he has: the ability to call a parliamentary election. This means that political tensions are likely to escalate as the risk to MPs of losing their seats in any snap election wanes.

For now, Draghi, a technocrat without a party, heads a broad coalition that spans the center-left Democratic Party to Matteo Salvini’s populist right-wing League. This mix, which also includes the populist 5Stars, makes Italy something of a pioneer with a techno-populist government.

Theoretically, Draghi could be a candidate for president, very likely triggering a parliamentary election if he were to win. Some officials say that the country faces a dilemma: If Draghi continues to do well, why replace him as prime minister? If he starts doing badly, why make him president of the republic? At this stage, it’s impossible to predict what will happen.

Italian politics at the moment is something of a cacophony: The current parliament alone 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, that aspires to have a leading role in Brussels. 

Against this backdrop Draghi and Mattarella have become the two figures Italians seem to trust, a kind of dream team that prompted political scientist Ilvo Diamanti to call Italy a “bi-presidential republic.”

Many commentators think Draghi — whose popularity is very high at around 80 percent — will be able to carry on as prime minister, particularly as he will have about €200 billion of EU recovery fund money to help Italy invest its way out of the pandemic.

Barbershop blues

But never mind the commentators, what do Italians who don’t make a living from watching politics think?

I recall British historian Paul Ginsborg, author of a more recent history of Italy, saying that political debate in Italy involves all social classes, and is not the preserve of intellectuals or the establishment. He argued you could have a proper political debate, for example, with a barber in his shop.

That’s been my experience too. But I decided to put the theory to the test once more. I marched into a downtown barber shop near the Petruzzelli theater for a shave.

Lathering and snipping away, the barber, Agostino, predicted that “after the summer the [COVID] situation will get worse,” hitting the economy afresh. He said he has “many hopes” in Draghi, but reverted, too, to the political cynicism all too common among Italians.

“Draghi says one thing, but then Salvini says the opposite. It’s been like that the whole time … I’m not sure it’s going to change,” he said, referring to all the times Salvini has distanced himself from the government to avoid losing votes to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, his big rival on the right. 

So, can Draghi, the respected elder statesman, use the 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 — scupper those reforms?

A Draghi win in this race would be the gold medal Italians and Brussels have really been waiting for. 



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