Pacta sunt servanda. This is a Latin expression that means ‘agreements must be kept’ and it has been used repeatedly in recent months by many Italians to remind Prime Minister Romano Prodi that his government has not honoured its electoral promises. To win the last election, Prodi’s centre-left coalition, l’Unione, offered a long list of proposals, most of which it has not carried out. During nearly two years in government, Prodi seemed keener on balancing Italy’s financial budget, following rules on competitiveness dictated by the EU and the world market. For low-income families there have been handouts rather than serious reforms of the labour and welfare systems which could have redistributed wealth.
During the five years of Berlusconi’s Casa delle Liberta coalition government, the centre left promised that once in power it would rewrite the labour laws and abolish the so-called Law 30, introduced by Berlusconi. According to the ILO, the UN’s labour agency, ‘under the pretext of modernising the labour market, [Law 30] caused a serious situation of insecurity in employment.’ According to official statistics, casual and fixed-term contracts are the main means for Italian young workers to enter the labour market today, but it is increasingly rare for these to turn into permanent contracts. Labour market distortions are becoming increasingly pronounced, especially in the south of the country, which is experiencing an alarming fall in the employment rate. The Prodi government’s new Labour and Welfare Act left Law 30 almost untouched, protecting a range of benefits to companies. The Minister of Labour, Cesare Damiano (Democratic Party), a former trade unionist, said that this was the first part of a wider reform and workers would benefit more in a ‘second phase’. Even the leftist trade union, the CGIL, backed the act and the government’s two-phases policy, winning support for it through a referendum among workers. This appeared democratic, but actually the referendum left workers with a choice between supporting the measure or making the government fall.
Public services and common resources
Many of Italy’s social movements were also disappointed at how Prodi dealt with common assets, starting with water. L’Unione’s programme stated that all water services and networks would be nationalised or brought back into public hands, meaning regional and municipal governments. This choice would have reversed the process of local privatisation and liberalisation started in the early 1990s, even by centre-left administrations. L’Unione’s commitment was a response to a national petition signed by 406,000 people. And yet, once in power, l’Unione has done nothing except privatise and liberalise all other local public services. ‘How can you still talk about respect for democracy and support for citizen participation?,’ asked the economist and public-water campaigner Riccardo Petrella in an open letter.
Militarism and international policy
‘I had hoped that under your government our country would have been pulled out of war, any war, as the Constitution foresees. Therefore I did not expect your decision to stay in Afghanistan, nor your policy aimed at involving Italy in the world military-industrial system,’ says Father Alex Zanotelli, a missionary in Africa for the Combonians (Verona Fathers in the UK) and the founder of Italian movements against the war. He too wrote an open letter to Prodi, who had promised the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and said he wanted Italy out of any war. Zanotelli expressed his disappointment at the pro-war policy which in 2007 led to an increase in the defence budget of 12 per cent above Berlusconi’s 2006 budget, to the enlargement of US military bases in Vicenza and Nato bases in Sicily and Naples, and to an agreement to join the US administration’s anti-missile programme together with Poland, thus further dividing EU and provoking Russia. Father Zanotelli also notes that Italy’s international solidarity payments are amongst the most paltry of OECD country. The government could not even find 280 million euro that it had promised during the last G8 meeting for the Global Fund against HIV.
The Minister of Social Solidarity, Paolo Ferrero (Rifondazione Comunista), tried to rewrite the former, centre-right immigration law, against a tide of anti-migrant hostility. L’Unione’s programme was based on the principles of ‘welcoming, living together, protection’ and was against any criminalisation and demagogy. But the new bill does little to improve the situation for migrant workers, as a residence permit is still linked to a work contract in the highly casualised labour market. The migrant quota system still regulates the immigration flow – there were 655,000 requests for 170,000 permits in 2007 – but it cannot halt illegal immigration with its concomitant exploitation of immigrants. A new law was introduced to bring Italy in line with the EU Directive on refugees and the 1951 Geneva Convention. According to UNHCR spokesperson Laura Boldrini, ‘the bill will facilitate asylum request procedures and will help refugees that flee from wars and persecutions to have better protection’ by providing asylum seekers with renewable residence permits. Last year, nearly 20,000 people reached Italian coasts from Northern Africa and about 500 died while crossing the Mediterranean. Over 30 per cent of them were asylum seekers but just half of them obtained the refugee status.
Vittorio Longhi is an Italian labour and political journalist. He writes for the Italian leftist daily il manifesto and for the CGIL trade union’s weekly Rassegna Sindacale.