During the afternoon of March 13, 2013 we met with Franco Frattini, an Italian politician. Making him the most important speaker we have encounter thus far, Frattini served as Foreign Minister in the Berlusconi I and III cabinets, European Commission for Justice, Freedom and Security in the first Barroso Commission, Vice President of the European Commission, and Italian Foreign Minister in the Berlusconi IV cabinet. In addition to these positions, Frattini stands as a leading candidate for the post of NATO’s Secretary General.
This meeting was slightly different from some of our prior ones because its subject was far more sociopolitical than economic. Nevertheless, our meeting with Frattini was quite extraordinary. His responses to every question were thorough and thoughtful. Frattini imparted a deep understanding of the Italian political system, the struggles of the Italian government, and the sociopolitical challenges facing his country.
A great deal was said over the course of our hour and a half with Frattini. To me, his most significant remark was with respect to Italy’s engagement with Europe: Italy will never have a majority against Europe or membership in the Eurozone. Frattini’s explanation for his claim was that Italians understand that Italy is too small to play a role on the world stage without the European umbrella and the common currency. In addition, he adds that Italians comprehend how returning to the Lira would lead to a rapid deterioration of the Italian economy and a large loss of wealth. These statements seem to severely contradict the results of the most recent Italian election where many voters supported Grillo, a candidate in support of a referendum on Eurozone membership. However, Frattini believed this portion of the vote was more likely a result of the internal state of the Italian government – people are displeased with the establishment’s inability to keep promises and are using Grillo to try to effect change
While a lot of this explanation is sound, I question the amount of economic knowledge Frattini ascribes to the average Italian. International economic systems, the effects of the common currency, and the consequences of a Eurozone break-up are all incredibly complex and nuanced topics that economists debate daily. To claim that the average Italian has a firm grasp of these difficult economic debates may be overreaching. That said, the rise of the developed world may have led to the pro-European sentiment Frattini describes.
The second most interesting takeaway from this meeting was Frattini’s approach to Italy’s crises. He described Italy as a nation with a governmental legitimacy crisis. Over the past several elections, promises had been made regarding benefits for the political elite, changes to the electoral system, and strengthening of the justice system. But these promises have not been kept. The failure to keep its promises makes it difficult for the Italian government to take action because it lacks political legitimacy. Thus, rather than focusing on economics, Frattini believes the biggest crisis facing Italy is institutional. To restore legitimacy to the government, he recommends the following: make good on all promises owed to the people, continue Monti’s labor market and pension reforms, and rebalance European initiatives away from strict austerity and towards growth. While these policies may be good for Italy’s economic health, I am uncertain about the overall effects on legitimacy. First, continuing with Monti’s reforms could be dangerous. Monti was crushed in the recent round of elections. This means the people have rejected his economic vision. It is unclear how continuing these policies could increase legitimacy. Second, attempts to change European treaties may increase legitimacy at home but could cost Italy legitimacy at the European level. If other nations see Italy failing to keep its word and attempting to renegotiate its mandated reforms, European governments may lose faith in Italy’s ability to stand by treaties.
Overall, while Frattini left some questions unanswered, this meeting provided unique insight into Italy’s sociopolitical problems. We the members of the IUSY trip would like to thank him for his time and sincerity. We would also like to encourage everyone to check out his Twitter page and take note of the fact that he tweeted about us!