Mitt Romney branded Barack Obama’s economic policies “European” in his speech last Tuesday after Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the Republican primaries. As a British citizen living in Italy, it was music to my ears to discover that “European” has at last become an all-purpose term of abuse, at least in America, for a good reason: Europe deserves abuse. Oceans of the stuff. Romney linked the name “Obama” with the words “Europe” and “Greece.” Bravissimo!
Here in Europe, however, the place is still seething with so-called “Europeans” who lack Romney’s clarity. A vast and monstrous regiment of irreligious fanatics hell-bent on imposing a United States of Europe on the Old Continent’s many nations cling to the magic mantra “European” the way a Muslim suicide bomber who has yet to press the button clings to the image of the virgins awaiting him in paradise.
I have never called myself, or thought of myself, as “European” for one simple reason: Unlike the fanatics, I am not a liar. OK, my name is Irish but my family left the Emerald Isle during some potato famine or another when it was still British. So I am British and Europe is not, as America was, virgin territory roamed by red Indians and buffalo herds. It is a filthy swamp of different peoples that have been at each others’ throats since before Christ’s birth. So there is no way the European Union’s 27 member states can be united in a single nation. To understand why, it is enough to picture a session of the European Parliament (a talking shop with no legislative powers) where each word spoken is translated into all those different languages. Simultaneously. It is the Tower of Babel.
“The Italians despise the politicians they elect because they are hugely paid, hugely corrupt, and hugely useless.”
Massive public debt combined with that unworkable single currency in 17 of its member states have plunged all 27 countries of the European Union into existential as well as economic meltdown.
As a result, democracy itself is now in real danger, especially in the countries around the Mediterranean such as Greece, Spain, Italy, and even France. And as was the case in the 1930s, the only solutions with popular traction are the tyrannical ones.
In Italy, we have an unelected government headed by Mario Monti, who was an international advisor at Goldman Sachs until his appointment last November following the palace coup that ousted the elected Premier Silvio Berlusconi. So far, all Monti has done is raise taxes and invent new taxes. He has done nothing meaningful to cut the staggering public debt (120% of GDP) or abolish the impenetrable jungle of laws that stifle economic freedom and growth.
But guess what? Despite all that he is still more popular, according to the opinion polls, than the elected politicians. The reason? He is not a politician.
The Italians despise the politicians they elect because they are hugely paid, hugely corrupt, and hugely useless. They can blame no one but themselves, because each nation gets the politicians it deserves. Once upon a time before I knew better I used to think there was a solution: Catch the Italians young before it is too late and force them to spend an entire day each week at school learning the difference between right and wrong and why this matters. But then I remembered that they are all Catholics and the Catholic Church does all that anyway. And look where that has got the Italians! So then it dawned on me: It’s gotta be in their DNA.
There are 435 Congressmen in America (population 311 million) and 100 Senators; their gross basic salary is $174,000. There are 630 Deputati, as members of the Lower House are called in Italy (population 60 million) and 315 Senatori. Average salary is around 200,000 euro ($261,000) according to a recent survey of European politicians’ incomes.
This spectacular sum includes upfront payments for certain expenses, but by no means all. And it makes Italy’s politicians the highest-paid in Europe. A poor old British Member of Parliament, for example, gets a piffling gross basic salary of only 64,766 euro ($85,000).
Italian politicians usually have second jobs, because let’s face it: They have a lot of time on their hands. I know one of them: He is a newspaper columnist with whom I am coauthoring a book on Benito Mussolini. My coauthor declared earnings for 2011, I noted recently with a great deal of irritation, of 340,000 euro ($444,000). Certainly he does not make that kind of money doing books with me.
What gets me feeling really violent, though, are the self-righteous attempts of these so-called onorevoli (honorable gentlemen) to persuade Italians that they are not licensed thieves and somehow deserve all this money—as well as all the free extras they also trouser. After three years on the job, for example, they are entitled to a fat inflation-proof pension when they reach 60 (which most of them already are). Planes, trains, stamps, gym, cinema, theater, life and personal-injury insurance, hairdresser, tennis, and English lessons—you name it, they get it free.
Obviously, they also get free private health and dental care for themselves and their families. A couple of months ago, I and many others received a chain email on leaked details of an alleged tab run up by the 630 Deputati (not the Senatori) in 2010: It was more than 10 million euro ($13.2 million) in total, of which $4 million went on teeth, $659,000 on glasses, and $340,000 on psychotherapy.
Mario Monti—nicknamed the “Sober Professor”—became prime minister to introduce a tough austerity program as part of eurozone countries’ doomed attempt to save the euro. But he could hardly impose all those austere taxes on the Italians and do nothing about the scandalous pay and perks of Italy’s politicians.
So he ordered an inquiry whose mission was to determine what Italian politicians get paid compared to politicians in other eurozone countries. But after a couple of months looking into the matter, the man in charge—the chairman of ISTAT, the government statistical department—threw in the towel. A day on the Internet would have no doubt sufficed, but he claimed he had been unable to come up with any precise figures. And naturally, there is no chance whatsoever that the politicians themselves will cut their own salaries and perks.
You might have thought that being the world’s highest earning politicians would act as a deterrent to corruption. Not here, not in Italy. Yet another big political corruption storm is brewing, this one concerning the disappearance, into those very large trousers of the politicians, of huge amounts of the public money they get to finance, in theory at least, not themselves but Italy’s 50 odd political parties. And this storm, still in its early stages, now looks set to be as destructive as the one that led to the demise of the previous generation of Italian politicians in the early 1990s but which of course only changed the players not the game.
“What is it with you Italians?” I keep asking them. I get no plausible answer.
Much more of this and there will be blood, much blood, spilled in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
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