Southern Italy needs private enterprise and infrastructure
most European countries have regional problems. Sometimes this translates into full blown independence movements (Britain and Spain come to mind). But more often the issues are inequality, high unemployment and lack of development. Italy no longer has a true independence movement, and has delegated major powers to mayors and regional leaders. But in the south is one of the most problematic regions in Europe: the mezzogiorno.
There are two remarkable things about it mezzogiorno. The first is its size: more than a third of Italy’s land, just under a third of its population and about a quarter of Italian GDP. The second is that, unlike most other poor regions in Europe, it is no longer catching up with the rest of the country, as in the immediate post-war period. Instead, it has been falling further behind. It is more like the north of England than, say, the former East Germany.
The big question is why? Some cite history and culture. The semi-feudal kingdom of Naples with its absentee lords was not conducive to social trust, but northern Italy with its flourishing city-states was the opposite. Others look at Italian unification in the 1860s, pushed by northerners but opposed by southern elites. Even today it is easy to find people who accuse Garibaldi not of uniting Italy but of dividing Africa. But despite that Adriano GIANa, president of it THOUGHTSdevelopment think tank, says the mezzgiorno caught up to almost 70% of the average GDP between 1950 and the 1970s, only to fall back to 50%.
Of course there are still cultural differences. But today it is surely economic and social differences that are more important. Infrastructure such as roads, ports, rail and air links are generally worse and more extensive in the south. Education levels are lower. And organized crime in the form of Sicily’s Mafia, Campania’s Camorra, Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita and, most oppressively, Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta, casts a dark cloud over every aspect of life. The results are evident in less investment, fewer jobs, lower levels of participation in work and more trust in the public sector.
Over the years, the people of the mezzogiorno have tried different approaches. In the 1950s and 1960s the answer was emigration, farm workers to the north but also the youth to America, Great Britain and West Germany. But this translated into a brain drain left behind by the old and less educated. Another plan was to subsidize investment through state-owned funds, often in manufacturing plants. But these were once again dismissed as “cathedrals in the wilderness”. Despite this, Mr GIANa argues that it was not helpful to abandon industrial policy and the practice of the north to look to Germany, not its southern countryside.
As in the rest of the country which is already behind in productivity growth, wages tend to be low in the south. But this is not always true in the public sector. The mezzogiornoand the failure to join the north suggests that a different pay gap in the public sector could create more jobs. In contrast, the citizens’ income (welfare benefit), supported by Giuseppe Conte’s Five Star Movement, may not help. Too many people were willing to take advantage but not work legally, instead supplementing their income in the black economy. The government is now proposing to cut the benefit significantly.
Even in the mezzogiorno, not everything is bad. Puglia has been a recent success story, with tourists and businesses attracted to Bari and Lecce. The mayor of Naples, Gaetano Manfredi, says that his city has improved a lot, the climate is lively and the quality of life of the settlers is high – even if there is too much waste still on the streets. Apple launched its first European “developer academy” in Naples in 2016, and it has expanded since then. The film industry has started, many small textile and engineering companies have sprung up around the area and there are thousands of students. Tourism has bounced back from covid-19. Neither the mayor nor the regional president, Vincenzo De Luca, expects much help from Meloni’s government, however.
In the Sicilian capital, Palermo, too, tourism is booming, restaurants are full and student life is busy. The mayor, Roberto Lagalla, who is a member of the Fdme, hoping for more from the new government. It does not respect the income of the citizens. But like many southerners, he is enthusiastic about the prospect of a new bridge to link Sicily to the mainland and is hopeful that Mr Salvini will make it a priority. Skeptics see it as just another clever boondoggle that would not benefit much from organized crime.
Leoluca Orlando, former mayor of Palermo, says that the Mafia has lost much of its grip on Sicily since he and some brave bosses fought in the 1990s. But other organized crime groups in the south remain powerful. And anti-Mafia prosecutors in Naples and Rome note that while extortion and old-style murder may be less common now, organized crime has moved on to corruption wider business, often at an international level.
Elsewhere in Sicily, Catania has several high-tech companies built around what is known as the Etna Valley, including STMicroelectronics, a chip manufacturer. Like other southern regions, the island is hoping that post-covid work from home, or “southern work”, will bring people who have left. The change in the sector from being a place for continuous net migration into the background is another striking change. But Meloni’s government is strongly against immigration from abroad, especially illegal immigration from Africa; it has even turned away from Italian port rescue ships that pick up migrants in the Mediterranean.
The mezzogiorno it no longer matches the rest of Italy
Another big change is the expansion of tourism. But here Italy, which has fallen from second to fifth place as a global tourist destination over the past 50 years, could do better. The new mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, says that tourists coming to the eternal city have reached new records, and hotels are full. But too many hotels and restaurants in the capital have failed again after the covid-19 shock. And the challenge of running one of the smallest managed cities in Europe remains huge.
The south is also not doing as well as it could in tourism. Too many people arriving at Naples airport go straight to the Amalfi coast and the island of Capri. But 200 years ago Naples was one of the most attractive destinations in Europe. In addition to its beautiful bay around Mount Vesuvius, it has two of the best museums in Italy, the archaeological museum and the Capodimonte. When this writer visited recently, both were mostly empty (except for the crazy cabinet of erotic mosaics from Pompeii). Across the Mediterranean, Barcelona, with less historical assets, attracts twice as many tourists as Naples each year.
A similar story can be told about Sicily. The island should be the jewel of the Mediterranean, with Greek temples, medieval cathedrals and historic cities such as Palermo, Cefalù and Syracuse, as well as some of the best food, wine and beaches in the Italy. But the Balearic Islands in Spain attract more visitors than the whole number mezzogiorno, including Sicily, annually. The comparison with Spain is useful. Meloni’s government, like many before it, needs a better strategy. But politics can get in the way, because the South is not so fond of the right-wing coalition.■