Economically, socially and historically Italy can hardly be considered a homogenous nation. Since its unification in the second half of the 19th century, a deep chasm has developed between the economically powerful and productive north and the weaker southern regions, which initially resisted the unification, to such an extent that portions of the population in the South for a long time perceived themselves as opressed by the northern occupation. In the 150-year history of the nation, no government has managed to effectively tackle the problems which plague the areas south of Rome, making “la questione meridionale” (the southern question) the most longstanding and intractable issue which Italy has had to face. This once prosperous area, which in the Middle Ages was a center or trade, culture and learning, is currently affected by a whole array of problems:
- the weakness of regional and national institutions,
- the strength of organized crime (especially of mafia-like organizations, which oftentimes appear to be able to exert effective control over portions of territory),
- poor education standards,
- high unemployment,
- low productivity,
- insufficient infrastructure
- and widespread corruption (Italy is second only to Greece in the EU in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index).
It is no surprise therefore that most of the regions in this area fall well below the local EU GDP averages and are therefore eligible to receive “cohesion funds” aimed at raising economic standards. These forms of aid are unfortunately mostly squandered; after all, Italy has tried “throwing money at the problem” for decades, but this solution has proved to be ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst, as the money often goes to line the pockets of corrupt local politicians and of regional criminal organizations. Furthermore, the entire area has developed since the 1970s a clientelistic mentality (exchange of goods and services for political support) vis-à-vis the major parties, which are often voted in exchange for jobs and favors, which in turn increases corruption and makes it harder to complete infrastructure projects (completed works means no new people can be hired).
Calabria in the spotlight
Recently, the southern region of Calabria has been in the spotlight of national and international media due to the almost unprecedented decision of the Monti government to dissolve the city government of Reggio Calabria (the regional capital) due to suspected infiltrations of ‘Ndrangheta, the local mafia. This organization, though not well known abroad, is currently probably the most powerful criminal syndicate in Italy, accounting, according to some estimates, for almost 3% of the overall Italian GDP. These infiltrations at the upper echelons of the local government are not rare and should not be surprising; rather, they are often the norm in the South. On this matter, Wikileaks cables published in 2011 show that US officials considered the Calabria region a “failed state” due to the effective control exerted by the ‘Ndrangheta organization on the local territory and the regional economy. Perhaps the best symbol of this failure (which is just as much a failure of the national government) has been the infamous Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway, which has been under renovation for the better part of 20 years and with no end in sight for the road works.
The reason for this extremely slow progress has been the fact that local construction contractors, in concert with the local mafia, have oftentimes embezzled the government funding rather than use it to actually build the highway. The result has been a dangerous, trafficked and substandard road which many in Italy consider a “national shame”. One of the effects of the sluggish progress made in the renovation of this motorway, which is a crucial transport artery towards the north of the country, has been an increasing difficulty in achieving greater economic integration of the southern regions with the northern portion of the country and the rest of Europe. In a recent article on this issue, the New York Times stated that “nothing embodies the failures of the Italian state more neatly than the highway from Salerno to Reggio Calabria”. As painful as the assessment may be, it is hard to disagree with it. Unless long-term solutions are implemented, aimed at economically integrating the region, improving education standards, effectively fighting corruption and establishing a strong presence of the national state, then Calabria and the South as a whole will become ever more decoupled from the North of the country and the rest of Europe.
Far from being a strictly southern issue
However, the organized crime problem is not confined to Southern Italy; to the contrary, it has permeated elsewhere in the nation and are sometimes has been even ‘exported’ abroad. This has been a very sensitive issue, as many people in the North refuse to accept this reality and prefer to consider the mafia as a purely southern issue. Facts however tend to indicate otherwise: recently, the regional Government of the wealthy northern region of Lombardy (which is considered, along with Catalonia, Baden-Württemberg and Rhône-Alpes one of the four motors of economic growth in Europe) has been rocked by a vote-buying scandal connected with ‘Ndrangheta infiltrations, which will most likely cause early elections. This has been a severe blow to the right wing coalition running the region, coming days after the resignation of the right-wing regional government in Lazio due to an embezzlement scandal) and is especially embarrassing for the Northern League (a pro-north party), which does not want to be seen as being associated with a government compromised by ties with the southern mafia. This infiltration however is only of symptom of the systemic corruption affecting the Italian political system as a whole, which was previously considered a mostly southern problem but which has become one of the main issues confronting the nation.
‘Ndrangheta has also ‘internationalized’ its operations, with several cells operating outside the national territory: case in point, the 2007 Duisburg massacre in Germany has shown that the Italian mafia is increasingly becoming an international problem. These organizations are no longer simply rural, family-based units; they have become highly complex international criminal organization with ties and contacts all over the world; the economic activities of these syndicates can easily go up to billions of euros. The EU has so far been slow in adopting specific legislation aimed at effectively combating organized crime, meaning that further internationalization is inevitable, which will only strengthen these gangs and make defeating them in their ‘bases’ in southern Italy even harder.
This is a non-profit explanation.