OPINION

Laura Boldrini: A new recipe to improve Europe

Laura Boldrini is an Italian politician and current president of the country’s Chamber of Deputies. She belongs to Italy’s Left Ecology Freedom party, founded in 2009. Her recent trip to Greece earlier this month was her first visit to a foreign country in an official capacity.

What has the political establishment in Italy learned from the most recent election, as well as from the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy in general? What lessons can we draw from your success at the polls?

I’d say it was an indirect response to the status quo and the traditional Italian political parties. People who are new to politics but have a strong background can give confidence to a country. I’d say that in Italy there is a strong distrust of politicians and their parties. The people are quite disappointed. They have strong feelings about their politicians but they’re eager too. There’s a real need and desire for change.

This need for change is not exclusive to the Five Star Movement. All political parties are realizing that if they wish to survive, they need to adapt. Their focuses have shifted to those who are new to the politic scene, young people and women. Thirty percent of new Italian politicians are women, for example. And even when these new politicians aren’t young in terms of age, they are in terms of political experience. This moment of crisis has demanded that the political parties take a fresh look at themselves, renew themselves, make themselves transparent and hold themselves more accountable.

What concrete signs are there that the political establishment is changing?

It’s not a speedy movement. But a very strong debate has arisen on the way Italian politics is conducted. In general, the debate is positive – aimed at changing a broken system. Take for example the new law about funding political parties. It’s already been approved and will alter the way parties are financed. Thus far, political parties have received public funding. Now this law will introduce another kind of funding, which is only public to a very small degree. It allows parties to receive funding from private sources. Admittedly, we have to be careful, because we don’t want to be in a position where big multinational companies – lobbyists – apply pressure on political parties in order to implement their own agendas. It is not by chance that political funding in the majority of European Union countries is public.

But in Italy there was undoubtedly a need to reconsider public funding because public money was being misused – corruption, scandals. There are risks here, however. I’m not convinced that the reaction should be to jump to private funding exclusively. We don’t want to start a complete alternative.

As a general rule, we’re trying to change while remaining cautious about the consequences. The general mood in the country is that all politicians steal from the public, that all politicians are the same. That isn’t true, and political parties have the capacity to address those doubts. But as matters currently stand, the fear among politicians is that if you don’t follow public opinion, you lose consensus. And in order not to take that risk, politicians do what the people want. But sometimes what the people want is not acceptable – not paying taxes, administering the death penalty. My point is that in Italy, yes, an attempt is being made to change things. My hope is that things will change for the better, even as we bear caution concerning all repercussions.

How does the parliament function with a new bloc of politicians who are inexperienced yet so eager for change?

Well it’s a learning process. Occasionally the new politicians don’t realize that they are within the institution. Sometimes they keep talking like they’re outside it; meaning that when you’re “inside,” you need to use the institutional tools at your disposal. My impression is that they keep using the same tools as before.

Let’s talk about Silvio Berlusconi. Is his career over? Does he still have the potential to bring down the government?

I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’’s not up to me. We have two chambers; he’s a senator in the other chamber. My only hope is that, regardless of the outcome, it will not interfere with the institutional life of the country. I hope that a sense of responsibility prevails – within the country and within his own party. The interest of the country has to come first in these instances.

You’ve come to Greece in favor of cooperation between Southern European countries regarding new social policies against unemployment, immigration etc. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, to be clear, the economic policies implemented in Greece are different than those enacted in Italy – but there were also austerity measures in Italy, and they have affected our economy.

Purely implementing austerity measures does not work. You need something to spur the economy, to cure unemployment. Otherwise there is only stagnation, recession. And perhaps, after years of austerity measures, it’s time to balance that approach with measures designed to increase growth. I believe that countries which are more and less in the same position should join forces and voice their concerns. There is, after all, the possibility of adding another dimension to the debate as it currently stands. In recent years we’ve heard much about fiscal Europe, financial Europe, but where is the Europe of protecting democratic principles, of citizens’ rights, of welfare? That was the initial idea behind the European project. And if we want to limit the influence of right-wing, xenophobic parties, we need to repropose the spirit of that project.

Have you tried explaining that to the Germans?

This is my first official abroad visit. I wanted Greece to be my first stop because I think Greece and Italy have many things in common – beginning with our big coalition governments that are currently facing a lot of trouble. And because both countries are facing sharp economic crises. And we also share a geographic position: We are Europe’s southern frontier. In order to have an impact, we have to join forces, advocate for one another, have our voices heard and listened to. If you go alone, you lose.

What specific issues do Greece and Italy need to address jointly?

The launch of economic growth, employment, job creation for youth, immigration, border controls, respect for fundamental human rights. You create a front and demand to be listened to. If you are not a front, you don’t get listened to. I’ve proposed organizing a joint Greek-Italian conference in Rome just before the upcoming European elections in order to focus on another Europe, to decrease the distance between Europe and its citizens, to show citizens that you can have a Europe based not on austerity, but other economic dimensions.

But that new Europe depends very much on how strongly we voice our opinions and what decision we make when we vote. If we vote for the anti-European parties, then it’s the end of a dream. But if we still want to give our dream a chance – the dream of our grandfathers and grandmothers – then we have to implement a version of Europe that addresses people’s needs more closely. We need to implement measures for increasing growth. Something is currently lacking: that which gives us the chance to stand up and believe in the future.

I can’t object to that as a goal, but how do you do it? You’re new to politics, but still you understand the basic constraints of the debate: The country that pays gets to make the rules.

Yes and no. Those who pay set the rules, but if they produce, they need buyers. They need customers. They need people who are in a position to buy. If people are getting poorer and poorer, that productivity is no longer a positive thing. When you have thousands of people from Southern Europe leaving their countries, the system fails to sustain itself. In a globalized world, you can’t consider that everything that is happening outside your national borders doesn’t affect you. Sooner or later it will.

So I’m confident that things will improve. They have to because it is in the interests of every functioning country to invest more in youth employment; that will return. Decreasing taxation on businesses that hire, banks that are willing to provide credit, and young, successful startups, such things aren’t impossible. In fact they’re very possible. We just need a new policy to achieve them, a new “recipe,” and therefore new “ingredients.” And this is what I think European citizens need to consider if they’re going to make the right decisions in moving forward. Anti-European parties are taking the lead in France, Italy, Greece, the UK, Hungary and elsewhere. That’s troubling.

You started out as a journalist. What are your thoughts on the closure of the Greek state broadcasting company?

It’s concerning. It’s important to have state TV that’s independent, autonomous and in a position to deliver information without institutional oversight. I know that the government is trying to find a solution. People have been left without a job, and that’s problematic.

Do you see it as symptomatic of a broader attack against state broadcasting throughout Europe?

No, I think that case is linked to that specific situation. I hope a fair solution can be found for everyone. It’s essential that every democratic country has its own state TV.